MUMBAI — Night has fallen on Mumbai, and a monsoon fog fills the air as an aging man looks over the vast Indian metropolis from his balcony. Rajendra Dhondu Bhosale retired earlier this year as deputy inspector at a local police precinct, but still lives in dilapidated government housing with walls dampened by the constant humidity.
Humble and discreet, Bhosale only decided to speak to Le Temps to discuss one case: number 46/13.
Mention of the case causes the expression on his face to immediately darken. This is a story he knows too well, every detail, starting with the photograph that was taken of Pooja Gaud, 7, on the day of her disappearance, Jan. 22, 2013, just before she headed off to school.
Of the 166 cases inspector Bhosale dealt with during his three years as head of the office of missing persons in Mumbai's Andheri district, Pooja's is the only one he was never able to solve.
"I tried everything," he says. "I contacted my local network of informants. I questioned her friends and family. I visited the centers for abandoned children. And I checked the unidentified bodies at the morgue."
A house of horrors
Sadly, Pooja's story is just a drop in what has become a sea of child disappearances in India. Between 50,000 and 100,000 children are taken every year, according to incomplete statistics. Even the country's supreme court has warned the government to tackle the growing issue, stating two years ago that "no one seems to be worried."
The situation hasn't improved since, and 45% of cases are still unresolved. The state of Maharashtra, which includes Mumbai, has the highest number of disappearances in the country and Mumbai has the highest in the state. Like Pooja, 679 children are still missing out of the 4,954 who disappeared between 2011 and 2013.
The authorities are slowly attempting to alleviate the crisis, and recently launched a website named "Khoya-Paya" (lost and found), where citizens can report cases of missing children and sightings. The Mumbai police established missing children teams in each of the city's police stations, and has promised to register every single disappearance report. This was a key demand of local child protection groups who denounced the police's lackluster response, especially for poorer citizens who don't have the means to pressure the police to keep an investigation open.
In 2007 the government discovered a "house of horrors" in Nithari, on the outskirts of New Delhi, where a man and his domestic servant had buried the remains of 16 missing children.
"Disappearances are a very serious issue," says Dhanaji Nalawade, chief detective at the Dadabhai Naoroji Nagar police station in Andheri, Mumbai, where Pooja's disappearance was first reported. "We have redoubled our efforts, for example in the registration of the identities of child beggars and street children."
"We never saw her again"
Not far from the station in the Gilbert Hill slum, where Pooja's family lives, a poster on the wall seeking the girl's whereabouts lies tattered under the rain. Neighbors helped pay for the posters because the meager earnings Pooja's father earns as a grilled peanut vendor couldn't cover the full cost.
The father's name is Santosh Mahadev Gaud, and he still receives visits by ex-inspector Bhosale, who often stops by to share a cup of tea. He still keeps his daughter's belongings in a bag, and he cannot hide his tears as he retells the events of the day she vanished.
"Pooja was last seen in front of her school on Cama Road, in Andheri. On the way there she had argued with her brother Rohit, because their grandfather had given them 10 rupees ($0.16) and she wanted her part," he recalls. "Rohit promised to give her the money later and then went to class, leaving his sister angry at the school entrance. We never saw her again."
Smita Nair, a journalist for the Indian Express who focuses on murder cases, was intrigued by Pooja's story and the inspector's determination to find her.
"Bhosale accepted my request to publish his account in my newspaper on the day he retired, since he thought that would be the last chance to find Pooja," says Nair. "He explored all the leads he could, but he was limited in his research into the prostitution trade because it is a very powerful and secret world."
Clinging to hope
The police says that kidnapped children are often forced into prostitution, begging and forced labor. Ransoms are rarely ever demanded. Kailash Satyarthi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate who campaigns for children's rights, believes that child traffickers are a step ahead of the police. His analyses show that demand for kidnapped girls has grown. Indian media reports estimate that there are around 815 trafficking gangs in the country with a total of 5,000 members.
"The majority of disappearances are cases where the child ran away," says Bhosale. NGOs that work with street children often find runaways wandering around train stations, where they fled after escaping domestic violence at the hands of their families.
Inspector Arun Karat, Bhosale's replacement at the station, concurs. "I see many cases where family disputes push children to leave their homes," he says. "Teenagers also often run away with their girlfriend or boyfriend."
In Andheri, Pooja's story is a symbol of the suffering caused by the rampant disappearances. Her case is still open, and Smita Nair calls the police station every month for updates on the investigation. Bhosale still keeps a photo of the missing girl in his wallet. "There have been cases of children who disappeared in 2008 and were found in 2014," he says.
Pooja's father also holds hope for his daughter's safety. "Maybe someone, somewhere, is taking care of her," he says.