In 2019, till November 15, as many as 21,805 people have gone missing in Delhi. Out of this, 12,822 persons were traced, leaving 8,983 lives unaccounted for.
Part of this alarming statistic are children, those who have wandered off in their innocence and those that have run away. According to Delhi Police data from earlier this year, 19 children go missing from the Capital city every day. Families fear they were kidnapped and trafficked. Some come back, others are brought back, but not all parents have been blessed with the luck of Fulwati Devi, Nisha or Subhash who got their children home.
Fulwati Devi has three children — her eldest went missing on October 10 as she rested after lunch. The five-year-old child was lying next to his mother but followed his father out of their third storey flat in Ambedkar Nagar market.
His cries, however, reached Devi, who realised her child was not next to her any more. She ran down the stairs to the lower flats accommodating the rest of her extended family and cried for help.
“Whoever was home came out, and we started looking for Lakhan. I fell behind as my nieces went ahead.” This proved to be a saviour in the serpentine lanes of this area as she spotted a PCR van with her child in it.
“I found him there in about 15 minutes. The police had rescued him, and he looked fine but started crying later”, a shy Devi tells us as Lakhan sits in a daze, having been woken from slumber.
His grandmother is sure that someone would have taken him, and they were fortunate to have found him in time. “We keep hearing that children are being picked up. At that time, everyone was talking about child lifting. In WhatsApp, they have shown photos of limbs having been removed, and their kidneys”, her statement pointing to the many forwards sent on the messaging app that has fuelled fear and resulted in lynchings of suspected child-lifters.
But Devi and her family didn’t have to fear for too long. “The policemen had found him crying, and alone on the street and kept him. I was so relieved. The police asked me to calm down and tell me his father’s name, which was the only thing the child was able to relate to them”.
A little confusion later — as Lakhan only knew the name everyone called him at home, and Devi stated his official one — he was brought back to the safety of his home.
But not all children stray off inadvertently. Some make the decision to leave home a lot of times due to abuse, becoming easy prey to predators while others find themselves on the streets, homeless. Some end up begging or picking rags and many end up abusing substances, as a survey by AIIMS last year found.
Data analysis dredged up a disturbing number: One in three street children indulge in abuse of tobacco, alcohol and inhalants, amongst other substances.
Yash Kumar was saved from just such a fate in the month of August this year when he left home because “Everyone reprimands me.”
At about 12:35 am on August 23, a PCR van found a child they noticed, “who was hiding himself under the shade of a tree.” They approached the “very scared looking” child who on being asked what he was up to said, “Everyone at home scolds me. I have left home and do not want to go home”.
While the child, known to us as Yash, refused to divulge his name and address, his parents’ call to the police and their subsequent search paid off.
The PCR with the boy was notified of the father looking for his son, who matched the description in the ‘missing person’ report. The reunion took place a little later at Inderpuri Police Station.
We asked the father to tell us the root of the problem, which he refused to divulge. He did, however, tell us that his son was now back at school and following a normal routine.
Then there’s the case of Kabir, a six-year-old who has already become a handful for his mother Nisha, she tells us. “I don’t know what has happened to him. When he was three years old, he was kidnapped and then returned a few days later. He said ‘Some uncle took me in his car’,” the mother of six says.
But some time after that incident, he again strayed off, this time for long. Kabir went missing for over a week before being found begging on the streets by the police.
Before that, Nisha says, she would go out carrying her son’s Aadhar card showing people his photograph, but no one had any lead. “I went on the Metro till Kashmere Gate and then towards Gurgaon, I would return home by ten at night, but I got no information until August 4,” she says.
Kabir who was found by PCR personnel
“The police said he had been found and taken to an orphanage in Azadpur Mandi, so I went to bring him home”. His reason for leaving home, he told the police, was that his mother – who works as a caregiver to old persons – didn’t take him with her to work.
Web of the unknown
Social activist Reena Banerjee says that out of 17-18 children who go missing every day in Delhi, about 5-6 of them end up being victims of trafficking. “We had found in 2015-16 that 22 children were going missing every day out of which 12-13 were those who were never found”.
“While Delhi becomes a transit point for children lifted from other states, the kids from the Capital are taken elsewhere. Gangs have been caught of those lifting children for labour, adoption and even prostitution”, she tells us.
While the data shared by Delhi Police does not reveal the areas which have the most number of incidents of people and/or children going missing, Banerjee says it’s mostly a case emerging in areas with low-income families.
“When children who were picked up from Mangolpuri and Sultanpuri, it was found that gangs were operating which were taking children to Haryana and Rajasthan and giving hormone injections so that they could traffic the children for prostitution.” She knows these horrific details because these traffickers were nabbed.
They have different modus operandi. Of course, there’s the quintessential offering of sweets to children which works as bait for the innocent. Banerjee tells us about a case from eight years ago, which still resonates in her mind, like unfinished business. “An eight-year-old girl from Nangloi was picked up but returned three days later because the child lifter came back to the locality to lure other children and was caught and taken to the police”, Banerjee says. But what happened after, may as well have ended the chance of rescue for others like the eight-year-old child.
The traffickers were let off by police personnel at the station. “I believe she must have been told to return the child else they will come after you. So that little girl was left at the dump yard near her home.”
They took her directly to the magistrate where she spoke for about two hours, pointing out that there were other children like her with the gang of kidnappers, “But nothing happened”, Banerjee tells us.
We meet another resilient woman, Anuradha Tyagi, who has been working for the welfare of women and children in Delhi’s North-West district for over 22 years.
She takes us to the area of Kirari Suleman Nagar which has seen many children going missing; an area which according to the census of 2011 has a “non-workers” rate of 71.83%. That is, out of a total population of 2,83,211, there were 2,03,159 persons not permanently employed, nor were they marginal workers.
Here we meet Nafisa. The first question she asks us is: “What can you do to bring my child back?”. Her face seemed to portray her lost hope of ever reuniting with her 11-year-old son Sajid, who also has special needs.
Sajid’s photo on a copy of the FIR filed by his parents
They don’t live in the best area, nor do they have the best home. Her husband Mustafa sells groundnut to eke out a living. His two younger sons surround him, begging him for Rs 5 each as they leave for their school close by.
His ragged clothes betray the hardships he faces every day, but he still smiles as he hands over the little money he has, his betelnut-soaked teeth revealed during the momentary normalcy.
October 1 was the day everything changed for them, he says. He looks at his wife as her eyes well up while she tells us about her son; he tells us she hasn’t been able to eat properly ever since.
She won’t survive for long now, he says, his tears rolling down his cheeks.
“I have been unable to eat, cook or wash utensils. I just don’t want to do anything but because of the children I have to”, Nafisa says, pointing to her responsibilities despite the all-consuming sorrow of losing one of her five children.
Nafisa and Mustafa
The police, the couple say, lodged the FIR only the next day and did not go looking for him the day they filed the complaint. “He would go to play but never stray off. But I don’t know what happened that day, who took him”, his mother tells us adding, “He’s different, and the police may say he can’t talk, but they have my son’s photo. They must at least look”.
The parents say there were two eyewitnesses, one selling chhole (chickpea) and the other a kabadiwallah (scrap dealer) who reportedly saw their child being taken away by two men. The father alleges that footage from the CCTV cameras close to this spot was not scanned by the police.
He also complains that the investigating officer of Prem Nagar police station (where the FIR is lodged), admonished Mustafa for asking about his son’s update. “He said, ‘Do you think I have a binocular with which I can find your child?’”
Now two months have gone, and the parents are as clueless as they were on the day they realised they had lost Sajid.
Clearly, the police have a mixed record when it comes to rescuing missing children. But when a VIP’s dog goes missing, there is no doubt about how they’ll act.