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Light at the end of the tunnel for missing children of India - a communiqué from the Chairperson of Global March Against Child Labour

Dear Friends,

With great pleasure, I share my joy and accomplishment with you. As I write to you, I am holding a copy of the landmark judgment of the Supreme Court of India that will have far reaching impact on the lives of millions of children. This historic judicial verdict was delivered on 10th May 2013 in response to a petition filed by my Indian organisation Bachpan Bachao Andolan (BBA) which is the key partner of Global March Against Child Labour.

It is indeed a watershed moment not only in BBA’s three decade fight in restoring childhood but has also brought a fresh lease of hope for hundreds of thousands of missing children and their hapless parents, whose cries remained unheard due to the absence of legal protection and apathy of the enforcement machinery. Our argument that children do not disappear in thin air but go missing because of an organised nexus of traffickers and mafias has been finally upheld by the highest court of the land.

India has a dubious distinction with one child going missing every ten minutes as per government records. Although the government admits that complaints for 90,654 missing children were received in 2011 but it was only 15,284 First Information Reports (FIRs) that were eventually registered by the police to investigate various crimes these children were victims of. This also was possible only because the parents had expressed their suspicion on someone.

The Supreme Court in its much awaited decision has ruled in for compulsory registration of all cases by police of missing children with the presumption that they are victims of kidnapping and trafficking; preparation of standard operation procedures in all Indian states to deal with such cases; appointment and training of Special Child Welfare Officers at every police station to deal with cases related to missing children; records related to all missing and traced children to be maintained by Ministry of Home Affairs and Police; and provisions for para-legal workers to be present at every Police station to assist the parents whose child maybe the victim of a crime.

The Hon’ble Court has finally defined missing children as “a person below eighteen years of age, whose whereabouts are not known to the parents, legal guardians and any other person, who may be legally entrusted with the custody of the child, whatever may be the circumstances/causes of disappearance. The child will be considered missing and in need of care and protection within the meaning of the later part of the Juvenile Act, until located and/or his/her safety/well being is established.” 

This judgment is a great tribute to Chaman Lal (name changed) whose daughter had vanished all of a sudden from her village in Nithari barely 25 kilometres from New Delhi seven years ago. Before reaching out to me for help Chaman Lal cooled his heels off running from pillar to post for lodging a complaint in search of his daughter only to be shunned by the local police saying that she might have eloped with her boyfriend. This is an insulting and ruthless remark which is considered as a stigma in the Indian society that no father would ever like to hear about his daughter.

Chaman Lal did not stop at this and went on to explain that he was not the only one aggrieved. There were dozens of parents with the same tale of woe. BBA raised this issue with media and the authorities but all in vain.

In December 2006 when human remains of several children were recovered from an open gutter in the area, the entire nation was petrified and ashamed. Rather than beating chest and wailing, we took this issue of missing children on war footing and intensified its efforts in public, political and judicial domain.

In India where ‘Missing Children’ was not even a defined term our fight has been an uphill task. In the absence of any legislation, there was no help, no assisstance, nowhere to go, no-one to turn to.

We have been relentlessly arguing that most of the missing children are victims of trafficking, sold to work as bonded labourers, child prostitutes, as forced beggars, drug peddlers, etc. It has been reported that children are also sold for illicit trading of organs, illegal adoption, as child brides to Middle East with men nearly five times their age or are even forced to become child combatants.

Recently, two young boys were found to be held in bondage and were confined to work in an agricultural field in a village in Meerut. They were registered as missing children in Delhi. In a separate incident a group of 13 child beggars were rescued by BBA and Delhi Police. They had gone missing from Jodhpur. As a matter of fact, they were trafficked and trapped by criminal gangs who exploit children for forced beggary. Similarly, a 16 year old girl was recovered from Ajmer. She was lured by some unscrupulous people into marrying a foreigner. Her parents lodged a complaint with the police in Delhi. In yet another case, BBA with the help of Delhi Police recovered five young girls from a village in Alwar, Rajasthan who were reported missing from Delhi. They had been kidnapped from a primary school and were sold to a nomadic tribe for prostitution. Obviously, one can’t find missing children wandering casually on the streets. They are victims of an organised crime, irrespective of the fact, whether their parents or the police admit it or not.

We are approached by hundreds of parents who see BBA as a ray of hope for their re-union with the missing child. Almost every day at work, I come across parents lamenting inconsolably about their children gone missing. To make matters worse the data furnished by government agencies is often misleading; therefore under the provisions of Right to Information Act, we undertook a rigourous exercise of seeking data related to missing children from every district of India. Upon compilation of the responses received from 20 states and 4 union territories (published in the book “Missing Children of India” – a pioneering study by Bachpan Bachao Andolan, 2011) the fact that surfaced was absolutely shocking. An alarming 1, 17,480 children were reported missing between 2008 and 2010.

We have been fighting this battle for the missing children on all possible fronts. Be it creating awareness in the masses about the issue; sensitising police and other law enforcement agencies to effectively deal with such cases or staging protests, demonstrations and marches right up to the Parliament of India so that our policy makers give in to the demand for a strong legislation for protecting and recovering the children gone missing. One of the loudest voices that have resonated with ours is that of the parents of the missing children themselves. We transformed their pain and agony into strength and hope to trace their children back. In order to strengthen our intervention and expanding manifold our outreach to all those who actually mattered, BBA extensively engaged national and international media over the years for bringing alive the issue of missing children – which lay buried under the debris of weak or absent policies and inaction of the law enforcement agencies. Our campaign on wheels “Mukti Caravan” comprising of former child labourers spanned the length and breadth of Indian states where children go missing from or are trafficked. Our activists have traced many children braving all risks on their lives. Our unrelenting efforts of many years have eventually been paid off in the form of a major policy change in the country.

Additionally, the latest judgment of Supreme Court will further reinforce yet another significant legislative change – Criminal Law (Amendment) Act 2013 that was enacted earlier last month. Co-incidentally this change is also a stellar achievement of BBA. The Act has defined and criminalised all aspects of trafficking in persons, slavery, servitude, physical exploitation, etc.

In thousands of cases we could initiate prosecutions against errant employers only under the laws related to bonded labour, child labour and juvenile justice, but not against nefarious traffickers who were responsible for landing children into a living hell. From a scenario where India did not have any legal definition of trafficking, the country’s criminal justice system has taken a quantum leap by making provisions for stringent and deterrent punishments for traffickers which even extend to rigourous imprisonment for the remainder of the offender’s natural life. This legislation was based on recommendations of a high powered committee that was constituted by Government of India for amending the criminal laws. The committee took note of the submissions made by a team of most dedicated and astute lawyers of BBA and included them in its final report in detail.

In the backdrop of the brutal gang rape of the 23 year old paramedical student in New Delhi, it was a daunting task to convince the law makers for incorporating clauses related to trafficking in the criminal law with an argument that missing children, trafficking, sexual abuse including rape are intertwined issues.

Legislative changes cannot be steered without mobilising the opinion of the policy makers. BBA reached out to every single Member of Parliament either though one on one meetings or customised correspondence. Additionally, we sought the support of civil society organisations from across the country to amplify our voice.

Both these pivotal pieces of legislations concerning missing children and trafficking, together,are strong weapons to demolish the criminal nexus of traffickers, abductors, kidnappers, mafias and slave masters who thrive at the cost of innocent childhood.

I take this opportunity to express my heartfelt gratitude to you for all the moral, physical and intellectual support that you have extended to BBA in our long-standing struggle and count upon your guidance in future as well.

In solidarity,

Kailash Satyarthi,
Chaiperson, Global March Against Child Labour