Disappearing Children of India: A Legal Perspective

In our country, a child goes missing every ten minutes[1]. This accounts to an average of 53,000 missing children in a year. If we go by police records, around half of these children are traced and if we go by common practice, there must be a vast majority of cases that go unreported; sometimes because of the unwillingness of the families and sometimes because of the unwillingness of the police authorities.

Domestic slavery, forced labour and prostitution are the main reasons behind trafficking of children and also women. Child trafficking has now become a business. Families of these children are lured in by lucrative offers such as good education and timely meals and before they know it, they never hear from their children again. Apart from this, there are children who run away from their homes in search of better opportunities and most of the times end up in this illegal industry.

Under the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Model Rules 2016, missing children has been defined as, “a child whose whereabouts are not known to the parents, legal guardian or any other person or institution legally entrusted with the custody of the child, whatever may be the circumstances or causes of disappearance, and shall be considered missing and in need of care and protection until located or his safety and well- being established.”[2] In simple words, any child not under the protection of his/her parents or legal guardians will be considered as a missing child.  

Over 9000 children went missing from January-July 2020 in just five states

A report was released by Child Rights and You (CRY) on the eve of International Missing Children’s Day observed every year on May 25.

In the states of Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, 9,453[3] cases of missing children were reported. Out of these, 7,065 of the missing children were girls which accounts for 74 per cent of the total number. What is even more concerning is that out of the total cases, 78 per cent of these include children from the age group of 12-18 years.

As the country was in lockdown during this time, this report was conducted in order to understand the impact of the pandemic on the status of missing children. In reference to this study, Soha Moitra, Regional Director of CRY said, “The status report on missing children by CRY suggests that the numbers came down between March-April 2020 when lockdown was strictly imposed but a surge in numbers was seen immediately after relaxation in lockdown.” This suggests that the numbers only came down when there was a strict implementation of the lockdown rules and the situation was back to what it was when the rules were relaxed.

This global pandemic, like other things, has taken a toll on the severity of missing children as well. People have lost their livelihood, more and more children are dropping out of schools, children are becoming orphaned due to COVID related deaths of their parents and there has also been an increase in the number of child marriages. All these factors taken together necessitate a more serious approach to the issue of missing children.

Even though most of the children in the age-group of 12-18 years were found or traced, the fact that children went missing even during a country wide lockdown when they were believed to be with their parents or caregivers is a matter of concern and calls for a better implementation of the laws and strengthening of the standard operating procedure.

Article 23[4] – Trafficking

Article 23 of the Constitution of India prohibits human trafficking, begar and other forms of forced labour and lays down that any contravention would be an offence punishable under law. Traffickers take advantage of the vulnerability of young children and exploit them by taking them out of the care of their parents and guardians. Children are often trafficked within the same country, across national borders and even across continents. As trafficking has now become a trade, selling and buying of children places them in the worst working conditions and leaves them with no way to escape. Reports have suggested that agents can easily earn upto Rs.30,000 per child making it a multi-million dollar industry.

The International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour is an initiative of the International Labour Organisation whereby they work with the governments of different countries and non-governmental organisations in order to fight child trafficking. Protection is provided to at risk children and victims and attempts are made to prosecute traffickers.

The Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, 1956 is an exclusive legislation to prevent trafficking which was enacted after India signed the United Nations International Convention for the “Suppression of Women in Traffic in Persons and of the Exploitation in Others” in New York on 9th May 1950. However, this law is exhaustive in nature as it only criminalises trafficking for prostitution and should be made more inclusive to include forced labour, kidnapping and abductions as well.

Prostitution

When BBC interviewed the mother of a 16 year old girl who has been missing for two years, she said that she still thinks about her missing daughter everyday but she has no means to go and search for her. Her daughter was taken away by a couple who befriended her and gave her hopes of a better future. The inability of such parents to provide their children with even the basic needs of clothing, food and education makes them trust such agents easily. This, is not an isolated incident. On an average, 200 children go missing everyday in our country 71 per cent of which are girls[5]. This itself illustrates how big of an issue illegal prostitution is. The Immoral Traffic Prevention Act does not make prostitution illegal per se, it is only illegal when it is done involuntarily amounting to sexual exploitation.

Girls who are forced into this business have to face physical and mental abuse along with unwanted pregnancies. The practise is so cruel that bids are placed for a virgin woman. Most of these girls are never able to get out of these brothels because they have no means to call for help and the pimps also happen to have connections with the authorities in the area.

A British photojournalist, Hazel Thompson, has written an ebook called Taken in which she documented the lives of girls who have been trafficked into the sex industry in Kamathipura in Mumbai. “I’ve never met one woman who has chosen to be there. Every woman I’ve met has been trafficked or born there”, she writes. More or less, this is the story of every brothel operating in India or even elsewhere. Before these girls know it, they have lost their childhood and not every brothel’s story is uncovered by a Hazel Thompson like this one.

Kidnappings and Abductions

Kidnapping and abduction have been distinguished under the Indian Penal Code from Sections 359 to 369. These are punishable offences depending upon the gravity of the crime. In simple terms, it refers to taking away a person against his or her will.

The instances of kidnappings and abductions have soared in the past years and these lead to further crimes such as brutal gang rapes of minors, unwanted pregnancies and in most cases, abandonment. Children are often sold off for a meagre amount and are made to act on the whims of those who abduct them. Often, kidnappings and abductions are carried out by family members itself and children often end up in slavery.

Rehabilitation of the missing children

When missing children are traced, they are often found traumatised as a result of the acts that they were made to do or were done to them. This calls for a need to rehabilitate such children. Rehabilitation refers to the process wherein the person undergoing rehab is remodelled to step into the society once again. It is based on the idea of restorative justice rather than simply meting out punishment. Therefore, it is seen as a responsibility to make things right as far as possible without attachment to stereotypes.

When it comes to rehabilitation of children, social, psychological, family and peer related factors have to be taken into consideration. Childcare organisations need to make sure that proper education is provided along with trauma counselling. Adequate care and protection has to be provided even after these children have left the childcare institutions so that they do not end up becoming a victim again. 

Bachpan Bachao Andolon also takes steps to ensure that children are provided with compensation and government facilities including housing and healthcare. The Juvenile Justice Act 2005 also provides for foster care and adoption. 

A Central Adoption Resource Authority was founded in 2015 in order to rehabilitate children when found or identified as lost. It has associated recognised agencies that help with the adoption of orphaned, surrendered and abandoned children.

Steps taken by the Government

There is no dearth on the number of schemes launched and steps taken by the government for the prevention, tracing and protection of missing children.

A national child helpline number – 1098 – is available and anyone can call to report any form of abuse towards children and children can also call themselves seeking help. Along with this, a Railways Childline is also operated by the central government. A portal is run by the government called National Centre for Missing Children where details of all such children are reported and can be traced.

A separate website is run by the Ministry of Women and Child Development to aid in the development of a national tracking system for missing and vulnerable children. The Ministry also implements a Child Protection Services Scheme in order to support such children. 

The police and non-governmental organisations work together at the state level to trace missing children and book traffickers.

A Standard Operating Procedure has to be followed when a child goes missing. The Police, Child Welfare Committee and The Juvenile Justice Board all have to work together along with the stakeholders in order to assist the missing and traced children. After a child has been reported missing, both the Child Welfare Officer and the Special Juvenile Unit need to be informed for immediate action. All appropriate steps have to be taken for the publication of the same. After this, a risk assessment is carried out mapping out which agencies need to be informed, the urgency of the investigation and the method of inquiry. If the police is unable to trace the missing child within four months, the case is to be transferred to the Anti Human Trafficking Unit.

Once a child has been found, the Child Welfare Committee calls up a meeting for deciding the next course of action. All factors are taken into account, the needs of the child are assessed and accordingly the Committee passes an order as to if the child will be reunited with his parents or guardians or be put up for adoption or foster care or any other arrangement in the best interest of the child.  

And in case a child is presented before a Juvenile Justice Board, after due inquiry, the child is sent to the Child Welfare Committee with directions to provide free legal aid and follow the procedure laid down in the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection) of Children Act, 2015.

This illustrates that it is a fairly detailed procedure and all steps possible are taken by the government in order to ensure that children are protected and put in the right places eventually.

Conclusion

Children go missing more frequently than we think and yet, these stories often do not make headlines. Whatsapp forwards will not tell you about these stories and you will also not see these trending on Twitter. The issue of disappearing children is not a small one and there needs to be an awareness about the same.

As stated by the Justice Verma Committee in 2013 on studying this issue, laws regarding trafficking and slavery under the Indian Penal Code need to be more stringent in order to tackle this issue. If not, the percentage of missing children will keep rising year by year. It rose by 16.3 per cent between 2015 to 2019 which calls for additional efforts on the part of the authorities.

There need to be concerted efforts on the part of the empowered authorities. Dr PM Nair, former DGP and now with Indian Police Foundation, said, “The Police Department needs augmentation of human and financial resources. Accountability of the responders has to be brought in. Empower them with knowledge, skills, resources and the right attitude…Also, involve panchayats by setting up PAHT (Panchayats Against Human Trafficking) and college students by setting up AHTC (Anti Human Trafficking Clubs) in colleges. This will provide great support to the  police and the public in effectively assessing issues of missing children.”

The problem does not lie in the inadequacy of laws, it lies in enforceability. As it is rightly said, substantial law holds no value unless it is coupled with a strong procedural law. It can only enumerate your rights and responsibilities but if the police refuses to even lodge your complaint, substantial law is more or less rendered meaningless. In the cases of disappearing children, the police authorities often refuse to register an FIR saying that the child might have run away and may not come back. This happens despite the directions given by the Supreme Court in the case of Bachpan Bachao Andolan vs. Union of India[6] wherein it was held that every complaint of a missing child has to be registered as a First Information Report and appropriate steps should be taken for the follow up investigation. The Supreme Court has directed the same in various other cases as the lax attitude of the police in registering cases has come forward as an issue more than once.

Another aspect that needs to be covered are children missing from railway stations. Thousands of children sleep on platforms which are easily accessible and as a result, many children go missing from there. With hundreds of trains going out and coming in every station every day, railway stations become a vulnerable place. A lot of children board trains to go someplace distant for greener pastures but end up being kidnapped/abducted. Security on railway stations needs to be stricter especially during nights. CCTV cameras need to be installed on every station so that abductors can be identified and traced easily.

Enforcement of law needs to be prioritised and strengthened. Investigation needs to be done more professionally and all traffickers should be booked. Traffickers operate in a system; this system has various sources, modes of transit and different destinations. They work according to the demand and supply which clearly indicates that it has now become a market and unless these links are broken, children will continue to be traded in the same way. What is disheartening is that the price being paid here is not actually the money, it is the cost of a childhood.


[1] Women and Child Development Ministry website for tracking missing children

[2] Rule 92(1)

[3] ‘COVID and missing childhoods : A status report of five states’, CRY(Child Rights and You)

[4] Constitution of India

[5] National Crime Records Bureau Report, 2019

[6] Writ Petition (Civil) no. 75 of 2012


Author: Indu Kumari from VIPS, New Delhi.


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