Thursday, February 15, 2007

Low crime rate in hill state yet kids disappear

Until Nithari was discovered, Himachal police had no regular data or team to trace missing children; now they maintain separate entries

Indian Express

SHIMLA, FEBRUARY 13 : • Ashish, 14, left home one February morning two years ago. The Class 8 student at the local Wood-Stone High School had just Rs 310 on him. He is not back yet. Carrying his son’s photograph, Aman Kumar, 44, has travelled to every corner of Himachal Pradesh, looking for the teenager.

But he hasn’t given up. “I must know where he is.” What he says he has given up on is any hope of help from the police. “The police haven’t called me even once after I filed a complaint two days after Bagga disappeared.”

• A 13-yr old girl went missing on January 8 last year from her village in Mandi. Her parents did not go to the police but looked for her in the area. They did this for 11 days. Just when the father, a farmer, was beginning to think that she may have eloped, he got a distress call from her in Manali. The police then rescued her from a hotel, where “she was subjected to sexual abuse”, says Chander Shekhar, SP of Mandi. The police later found that the girl was lured by her own aunt, who promised to marry her off to a Delhi boy, only to push her into prostitution.

Certain parts of Himachal Pradesh are perhaps as poor as any other in the country, but crime rate is low and there are never any reports of children being abandoned or sold by parents. Even so, 350-450 children are reported missing every year, according to data recently compiled by the police.

Since 2002, over 1,545 children have been missing. But till recently, there was no proper system to monitor missing children in police stations and at the district level. Post-Nithari, however, police stations in the state have been told to maintain separate registers of missing children, besides daily diaries.

“There was no system... being short-staffed, we had not set up special squads to trace missing children,” admitted I D Bhandari, the state’s Inspector-General of Police (CID). “The new procedure will help evolve a system of monitoring and investigating cases.”

The missing cells at state and district levels will be primarily handled by women police officers, said DGP Ashwani Kumar.

But that’s for future. For now, the police say they haven’t seen any set pattern in the disappearances and give the usual reasons — lack of interest in studies or unhappiness with life at home leading to children running away.

They say there are no cases of parents selling children, child sacrifice, gangs picking up minors for abuse or begging.

The odd kidnappings usually involve migrants from Bihar and Nepal, said Kumar.

But Solan, an industrial hub, seems to have a problem. It has shown an increase in the number of disappearances, from three in 2001 to 11 in 2006. In all, 51 children disappeared during the five-year period.

Gulshan, the 14-year-old son of a chowkidar from Nalagarh, went missing in March last year. After three months, he was traced to Ludhiana. He was working in a cycle factory.

Similarly, Anil Kumar, 13, who ran away last August, was found a fortnight later. He too was working in a factory.

One major cause for concern, say police, is adolescents running away to take up jobs at dhabas or factories in order to support their drug habit. They say only 2-5 per cent of the missing are below 10.

Then there are girls who land in prostitution rackets, lured away with the promise of jobs or careers in films or modelling. “Acquaintances promised us a chance in films. I was not happy with life here and the lack of opportunities. So I went to seek fame,” One of the three girls who ran away together a decade back told The Indian Express.

“But soon I realized it was a mad act. If we had not returned, we would have been pushed into hell.”

Says O P Monga, a professor of sociology at Himachal Pradesh University, “Outside gangs running prostitution rackets have an eye on Himachali boys and girls, mainly adolescents. A few escape the trap, many are pushed into the trade.” Boys running away from the homes are mainly school drop-outs, or children fed up with conditions at home, say social worker here. In Gumerwin, Rakesh, 11, fled his abusive father in 1999 but returned home after four years. He worked at a dhaba in Kangra and saved nearly Rs 2,000 for the family.

The story of Sonu, part of a family from Bihar now settled at Pakloh near Dalhousie, has no such happy ending. In 2002, the 12-year-old was taken by a sadhu on Manimahesh yatra as a “helper”. Six moths later, when father Rajesh went to see his son at the sadhu’s ashram, he was told that Sonu had run away three months ago.

Rajesh is still looking for Sonu, as he ekes out a living by selling balloons and toys by the roadside.


Sunday, February 11, 2007

INVESTIGATION Kids go missing from homes, cops say no gangs here, they’ll return

Indian Express, Madhya Pradesh

BHOPAL, february 10:• Vishal Talreja went missing from outside his home in Indore's Sudamanagar on a Friday evening in 1998 when he was three-and-a-half years old. He was playing with his elder sister, Harshal, when she went inside for a cup of tea. “When I came out after five minutes he was not there,” says Harshal, now 14. The family believes if they had more money, the police would have done much more.

• Amjad, 11, went missing five years ago after he left his house in Bhopal's Kazi Mohalla to offer namaz. His father, Kudrat Noor, had married for the second time at the age of 65 because he had no issue from the previous marriage. Now 81, Noor has seen a body exhumed and being labelled as his son's. He did not identify it nor did two DNA tests help. The octogenarian father says his son is alive but doesn't know where to look for him.

• Faizal, a 12-year-old mute boy, went missing on December 12 from his house near Akhadewali mosque near Bhopal Railway Station. “Ham kahan dhundne jayenge, tumhi dhund lo (where will we search, you look for him yourself),” the police told Nasir Khan, his 63-year-old grandfather. “There is no day that I don't look for him,” Khan said after returning from Sehore where he was told a beggar resembling Faizal was seen.

The police can't show more concern. There are no beggar gangs, no organised flesh trade, no flourishing kidnapping racket in Madhya Pradesh so when a child goes missing, the police wait for her to return home. After all, most of them run away because of trouble at home, poverty or love affairs. A missing child, they say, is last on the priority list, unless the parents are influential.

In spite of this defence, the fact is that children as young as three years old or girls entering their teens go missing right from their homes; yet, the state has no special squad to trace them.

Beat constables from every police station are expected to deal with cases of missing persons. The Criminal Investigation Department acts as a nodal agency by forwarding details to every station once it receives a complaint from a particular police station.

As of December 31 last year, the number of untraced children in MP was 1913, a figure even the police officers don't believe.

Archana Sahay of Childline, too, contests the figures but says the police alone can't be blamed. Only last year, her organisation rescued 226 children from Bhopal alone and found that there were no police complaints when it tried to reunite them with parents.

She, however, criticises the police for their attitude towards missing children. “They can't deny their role because they are the ones who are contacted first. They have an organisational structure and the means to deal with the issue,” she says. Girls, she says, are sent to other states while children are forced to become drug peddlers. “The police simply can't outrightly reject the presence of gangs.”

Manju, mother of Vishal Talreja, however, has faced just that with the police. “The police did nothing to trace him,” she says, recalling how the family chased false leads and looked for him as far as Allahabad.

The Madhya Pradesh police deny gangs operating against children but according to the National Crime Records Bureau, the state accounts for 22.9 per cent of the crime against children in the country.

Former DGP SC Tripathi says there may be sporadic incidents but no gangs operated in the state, “at least, it has never come to light”. According to him, the number of missing children must be more because parents in tribal-dominated areas don't register disappearances.

Additional DGP (CID) Vijay Raman describes it as a social problem. “Society should look within rather than blame the police for missing children,” he says. “Leave us to policing and to tackle crime as defined under the IPC. If the society thinks missing children is a crime it should articulate the system it wants to have to prevent it.”

District superintendents of police too say there are no alarming trends anywhere in the state. Most missing cases have a lot to do with love affairs, they say. The problem is there is no investigation even when numbers warrant immediate attention.

Take a small district like Khandwa, for instance. 920 children went missing here in 2002. Of them, 252 were girls and could not be traced at the end of that year. In the next year too, 81 remained untraced. The figures are carried forward and as of last year, 108 girls still remain untraced. Villagers believe the girls could have been lured into prostitution to operate in neighbouring Burhanpur, the only organised red light area in the state, and from there to Mumbai's brothels.

The police have their own argument. “Parents don't inform us even when the girls return home, to avoid getting a bad name for the family,” IG (Indore) Rajendra Kumar said.

Most missing children are reported from Bhopal, Indore, Jabalpur, Gwalior, Chhindwara, Ujjain and Khandwa. Few cases are reported from smaller towns and tribal areas though the number could be much more.

Nirmala Buch, who started Mahila Chetna Manch, after retiring as chief secretary said, “it's not a big issue in a state like MP only because gang of child lifters generally operate in industrialised or commercial areas”. Her organisation is active in 12 of the 48 districts but has not come across any trend in missing children.