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Is Bollywood responsible for Mumbai's runaway kids?

By Hepzi Anthony
Last updated on: February 27, 2016 15:17 IST
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'Bollywood as a phenomenon needs to be demystified. Bollywood stars must travel and connect with people in India’s hinterland just to make them realise that they are mere mortals and not larger-than-life as portrayed on the screen. It’s their responsibility to do so. They should go out and attend more programmes in non-urban areas to reduce the craze that brings children to Mumbai.'

Over 2,000 missing children were rescued by the Mumbai’s railway police in January during Operation Muskaan-2, a drive focused on reuniting such children with their parents. Hepzi Anthony takes a look at the procedures the government has put in place to streamline the process of handling runaway children.

A ragpicker jumps onto a moving train in search of plastic bottles for reselling, at a railway station. Photograph: Adnan Abidi/Reuters. Photograph: Yaacov Saar/Reuters

Mumbai continues to be a major attraction for runaway kids. Apart from escaping from factors such as financial crunch or domestic abuse, the Bollywood factor is also a strong draw in attracting the imagination of the runaway kids to Mumbai.

Hoping to escape from domestic hardships or to land a Bollywood role or just the hope of coming face to face with the city of the King Khans is enough to keep the numbers of children running into Mumbai soaring.

“You have children getting down from trains at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus wanting to go to 'Mannat '(Shah Rukh Khan’s bungalow in Bandra in the western suburbs) or wanting to have a tea at the Taj (Mahal Hotel in South Mumbai),” says a volunteer with Childline, who works at CST station.

“Parents too are equally responsible for this situation. They think that 10-year-olds are grown up enough to board trains and travelling along with friends but fail to see the dangers involved,” she says.

Last month, as part of a nation-wide special drive to rescue missing children, the Mumbai railway police rescued 2,093 children. Termed as Operation Muskaan-2, the drive aimed at tracing the missing and destitute children and to reunite them with their parents. The idea was to prevent them from getting abused, victimised or being exploited in any manner.

A similar exercise in July 2015 had found 1,152 children rescued by the railway police.

“The children are often used by criminals for begging, labour, drug-trafficking, organ transplantation or immoral activities since they do not have their own voice. Runaway adults usually survive by means of begging or performing menial work; but the children are comparatively helpless, and resistance against the criminals and the situation is futile,” explains Vasant Dhoble, a retired assistant commissioner of the Mumbai police.

Child labourers rescued from different factory units wait inside a police station in Mumbai. Photograph: Reuters

Not so long ago, a favoured place for runaways in Mumbai was the Juhu beach. Apart from the beautiful shoreline, a major attraction was the number of film stars residing in the vicinity. Erstwhile stars such as Amitabh Bachchan, Dharmendra, and Feroz Khan living in prominent landmark bungalows in Juhu used to attract people in hordes. So much so that a social organisations had set up a locker and bathing facilities for runaways at the beach.

But the situation has changed now. “Earlier, the beach would attract a lot of missing children. But now we don’t see that many runaway kids on the beach,” says Ramesh, who has been a coconut vendor on the beach for over 15 years.

The star power and resultant crowds seem to have shifted to Bandra, home to the Khan trio, the Kapoors and other top stars now. A casual walk along Bandra Bandstand promenade reveals the huge star pull that this suburb attracts. Apart from tourist buses, there are crowds that throng during the day, clicking selfies outside the residences of stars such as Salman Khan and Shah Rukh Khan.

But, Bandra does not face the kind of problems like Juhu used to. This is because now the government has stepped in and ensured that kids are not left alone on the streets.

“Now there is more police patrolling on the beach. The police takes charge of kids who are alone and hands them over to a children’s home rather than allowing them to be left alone,” says Albert Senapati, social worker with a Juhu shelter home.

Akash Pal, 8, a runaway, is disallowed from boarding a train alone from CST station. He claims his family is aware that he is en route to Ghaziabad, Uttar Pradesh, all alone, and that he should be allowed to board the train, as he “knows the way”.

Volunteers of Childline (a phone emergency outreach service for children in need of care and protection) take down his details, take him to the government hospital for a health check-up and then hand him over to the police to be sent to the children’s home for further action.

The volunteers also track down other such children thereon and try to connect them back to their parents.

“Sometimes, in the process of handling missing children, policemen at times did not bother to get into paperwork. It was left to the discretion of the policemen on field to hand them over back to their parents or guardians. There were times that policemen would hand them back to their parents without even bothering to do the official paperwork of showing the child as missing. But now it has been made mandatory to do the paperwork, produce the child before a judicial child welfare committee and only then he or she can be handed over to the parents,” informs Sachin Bhalode, senior divisional security commissioner with the Railway police Force.

Now every police station is expected to assign an area to keep such kids temporarily. All these measures have been put in place following India becoming a signatory of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child that introduced and enforced a standard operating procedure.

A staff sensitisation exercise to motivate the policemen and other government staff to handle and treat children with care has also been introduced as part of this exercise.

The UNCRC has led to the implementation of an Integrated Child Protection Scheme that puts the onus on the government to ensure that the child is protected and prevented from being in a vulnerable or exploited situation.

It is this clause that makes the policemen pick up children from stations to protect them from harm, from people or circumstances. 

At the children’s home in Dongri, a three-member committee of lawyers, social activists and government representatives decide on whether the child has to be handed back to parent/relatives, sent to another children’s home at Mankhurd in the eastern suburbs or to be handed over to some social organisation such as Mother Teresa’s Home.

The child is involved in these meetings and his opinions are taken into consideration in the judicial orders.

The children are kept here until the police and non-governmental organisations trace the child’s address or whereabouts.

“We are brought in at the children’s home and we don’t know how long it would take to get out of here. There are children who cry at night as they miss their parents. Even I feel like crying at times. The TV is on in the evenings but I don’t feel like watching it. I just want to get out from here,” says Abdul Raqib, who ran away from Kishanganj in Bihar to seek work in Mumbai.

Inmates of a government-run juvenile remand home watch an event in Mumbai. Photograph: Arko Datta/Reuters

The kids have a roll-call twice a day and are served meals thrice a day. These kids are kept away from children who are involved in criminal cases to prevent violence or victimisation.

Girls and boys are kept separately, and are provided red and blue uniforms at the home to identify them. Their belongings are kept with the officials.

An official is overheard saying: “A kid knew the telephone number of some guy who could inform his parents. I have just called up that person, but I have no clue if he has informed the parents. This kid keeps asking me if his parents have called back. I really feel bad for him but can’t help it.”

Efforts are made to get the children to reveal their address or whereabouts. “There are times when we do not understand the language spoken by these children. In such cases, we put them in touch with officials who can communicate with them, ” says Sunita Dhokre from the CST railway police station, who has been handling missing children cases for the past 11 years.

She carries a list of names of children who have been found at the CST station and keeps tracking their progress right from where they are kept to whether their addresses have been traced and if they have been successfully handed back to their parents.  

So far, of the 2,093 rescued children in Mumbai railway division, 1,959 were handed over back to their families.

So, what can be done to resolve this problem? As a metropolis and financial hub, Mumbai will continue to attract people, and the Bollywood factor can be worked upon, feels inspector Manik Sathe of CST railway police station.

“Bollywood as a phenomenon needs to be de-mystified. Bollywood stars must travel and connect with people in India’s hinterland just to make them realise that they are mere mortals and not larger-than-life as portrayed on the screen. It’s their responsibility to do so. They should go out and attend more programmes in non-urban areas to reduce the craze that brings people to Mumbai,” argues Sathe. 

He adds, “Parents and teachers need to be counselled to treat children better and make schools more interesting.”

Dhoble has also done his bit to resolve the problem of missing people. With his experience in rescuing children from flesh trade, begging racket, child labour, organ trafficking etc, the former cop has launched a website to help trace missing people. This portal uses search, face recognition and detection software and other online tools to help connect missing people with their families.

Dhoble and his team of volunteers tally the pictures of missing people with the pictures of people abandoned in hospitals, beggars and unknown persons to trace them. Dhoble feels that for a start, responsible citizens need to report children or individuals seen begging or being used indirectly for begging or working, to the authorities with or without anyone's help.

For now, their search is limited to Mumbai, but they do eventually plan to cover the entire country depending upon how the model works in Mumbai.

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