Up to 13 children go missing in India every hour. Many end up as slaves, trafficked for forced labor or forced to work in the sex industry. Delhi, the national capital, is now India's undisputed kidnapping capital.
Last week, a two-year-old abandoned baby girl called Falak was admitted in Delhi's premier hospital with her head damaged, arms broken and face branded with hot iron. Falak is struggling to survive as she battles for life in the intensive care unit having undergone a second brain surgery.
Who is to blame?
Her plight is illustrative of the scores of children, especially from Delhi, who go "missing" every day. Falak may finally end up as a statistic but a recent report has found that over 1600 children go missing in Delhi every 4 months.
"I can understand the parents' predicament, I hope she survives. I came to the hospital only to show support as I, too, lost my daughter two years back and the police have done nothing to find her," Abid Ali, a daily-wage laborer told Deutsche Welle.
Similarly, Raj Kumar Singh, a construction worker from west Delhi continues the dogged pursuit of his 13-year-old son, Hari, who did not return home from school in June 2010. He has left his job and visits various police stations across the city regularly in hope of finding some information on his son's whereabouts.
"I have been to the police station over 20 times, knocked on the doors of the local councilor and even staged a demonstration at the school. But I will not give up. I have even put out advertisements in regional papers," he said.
While Falak may or may not find her parents, there are hundreds and even thousands of missing children from 4 to 14 years of age whose fate is unknown. Child activists believe many end up as beggars or are forced into prostitution or other forms of bonded labour and in some cases, are illegally adopted.
"It is a well-organized racket. They are trafficked and kept in places where no one will be able to find them. Many are also kidnapped for the organ trade business, adoption and also for begging," R.S. Chaurasia, chairperson of the Bachpan Bachao Andolan (BBA), a child rights organization which campaigns against child trafficking and servitude, told Deutsche Welle.
A pioneering report it brought out in December 2011, entitled "Missing Children in India" showed a disturbing statistic. Data collected from 392 districts across the country suggests that almost 120,000 children had gone missing between January 2008 and 2010. And in that same period, 13,570 children were reported missing in Delhi.
Information was gleaned from the government-controlled National Crime Record Bureau, the National Human Rights Commission, various child rights groups and information obtained under the Right to Information Act.
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"The biggest problem is the indifference of law and enforcement agencies where the majority of children going missing are not even being recognized, let alone registered and investigated," exclaims Kailash Satyarthi, also from the BBA.
On its part, the Delhi Police maintain there is no organized gang trafficking going on.
"A majority of these kids actually leave their houses due to socio-economic reasons like money and sometimes teenagers elope," a senior official told Deutsche Welle on conditions of anonymity. He could not say how many were actually recovered in recent years.
In reality, many are never found again. They simply disappear.
Save the child
Many organizations like the BBA and even NGO Child Rights and You (CRY) bemoan the fact that there is no proper mechanism in place to register, track and monitor the cases of children who go missing.
"There has to be a far greater seriousness involving cases against children. This is completely lacking," Shantha Sinha, chairperson of the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights, told Deutsche Welle.
India prides itself on its large population of young people, boasting that 65 percent of it is below the age of 35, propelling it as an economic and a socially responsible power. Unfortunately, there is little premium on the lives of children, especially girls.
Author: Murali Krishnan
Editor: Sarah Berning