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Apathy towards missing kids displays our ugliest social trait

April 27, 2013 13:49 IST

What happens to children who never find their way home, or who do after an interim, is symptomatic of a society so violent that violence is banal, says Mitali Saran

A news report finds that over 9,500 children who should be safely with their families in Delhi are missing, according to police records. Similarly, there are countless untold stories of children who should be safely with their families outside of Delhi, instead whisked off to the national capital or elsewhere.

Another news report chronicles the sale of a newborn baby boy in a Ludhiana hospital: the child’s maternal grandfather told his daughter that her baby was dead, and sold him to a hospital attendant via a nurse. The hospital attendant paid the nurse Rs 70,000, out of which the nurse paid the child’s grandfather Rs 45,000. The hospital attendant sold the child to a couple in Delhi for Rs 8 lakh.

The grandfather’s alleged motive: to rid himself of a perceived burden and earn some drinking money. In this case the mother, alerted to the sale by other people in the hospital, filed a case and recovered her baby. How many mothers never find out?

By one estimate, 40,000 children go missing in India every year; by another, 90,000; by yet another it’s one child every eight minutes. Depending on what you are reading, either a quarter, or up to half, are never traced. That is a very large number of children abandoned, abducted, runaway, trafficked, sold, put to work, lost, dead or simply inexplicably gone.

Look at the photos of missing children on the website of the National Crime Records Bureau. One of the particular challenges of finding children who have been missing for a long time must be that they change and are harder to recognise.

According to the first news report, a police station in East Delhi has a staff of eight officers to investigate such cases for a population of 350,000. While the Delhi Police spokesperson cites an 80 per cent success rate in recovering missing children, others say the figures of the missing are grossly underestimated and the recovery figures overestimated.

When they are found, it is usually through a combination of police work, private efforts by parents and NGOs, and luck. But too often, they aren’t found. Not in time.

There are reportedly over 800 gangs in India devoted to abducting children. They maim the kids’ limbs so that they can be sent to work begging; they sell them into sex work or difficult, dangerous work; sell them to the highest bidder nationally or internationally; claim ransom. There is no good answer to why India has not been able to break the back of these gangs and bring them to justice.

Or perhaps there is this answer: we don’t see our children as important enough. A number of recent stories represent the media’s groggy wake-up to a daily national tragedy that is particularly cruel because it targets our most defenceless citizens.

India’s sudden awareness of a pervasive culture of oppression and violence towards women is allied to our increasing awareness that children suffer similarly. At the gory intersection lies a five-year-old girl who was left for dead after being violated with penises, candles, and an oil bottle.

They say that there is no more accurate reflection of a society than the way it treats its weakest members. India’s missing children are largely the children of ordinary Indian families who cannot call someone who can call someone and get the attention of someone who can do something.

When the police do pursue a case, and they often don’t, they do what they can, until called on to do something more important -- and everything has traditionally been more important in this country where the average citizen is seen as pond scum. Sometimes the police offer you Rs 2,000 to please just quit whining about your stupid toddler getting raped.

What happens to children who never find their way home, or who do after an interim, is symptomatic of a society so violent that violence is banal. The violence of poverty, of patriarchy, of lack of education, of disempowerment, breeds more violence.

Our treatment of ordinary children -- I keep saying “ordinary” because, of course, this happens less to children from privileged families, who are relatively more insulated from the world -- and our lack of response to this treatment display our ugliest social trait.

It’s not that everyone in India is a monster; it’s just that we do not respect our own people enough to pursue law breakers and bring them to justice. We do not see routine violence as problematic enough to raise hell about it.

But if we want to call ourselves a civilised society, we have to start seeing it as a problem, and we have to start raising hell about it.