Begging Mafia

NEW DELHI // A year after her now eight-year-old daughter disappeared, Raj Rani saw a rag-clad little girl begging outside a temple in Amritsar in India’s northern state of Punjab. “My neighbour pointed out that the girl resembled Priya. I stopped and stared at her. My heart was pounding as I recognised her,” said Mrs Rani, who had suffered from depression after she lost her daughter. She called her husband and other relatives, who arrived soon after, and then approached the girl, who did not initially recognise her mother. “I ran towards Priya – the beggars grew suspicious and became alert. However, I caught hold of the child, who had started crying. I told her that I was her real mother and had lost her. Then she quickly clung on to me.”

As you read this, another half dozen or so children will have disappeared around the sub-continent. Although Mumbai has developed the dubious accolade of being the country’s capital for child abduction, it happens everywhere. Delhi, by sheer virtue of its size, has the largest number: 6227 a year on average. In total across the six main cities of the subcontinent, the average is 15,674, the population of a small town.

This is probably a vast understatement if one looks beyond the main metropolitan centres. The last reliable figures were published in 2005 as part of a major report on trafficking of women and children in India prepared by PM Nair, a former CBI officer who is now with the UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM). His figures show 44,476 children disappeared in 2005. Of the average 15,000-plus missing from major cities, Nair found over 11,000 were still missing a year later.

The old story is vanishing children. The new one is that the Indian parents who are the victims are getting a hearing not only in the media but finally in government too.

Pushpa Devi lives in Laxmi Nagar not more than half an hour from Nithari. Like millions across the country, she saw the details unfold as children’s remains were found; limbs, organ, pieces of bone. Her daughter, Poonam Lal went missing 10 years ago when she was 17. Her mother was told that Poonam had probably run off with a boyfriend and was not therefore missing. Poonam was eventually traced but her mother knows the heartache and it was she and her husband who pushed for a set of do’s and don’ts which the Supreme Court produced. The main points are obvious: mandatory display photo images in public places like railway stations, in newspapers and on television and at inter-state bus stops; making proper and extensive enquiries among possible leads and between states and offering a reward but it doesn’t happen. The 12 point list gathers dust as police forces across states plead helplessness when asked the question: Where have the children gone?

If they had been snatched by aliens the police could hardly have been more dismissive. While this particular group of unfortunate youngsters have ended up in back gardens and stream beds around Nithari, thousands of others end up as cheap labour in roadside shops, prostitutes in a brothel, exploited in the child porn industry, kidnapped by the beggar mafia or even trafficked abroad.

It is impossible to get accurate statistics. None of the police forces across the various states have any means of collating their separate databases of information and even where they have those, the details are sparse and often inaccurate. A child disappearing is a parental problem and a minor one at that. He’ll turn up or he won’t turn up. Nothing we can do to help.

Justice AS Anand is former chief of the National Human Rights Commission in India. Of the missing children, he says: “They have obviously not vanished into thin air. Children are our assets and we only do lip service to the problem of missing children. Even when a report of a missing child is lodged with the police, it is treated as a minor offence.” Yet no one in Government seems to know how many children go missing or even very clearly into whose portfolio the issue might fall. The Minister for Child and Women Welfare is Renuka Chowdhary says she is “apprehensive” that another Nithari could happen if action isn’t taken urgently.

It is here that the old and the new stories converge because the truth is that there is no real surprise about the deaths in Nithar, for all the shock factor. “It’s only a symptom” says Director of India’s Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). “Nithari shows the larger malaise and a failure of the system to respond. There has been a serious failure on every count. Nithari happened because the police failed at the first point of delivery of justice, the administration failed to deliver a just response thereafter and because society as a whole proved to be insensitive.”

A few articles of interest:


Reports of rising beggar mafia in Kerala has forced the government authorities to take steps to ban begging in the state. Law Minister K M Mani has handed over the draft bill to legally ban begging in the state to Social Justice Minister Dr M K Muneer. A similar font SHOULD be adopted by all states to curb down this social evil of Inda…


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