A child goes missing in India every eight minutes. After India's Supreme Court censured police for failing to act, authorities launched an operation to bring children home. But it's still too little, too late.
NEW DELHI — After India's Supreme Court and the public chided police for not acting aggressively enough in kidnapping cases, New Delhi launched a special effort to bring home children who had been missing, some of them for years, ultimately reuniting 300 of them with their families, police say.
Assistant Police Commissioner Runvijay Singh says that until the so-called Operation Smile was launched several months ago, it was common for people to complain that police are insensitive in cases of exploited children.
"Operation Smile is our effort to bring that sensitivity into our work," he says. "Now we have set up a dedicated team that registers cases immediately and begins investigating them. The team consists of people who feel strongly about the issue and really want to do something about it."
Among the 300 children who were found and returned to their family is Mohit.
"I left home with a friend, but we got separated at the train station," he recalls. "I reached Jaipur, and there a woman took me with her. She had several other children with her, and they told me to work with them. I was told to collect used plastic bottles, and when I refused, they beat me up. They would often abuse me and deny me food. We used to sleep at the railway platform."
Mohit was there for five years until the police found him and returned him to his mother in New Delhi. He says he will never leave his home again, and his mother Devi is overjoyed to see him again.
"We had lost all hope because the police didn't seem to take much interest in finding him, but out of the blue the police brought him back last month," she says. "It has infused new life into all of us. It was like having all our prayers answered all at once."
Child trafficking a major problem
Authorities say one child goes missing every eight minutes in India, and nearly half of them are never found.
Abhinav, who was just 18 months old, went missing last year while playing outside his home in suburban Delhi. His mother Priyanka, 27, remains inconsolable.
"A group of street performers came to our area, and my son wanted to watch them," she says. "It was cold, and I went back inside to get more clothes for him. When I returned a few minutes later, he was gone. My husband and I searched everywhere, but we couldn't find him."
Priyanka and her husband turned to the police for help. "They told us to come back later," she recalls. "When we came back, they said, "Why did you come back?" My husband begged them to show some mercy and help us find him."
Only after constant pressure did the police register a formal complaint.
Chabbulal, 40, who runs a grocery in a Delhi slum, sent his 10-year-old son Rahul to a nearby market to buy medicine for his sick mother. Three years later, Chabbulal is still waiting for his son to return.
"I can't sleep," Chabbulal says. "Every night I put his photograph on my heart and wait for him. Sometimes I feel like committing suicide."
According to the National Crime Records Bureau, nearly 100,000 children under the age of 18 go missing in India every year. Sandhya Bajaj from the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights says the number could be much higher.
"Most of these children are from the poor families, and poor children are not considered equal human beings," she explains.
Activists believe many fall prey to human traffickers who exploit them as laborers, beggars and prostitutes. Others are killed or maimed by organ traders.
Nobel Laureate Kailash Satyarthi, founder of Bachpan Bachao Andolan (Save the Childhood Movement), says that 47% of missing children are never found. "Among those, 60% are girls, and it's a very serious issue because they are mostly kidnapped and quickly taken to destinations where they can't reach anyone and nobody can reach them," she says.