Disappeared without a trace

A week after she was kidnapped from the high-security India Gate area, three-year-old Jahnvi Ahuja returned home last Sunday.

The lost-and-found story may be the result of a social media campaign and increased pressure on Delhi Police due to the media highlighting the case.

However, thousands of other children who are kidnapped from the capital’s streets every year are not so lucky. On an average, about 20 children go missing in the capital every day and four to five of them never return home.

Those, who do come back, often narrate a story of abuse, torture, confinement and trauma.

Children’s rights activists say that while the capital is a hub of trafficking where children from different parts of the country are brought for illegal trade, children residing in the capital are kidnapped for bonded labour, child marriage and prostitution in other states.
For instance, 13-year-old Ritesh was playing near his house in south east Delhi’s Sangam Vihar in 2012 when a few men sitting in a car stopped him and paid him to get them a pack of cigarettes.

When he returned with it, they took him away. Ritesh was kept as bonded labour in West Bengal, but was among the lucky children as he returned home after two years. 
 
Another boy, 15-year-old Anuj had gone missing from near his house in outer Delhi’s Aman Vihar in February. He was rescued from Amritsar after seven months.

“He uses ji after everything he says. He won’t go out to play or agree to go to school. He is disoriented most times of the day and never tells us how he reached Amritsar,” says Sunita Devi, his mother. An NGO helping her out in the matter suspect that Anuj may have been a victim of drug abuse or even sexual exploitation.  

According to police, 5,841 minors were reported missing in Delhi between January 1 and September 30. Of these, 2,637 were boys and 3,204 were girls. From the list, 3,927 minors were traced, while 1,914 were not. 

“We have noticed in several cases that the children are quite withdrawn after they return home. They stop talking and refuse to go to school. While family counseling is offered by police and NGOs, affected families rarely attend them,” says Soha Moitra, Regional Director (North) Child Rights and You.

She says that traffickers operate in a highly structured manner and take children away to another state in no time. “Children are taken away in groups from railway station and inter-state bus terminals within 24 hours even as the police are still registering the FIR.
Even the Juvenile Welfare Officers (JWOs) at every police station, who are supposed to handle the missing children cases, are burdened with investigations into other cases,” she adds.

In September, the Supreme Court had also rapped police across the country for displaying extraordinary agility in searching for missing children of the rich, but refusing to even register FIRs on similar complaints by the poor.

It came after NGO Bachpan Bachao Andolan filed a petition claiming that police have not registered FIRs in over 80 per cent of the cases.  

Before adjourning the case to October 16, the apex court had said that none of the police departments appeared to be bothered about the missing children.

“If the child of an aristocratic family goes missing, then there is an altogether different approach. Recently, the grandson of a Medanta Medicity executive went missing and thousands of police fanned out immediately in search of the child and traced him within three days,” it had said.

“If children of moneyed people go missing, you trace them out in three days. But when it is about the missing children of poor, no one is bothered,” it said and warned state governments that “we will see that you register FIRs”.

Delhi Police, however, maintains that there is no delay in filing a formal complaint and that their response is even quicker.

“Not filing an FIR happened two years ago, but no longer. The only delay is the time taken to write the FIR. But even before that process is complete, we alert our teams at railway stations, bus terminus and at state borders. The Standard Operating Procedure is followed,” says spokesperson Rajan Bhagat.

He added that most police stations have two to four Juvenile Welfare Officers to handle such cases. Even other policemen are trained to deal with cases related to children.
After Jahnvi’s case was highlighted by media and on social networking websites, parents now say that they are more scared when it comes to their children’s safety and would think twice about heading to India Gate and other places famous for family outings.
Seeking opportunity

“Criminals are looking for opportunities to kidnap children and parents must initiate steps to prevent such incidents. We can’t expect police to be everywhere, and we also have to consider that children can’t be responsible for their safety. It’s better to keep them under our watchful eyes at a safe environment,” says Aarti Khanna, mother of five-year-old Arun.

Ambika Anand, a resident to south Delhi’s Mehrauli, adds that she keeps a watch over her six-year-old daughter even when she is playing in the neighbourhood park.
“Children in our colony have been told by their parents not to venture outside the park while they are playing. So much so, they are banned from playing hide and seek because that means being away from parents’ watchful eyes,” she says.

On September 28, Jahnvi, her parents and a few neighbours from Raghubir Colony in west Delhi had decided to spend the day at India Gate.

 While Jahnvi played with a group of children, the adults were keeping a watch on them as they sat in a group. A minute-long distraction and Jahnvi was nowhere to be found.
“The incident took place around 9.30 pm. We approached some policemen and announcements for Jahnvi were made a couple of times while all of us were frantically looking for her,” says her father Rakesh. CCTV footage last showed her playing alone around 9.21 pm.

The three-year-old girl’s family had immediately launched a massive social media campaign and put up her photos on Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp.

Tennis player Mahesh Bhupathi had retweeted details to help the campaign, while Delhi Police announced a reward of Rs 50,000 for anyone with information about Jahnvi.
She was traced after a passerby saw her at a market in west Delhi’s Janakpuri and informed police. She had a placard around her neck with her name, her father’s phone number and the fact that she had gone missing from India Gate.

Having travelled as far as Rohtak and Meerut, apart from looking for their daughter in the capital, Jahnvi’s family thought it was unlikely that the girl would be in Janakpuri.
After the India Gate incident, Delhi Police Commissioner Bhim Sain Bassi has also held a meeting with all senior police officers and decided that they will increase vigil in vulnerable areas like border pockets and urban villages.

For the safety of children, police also advise parents to follow some steps which includes ensuring verification of domestic help. If children are to be left alone in the care of domestic staff, CCTV cameras must be installed to keep an eye on what is happening.

“Children must be discouraged from going out with a stranger or accept anything from them. It is okay for them to say no when they don’t like what is happening. They must also be aware of their address, name of parents and a relevant phone number,” a police notification states. Police are also looking to increase security around India Gate as the area has emerged as one of the most unsafe places for children.

“We have requested civic authorities to survey the lighting in the lawns and adjoining roads and apprise us. We are also going to place an order for a new set of high-resolution CCTVs to be installed phase-wise in the India Gate area,” Special Commissioner of Police (Law and Order) Deepak Mishra says.

Only 40 low-resolution CCTV cameras are installed around India Gate and now, a proposal for 150 high-resolution cameras is in the pipeline.

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