Representative photo Photograph:( Zee News Network )
History has always remained a mute witness to the fate of the missing children, failed and ignored by all. International Missing Children’s Day is observed on May 25 every year in the memory of all the children that have been missing or abducted.
Millions of children had to set sail into the choppy waters from the Slave Coast to work on the plantations of America early in the 16th century. Countless little ones were lost in the era of the Holocaust - never to come back home. In the recent past, hundreds were taken away from the hot and dusty streets of the Nigerian town of Damasak by the Boko Haram fighters. Even today, thousands of migrant children continue to go missing in Europe.
Down the decades, India has been witness to the evil of child trafficking with the number of missing children steadily on the rise. As an alert reminder, an information from the Ministry of Women and Child Development revealed that more than 2,40,000 children went missing between 2012 and 2017.
The statistics are heart-breaking with the economic, societal and emotional cost enormous. Moreover, this might be only the tip of an iceberg as cases often go unreported, say activists. In 2016, the Delhi High Court had raised concern over the issue of missing children in the country equating it with the menace of terrorism.
In an overwhelming effort, weeks before the International Missing Children’s Day this year, Delhi Police has been able to track down about 3000 children in only four days with the help of Facial Recognition System (FRS). The identities of the missing children have been established and efforts are on to help them reunite with their families.
The Delhi Police, on a trial basis, used the FRS on 45,000 children living in different children's homes. The FRS software stores the facial features of any child and matches them with photographs and database available with the Track Child portal. Thus it helps to confirm the identity of the child instantly.
Notices of missing children, printed in classified sections of the newspapers, are easily lost by the side of tender notices and job vacancies. The hazy photographs along with a sketchy description and a contact number hardly seem to matter much to the world. For instance, Savitri, 9, was last seen on her way back from school wearing a blue skirt and a red cardigan.
Most of the children are trafficked by organized gangs who know how to trap the kids and sell them to the employers. Some children run away, hoping to make a better life for themselves with promises of job, food and luxury. They are often sold into slavery in a country where poverty looms large and child labour is a way of life, despite being banned. Others end up in brothels, shackled for life.
An economic boom of the last two decades has lifted millions in India out of poverty. However, the country still remains home to over 30 percent of the world’s poorest children, according to a 2016 World Bank and UNICEF report.
It is mostly the children of the extremely poor and marginalised communities in backward regions of the country that are trafficked or kidnapped. Many of the cases go unregistered as the parents do not know how to report a case or who to approach for help. Many of these missing children never come back home. And their parents often do not even have their photographs to remember them by.
Distressingly, statistics reveal that there are more missing girls than boys. Sometimes unwanted daughters of poor families are deliberately allowed to stray in busy market places. These girls are often forced into flesh trade or begging rackets and are destined for a life of abuse and exploitation. And then again, some are girls in love - lured by their boyfriends who sell them into prostitution.
A number initiatives/efforts are afoot to protect the vulnerable children and to find the missing ones. Some of the Non-governmental organizations are doing a commendable job in this regard backed by Government support. An official web portal, KhoyaPaya, has been set up for the public use to register missing children, while Track Child allows Police, Government and charities to coordinate better. The government has also launched numerous public awareness drives across the country, especially on the country’s railway platforms as rail network is known to be the primary mode of transport availed by the child traffickers. Operation Smile, also called as Operation Muskaan, is yet another initiative of the Ministry of Home Affairs to rescue and rehabilitate missing children. It is a dedicated campaign where several activities are taken up by the State Police personnel to trace and rescue the missing children and reunite them with their families.
There is, however, still a lot to be done. The issue of the missing children is a subject of national priority and needs to be deliberated upon in the fora like the All-India Director Generals of Police (DGsP) conference held annually to address issues of highest concern.
Each case of a missing child deserves an in-depth probe. Registration and investigation of all such cases should be mandatory. The Special Operating Procedures adopted by various states should be discussed on a regular basis to arrive at the best course of action in responding to missing children cases. The police force need to be suitably trained and empowered to undertake this exercise.
Improved coordination, knowledge sharing and a comprehensive database of children can go a long way in tracing India's 'lost generation'. Moreover, just finding the missing children is only the skin of the problem. It does not take us to the soul of the issue - that the children of our country deserve a dignified childhood.
The community at large needs to play a pivotal role in civic policing to protect our children. If the numbers of the missing children are not taken seriously and the issue is not addressed with a sense of urgency, our young ones are under risk of losing their childhood to the infamy of child labour, prostitution and begging rackets that demean life and human dignity.
(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL)