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Delhi notebook - agony of missing children

By Chris Morris
BBC News, Delhi

Sangeeta Giri
Sangeeta Giri says she has searched everywhere for her child

The streets of the Badli Industrial Area in north Delhi are teeming with children.

This is the kind of place where migrant families settle, after coming to Delhi to look for work.

In a small courtyard on a side street Sangeeta Giri is washing her family's clothes. Her husband Harishankar, a driver, is sitting nearby.

It looks like a normal domestic scene, but there's something wrong. Their daughter Sunita went missing last June, two weeks after they arrived in the city.

Tears

They registered Sunita's disappearance with the police on the day she went missing. She's recorded as being 3ft 3in (1m) tall, wearing a pink top and shirt, with bare feet.

She's five years old.

Child in Delhi
Children from poorer families are more likely to disappear

Harishankar shows me the photo they have given to the police. But it's not a picture of Sunita - they don't have one - it's her sister at the same age.

The only image of Sunita is the one they carry in their heads.

In the tiny room where the family live Sangeeta rummages for all they have left... a few of her daughter's clothes.

Tears run down Sangeeta's face.

"We've looked everywhere for her," she sobs. "At bus stops, orphanages, hospitals. We've gone crazy trying to find her.

"We've even paid money to the police. We just don't know what to do."

At the local police station, the details of Sunita's case are hand-written in a book. "Pending investigation," it says.

And Sunita is one among too many. Delhi's children are disappearing every day. The numbers are shocking.

According to the official website of the Delhi police, nearly 6,000 children have been reported missing in the city in the last two years. And only about one in 10 have been found.

Shocking case

The sad fact is that most of the missing are from Delhi's poorer communities.

Bijanti Kaur
Bijanti Kaur cannot be consoled by the fact she has other children

That means their parents have no access to power or influence. And the authorities often treat their complaints with indifference.

It was only a shocking case - the abduction and killing of at least 19 children here two years ago - that caused a national outcry.

Last month two men were sentenced to death for rape and murder, and the Delhi police now say they'll do a better job in tracking the missing.

"We take each and every complaint very seriously," says Rajan Bhagat, the police spokesman.

"Delhi is a big city, and we have lots to do. But the commissioner of police has promised to start a new helpline for missing children."

For many families it's probably too late. Every neighbourhood, it seems, has a tragic tale to tell.

On a bustling street in the district of Sultanpuri, Bijanti Kaur last saw her two-year-old daughter Neha seven years ago.

Her husband has told her to forget about it - she has other children. But Bijanti says she'll never stop looking.

"If somebody tells me that they've seen a girl who looks just like me at a school - I'll go there and see," she says.

"People tell me your daughter blew away with the wind - vanished - somebody took her by magic. But nobody can tell me where she is."

Prostitution

Vast numbers of India's rural poor are moving into big cities like Delhi - it's a transient vulnerable population.

Child performs on a Delhi roadside
Many children are snatched from the streets

The police say many missing children have eloped - a suggestion rubbished by campaigners for children's welfare.

"The child who is missing is being abused in one way or the other," says Meenakshi Kohli, from the group Child Rights and You.

"It could be for organ theft; if it's a girl child, it's probably prostitution; trafficking; begging; there are local mafia gangs who abduct children to make money out of them."

"Do we really have to wait for the situation to get so out of hand before we wake up?"

At Sunita's house they're making tea for visitors. Here they are still waiting. So are thousands of others across this city.

If you're poor, they say, no-one cares.



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