India has no specific law focusing on missing children, issue is addressed as crime committed against children

missingA background paper, “Missing Children: Challenges and Prospects”, prepared by National Action and Coordination Group End Violence Against Children (NACG EVAC), India, was presented at a consultative meet in Delhi, organized with the support of Plan India, Child in Need Institute (CINI) and Shakti Vahini on May 25. Excerpts:

An international definition on missing person states that “a missing person is a person who has disappeared and whose status as alive or dead cannot be confirmed as their location and fate are not known.” The National Centre for Missing Children, USA, defines missing child as “any child under 18 years of age, whose whereabouts are unknown by his/ her custodial parent (s) or legal guardian(s)”. The advisory on missing children issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) on January 31, 2012 defines missing child as a person below 18 years of age whose whereabouts are not known to the parents, legal guardians or any other person who may be legally entrusted with the custody of knowing the whereabouts/well-being of the child whatever may be the circumstances/causes of disappearance.What do the data say?

Authentic data on missing children in India is limited and inconsistent but indicates that the numbers are alarming and many such children neither return nor are they ever located.  Annually, approximately 44,000 children are reported missing, Of them 11,000 remain untraced (National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), 2005). Out of 19,000 women/children reported missing in 2011, only 6,000 were traced (UNODC  Report, 2013).

The “Crime in India” which enlists offences committed against children under the head crime against children, reported 58,224 cases under Indian Penal Code (IPC) in 2013 across the country compared to 38,172 cases in 2012, accounting an increase of 52.5 percent. Under the heads “procuration and selling of minor girls for prostitution”, West Bengal shared the maximum number of reported cases –486 out of 1,224 and 69 out of 100 respectively.

Over 3,25,000 children went missing between 2011 and June 2014 at an average of nearly 1 lakh children going missing every year (Missing children data presented in Parliament by MHA in August 2014. Across India 68,000 children were missing (excluding Bihar, Jharkhand and Meghalaya) out of which, 32,155 remained untraced by year end. Among states the highest number of untraced cases was reported from West Bengal 7,984, followed by Maharashtra, 5226 and Delhi, 3223. (Provisional data of June 2014 released by MHA)

According to a ‘Mapping Study on Missing Children’ in 10 cross-border districts of West Bengal, conducted and published by CINI -Child Protection Resource Centre in 2013, the average number of children missing stood at around 5 per 10,000 in majority districts. In Darjeeling this rose to 11 children out of 10,000 children in the age group of 0-18 years. In case of South Dinajpur, even though the figure was lowest within all districts, the rate of 4 out of 10,000 children missing is equally significant to Murshidabad, the highest in the zone.

The above figures are just tip of the iceberg as countless number of cases goes unreported.

Vulnerabilities and risks affecting children   

Why do children go missing and what are risks and driving factors? The viewed risks are varied. It may include abuse, exploitation, violence, criminality, alcohol and drug abuse, homelessness, health problems, educational disadvantage due to poor attendance at school/college, financial hardships, hunger, loneliness and depression.

In the Indian context the issue is far more complex and challenging to address. A child may runaway on its own, or may be victim of allurement or may be forced to leave home. The ‘Report of the Working Group on Child Rights’ for the 12th Five Year Plan (FYP) (2012–2017), enlists that unsafe and eroded family environment due to alcoholism, domestic/gender violence, child marriage, incest, caste and religion-based prostitution and break down of joint family system is causing child abuse and neglect which drive children to run away from home.

Globalization and current worldwide patterns of development promoting industrialization, consumerism and tourism further reinforce children’s vulnerabilities resulting in intra and inter-country trafficking, smuggling and illegal/unsafe migration and other, organized crimes like pornography, all by which children are victimized. Children as a mere extension of the family lack a separate entity,  rights and entitlements and voice resulting in multiple forms of abuse. Low levels of birth registration compromise monitoring of child marriages, child labour, trafficking, missing children and protection of children under the corresponding legislations.

Linkage of missing children with trafficking 

The NHRC research findings (2004) indicate that children’s vulnerability increases sharply in disaster, emergency and displacement situations.  NGOs working on anti-trafficking and police rescue operations corroborate the linkage of missing person with trafficking also for commercial sexual exploitation and forced labour where the rescued person could have been traced with the missing person reported at the local police station. The issues of distress sale and trafficking have come to notice in so many such situations in the country. Cross-border trafficking is a serious related concern, India’s porous borders (1800 km with Nepal and 4,156 km with Bangladesh) makes vigilance over human movements difficult, in spite of the official check points on both sides of the borders.

In the wake of emergencies, immediate relief measures focus more on  humanitarian aid. The major human displacements in cyclone-hit areas, in the Kosi area and in Uttarakhand, as also the recent earthquake in Nepal, left women and children susceptible and un-protected.  Bangladesh and West Bengal have developed a Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) for rescue, recovery, repatriation and integration of trafficked victims. Whether missing children land up in begging rings, prostitution, and organ trade or end up getting exported for camel jockeying etc., it is always organized crime.

Available Legal Framework

The perception of international conventions on missing children is varied. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child does not overtly recognize the issue of missing children specifically but it acknowledges the factors that lead to it and emphasizes the critical role and responsibility of the State in dealing with the issue. The Optional Protocol on Trafficking which states that trafficking is an organized crime has been recently signed by India thus acknowledging the link between missing and trafficked children.

In India there is no specific law focusing on missing children and the issue is being dealt with under the category of crime committed against children laid out in IPC and the special and local laws. The risk and link between children going missing and being trafficked are clear, but such children do not find place in the existing legislative framework unless a complaint is filed for kidnapping or abduction under the IPC. The various laws include the Immoral Trafficking Prevention Act, 1956; Child Labour Prohibition and Regulation Act, 1986; Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006 and Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012. The Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection) Act, 2006 and MHA advisory on missing children consider them as children in need of care and protection. These legislations do not look into the missing children perspective closely associated with them and have limited scope in dealing with the issue.

Existing Response Mechanisms

The issue is essentially meant to be addressed under the Integrated Child Protection Scheme (ICPS), initiated in 2009, which mandates the creation of a safe child protective environment by putting in place statutory and supportive child protection systems at state, district, block and village level. It emphasizes the establishment of Village Level Child Protection Committees (VLCPC) mandated to keep a record of the missing children. The MHA advisory advocates involvement of representatives of Panchayati Raj Institutions and Village Watch and ward/Municipal Committee/Neighbourhood’ Committees/Resident Welfare Associations law enforcement agencies in identification, tracing and recovery of missing and trafficked children and arrest of accused persons.

Anti-Human Trafficking Units (AHTUs) set-up under the police department by the Ministry of Women and Child Development (MWCD) in every district, aimed at building capacities of law enforcement officers on tackling human trafficking. The 2014 advisory issued by the WCD Ministry specifically calls on all state/UT governments to join in ensuring swift search and tracking in all cases of children reported missing, as an essential measure for the  rescue of such children.

NHRC and judicial recommendations on missing children in the past one decade have focused on setting up a Special Squad/Missing Persons Desk in every Police Station, prompt steps for tracing missing children and system of mandatory reporting of missing children cases to the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights. The committee also advocated the involvement of community/panchayats and NGOs for reporting missing persons and has recommended issuing of I Cards to all children and maintaining a database of photographs. It has also strongly emphasized the need to keep special vigils at railway stations, bus-stands, airports, sea- ports and such other places, which act as transit points for missing children, including children who run away or are made to run away.

The recording of a First Information Report (FIR) is now mandatory after the Delhi High Court guidelines of 2010, NHRC recommendations and the MHA advisory issued on June 25, 2013 on crime against children, including missing children cases and calling for immediate follow-up action by all States/UTs. The MHA advisory to states includes computerization of records, DNA profiling, NGO involvement and community awareness, to facilitate the tracing of missing children.

Across the country, government and civil society initiatives are reported to be effectively utilizing technological advancement in dealing with missing children. ‘Track Child 2.0’, a national portal (www.trackthemissingchild.gov.in) of MWCD is a web-enabled MIS aimed at tracking missing and found children under ICPS and JJ Act 2000. MHA launched in February 2014 a Web Portal on anti-human trafficking and vital information sharing IT tool for enhancing cooperation between law enforcement agencies, and concerned government departments and a repository on trafficking issues. MHA’s Facebook page on Anti Human Trafficking is an IT tool for holding interactive session with Nodal Officers of AHTU of all Stats/UTs, and other stakeholder and civil society. Zonal Integrated Police Network (ZIPNET) compiles and uploads data on missing children and is supported by the PEHCHAN scheme launched in 2014 to promote the importance of photographs in tracing missing children.

A photograph of the child with his/her family is clicked and given to the family for future record and reference in case the child gets missing. The District Missing Persons Unit and Missing Persons Squad for working under Crime Branch continuously monitor the cases of missing children in Delhi. If any missing child if not recovered within four months, the case is transferred to AHTU of district for specialized investigation.

Colour Portrait Building System is  a software that facilitates construction of portraits of criminals and kidnapped/missing persons by the victim or the witness. The Home Link network, is an e-based network to protect and restore the unaccompanied street children and children out of parental care to their homes or to safer places being run by Don Bosco Young at Risk (YaR) Forum in 72 cities in 16 States. Other web-based interventions include the missing person portal of West Bengal and missingindiankids.com, managed by National Centre for Missing Children, an NGO in Madhya Pradesh, that seeks details of missing children from parents and police stations and then posts them on-site with photographs.

Missing Child Alert (MCA) project being implemented in partnership with Plan India/International, Shakti Vahini, CINI and Gram Niyojan Kendra, is a technologically enabled, institutionalized regional system of case alert and case management designed to facilitate prevention, rescue and repatriation of children, endangered or caught  by cross-border trafficking between Bangladesh, India and Nepal. The project targets four result areas – prevention and protection at source areas; a technologically enabled alert system;  tracking and repatriation of child victims of trafficking, and advocacy to strengthen regional instruments and policies to ensure justice.

Impediments to the effort

In spite of policy commitments, directives and guidelines, legal provisions and guidelines, the fight against missing children has faced many impediments.  The issue deserves higher priority, and a clearer strategy. Integrated monitoring and a search mechanism are concerns to be addressed. Delay in reporting is a problem. A sizeable number of missing children remain untraced. Inter-state cooperation, integrated systems and a country-wide database for missing children must be in place and must work well, so that if a child is reported lost in one state but has been trafficked to another state, there is a mechanism to ensure that the child will be searched for country-wide.

The ICPS was brought in to reduce multiple child vulnerabilities and create a child protective environment by putting in place statutory and supportive child protection systems, increase public awareness on child rights and protection, enforce accountability and operationalise evidence-based monitoring and evaluation system viz. VLCPC. Evaluation findings in some of the states indicate that ICPS implementation will benefit from greater attention so that quick recovery, restoration and rehabilitation is fully established across the country. Capacity of these institutions to deal with missing children and children overall – preventing children going missing, prompt recovery, early restoration and long term rehabilitation, professional counseling and psycho-social support system and families’ preparedness to accept the missing child are major concern areas needing critical investment.

Missing children’s data has several gaps since they constitute a heterogeneous group which is beyond the purview of a consistently applied set of definitions, multiple data sources and gaps in their compilation. MHA’s missing child definition does not state any specific time-frame for when a child will be considered missing. The NCRB data does not include missing persons/children data reported in the Government Railway Police Stations, which is independent of the district police stations and does not figure in State Crime Records Bureau data. States’ police across India generally enter the data in the missing person’s dairy and hence the real cases of trafficking of children and women do not get tabulated or reflected under NCRB data of cognizable offences. Moreover, when the child returns, the police is not informed as a result there is a mismatch between missing and found children.

The awareness level of the Police on missing children data and trafficking as organised crime is reported to be low, perhaps due to their preoccupation with crimes such as murder, rape, arson as well as general law and order matters. In almost all districts, If AHTUs improve their operational effectiveness, it will be a step towards reducing the issue of trafficking.

Lack of voice and physical visibility makes children vulnerable to crimes. Systems seeking proactive engagement of parents, community and institutions at the ground level and outreach for social and attitudinal change may not exist where they should. Often parent/community action is triggered only when a child is found or reported to be missing. The existing state and community level systems to address missing children problem is responsive rather than anticipatory and preventive.

The 12th Five-Year Plan carries a recommendation for an enhanced monitoring role of Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs) and proactive involvement of Ward members to take up issues of absentee school teachers, dropout children and missing children—including girls. Yet the recommendation has not effectively trickled down at the ground level and involvement of community level institutions viz. PRIs and CBOs is not clearly outlined although they can play an important role of maintaining vigil on the protection and safety of children in their area.

Synergetic and Reinforced Prevention and Response Mechanism

Policy recommendations and the innovative practices from across the country open up numerous possibilities for synergetic action for a robust child protection framework.  The physical visibility of children is critically important. Yearly photographing of children at local level, or I cards of each child should be issued. Recent interventions on curbing the missing children problem indicate the need for an efficient child protection mechanism that is not reactive but is anticipatory and preventive. This essentially means engaging existing social entities such shops, local self-body, police, local institutions, schools, gram sabha, panchayat, nagarpalika infrastructure, and RWAs, for keeping a vigil and monitoring any clandestine activity or movements in their vicinity.

Proactive decentralized community level mechanisms like VLCPC for recovery and tracking should be explored which does not require much resource. The caring community concept needs strengthening by identifying places which have been out of the ambit of safe places such as railway platforms, bus terminals, shops, traffic junction and police station. Support from inter-faith leadership can play a vital role in strengthening the child protection system.

Aligned with NHRC recommendations on missing children there is need for effective collaboration, convergence and synergetic action among stakeholders across all states for developing an integrated system of rescue and restoration of children. Vigilance and surveillance systems by police personnel and activists need to be augmented. Children seen loitering around parks, bus stands, etc. should be monitored and accounted for. There is need for integrating the police system with NGO run childcare services, institutions and track child portals.

The challenge of missing children is a burning issue and a huge area of concern across stakeholders. What is needed? Options include a uniform system to tackle the issue, steps to overcome the isolation of the current mechanisms, measures to ensure coordination, and convergence. The structures and support systems under ICPS call for activation and linkage.   Track Child deserves to be energized across the country; it has established that technology can help create a robust system for profiling, publishing and disseminating information as fast as possible among all stakeholders.

Information hubs and alert systems aligned to the existing child tracking systems should be developed with synergy and convergence, with meaningful links   among different agencies and countries. Convergence with the Mother and Child Tracking System implemented by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare can be explored. The safety and protected status of children will benefit if the issue of their going missing gets priority in both official and social attention.

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