NEW DELHI -- Meena, a careworn mother of six children whose wrinkled face and stringy limbs make her look much older than her 30 years, takes a tiny cloth purse from around her neck and gingerly opens it to take out a wallet-sized photo of an 18-month-old girl.
To look at it, there is nothing extraordinary about the picture, an instant, one-by-four-inch print from one of thousands of photo booths. But two things make this photo important. This picture, taken nearly three years ago, is the only one that Meena has of her daughter, Neeta. Neeta, now four years old, disappeared last September.
With tears in her eyes, Meena begs me to help her find her little girl, whom she believes was sold into a life of prostitution -- possibly with the connivance of the girl's alcoholic father. Even if Neeta's father was involved, the police should, by law, treat it as a case of child trafficking. But Meena claims there's no equal justice for the poor in India.
"Every day I look at this picture, I look at my daughter's little clothes, and I go to the police station to beg them to help me," Meena says. "But often the police just close the gates and refuse to let me in. They've told me to give up, that it will be better for me if I think of my daughter as dead."
Though she's not aware of it, Meena is hardly alone in her plight. According to police data, about 13,000 children have been reported missing throughout India since three years ago, when the discovery of a serial murderer who targeted poor children inspired the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) to investigate the issue. But both grassroots workers and officials are convinced that this is only the tiniest tip of the iceberg.
"In 2005 there was a National Crime Records Bureau report that said around 45,000 kids go missing in India every year," said Bhuwan Ribhu, a lawyer who works with the Save the Childhood Movement in Delhi. "[But] there are easily 45,000 child laborers working in Delhi [alone whose] parents do not know where they are."
Apart from simple lack of effort in tabulating the numbers, rights workers say most cases remain uncounted because the police rarely file an official "first information report" when they receive a complaint about a missing child.
The Delhi police denies this charge. "Each and every complaint is taken very seriously," said Delhi police press relations officer Rajan Bhagat. "Each and every child case is registered properly [with an] FIR and efforts are made to trace each and every missing child." Based on a "sample study," he added, the police have found that 95 percent of the children who are reported missing eventually return home. "It is only that when the children come back to reunite with their parents, they don't come back to report to the police," Bhagat said.
The truth of that explanation is impossible to verify without accurate data on the number of missing children. But a couple indicators of past performance provide more than a little clarity to the he-said, she-said war of words between rights' workers and law enforcement. The serial child murders in Nithari, a suburb of Delhi, in 2006 revealed that local police ignored reports about missing kids for 18 months while more than 30 bodies piled up in a nearby storm drain. The investigation began only after the stench led local street cleaners to the gruesome cache.
Activists say Delhi's finest are little better. When Save the Childhood filed a Right to Information request demanding police figures for the number of missing children in each of the city's districts, for example, the commissioner from the Southeast district -- one of the worst-affected areas -- sent back a request for payment of about $2000 to cover officers' salaries and local transportation. "It was shameful!" said Ribhu.
Meena's heartrending story, horribly, provides something of an explanation. Though she claims traffickers stole her daughter, the details of the tale she told the police are suspicious. Out of work and already in debt, Meena's husband knew all too well that a fifth daughter meant only another mouth to feed and dowry to amass. So although Meena claims her husband said he was passed out drunk when the moonshiner whisked little Neeta away, the real truth could well be that he sold her for a few more bottles of booze.
Regardless of the truth, this is still a case of child trafficking, a four-year-old girl is still frightened and alone somewhere, and a mother is still wracked with guilt and worry.
But police may feel tempted to blame the victim. "It's a matter of what you want to understand or believe," Ribhu says. "In all cases of forced labor, where we are rescuing kids, when parents approach the police in Bihar, in West Bengal, in Jharkhand, the police tell them, 'You took money. You sent your child to work. Now you go get the child back.' The police is not ready to accept that there was deceit involved."
Four-year-old Neeta, who will indeed likely never be found, whether she was lost, stolen, sold or murdered, bears no blame for what happened. "The worst thing is that I know that girls who are taken like this are often forced into prostitution," Meena says.
"That is the thing I can't stop thinking about."
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