THE CURIOUS CASE OF MISSING CHILDREN

New Delhi May 16   While rising cases of missing children led our policy-makers towards legislating strong and robust legal framework, technological gaps and loopholes must be plugged

On March 9, a 14-year-old boy, Raju (name changed), was found after he went missing from a factory in Delhi two years back. Over 40 State coordinators across 20 States physically visited several child care institutions in search of the missing boy in a rescue operation launched by Bachpan Bachao Andolan (BBA) called ‘Operation Finding Raju’. He was found in a children’s home in Haridwar and was successfully reunited with his family. Raju is one of the few who could finally claim his lost childhood. Several other Rajus are still waiting to be found.

There is no greater plight than the cause of missing children. The agony and greater disappointment that follows for the parents whose child has gone missing, is both alarming and deeply disturbing. Hundreds of children go missing every day in India and till recent years, enforcement mechanisms and procedures lacked in efforts to track the missing child and ensure that the child is successfully reunited with the family.

However, through strategic interventions in making strong legislation and with the judicious use of technology, the state can bring back smiles to thousands of families who become a victim to the crime of missing children. The menace, therefore, can be resolved and there is no probable force that cannot deter the crime as heinous as that of the missing child.

In the India legal system, a missing child was not considered a heinous crime with little provisions and procedures in place to address the issue. The infamous Nithari incidence brought light to the issue of missing children in 2005. Residents of the village in Nithari dug up skulls, bones and other body parts from a municipal tank, all of which were found to be of the children who had gone missing in the last two years from nearby areas. This incident, suspected to be connected with illegal organ trade business, created terror and furor among the citizens over police inaction and ineffectiveness.

The primary challenge was to trace the root of the problem and gauge its magnitude. A thorough assessment of the problem led to the stating of the definition of a ‘missing child’ in law and subsequently to identifying the plausible course of action that must be taken when a child is reported to be missing.

In a historic judgement, the Supreme Court in BBA vs Union of India in 2013, gave directions to mandatorily register an FIR under the Indian Penal Code 370 by invoking the doctrine of ‘presumption of commission of offence’ of trafficking in the event of a case of a missing child. The mandatory registration of an FIR made it necessary for the police to conduct investigation. Prompt police action and prosecution has worked as a deterrent to incidences of crimes against missing children. The issue of missing child  oriented various legal and policy discourse towards the formation of a strong and robust framework.

Standard operating procedures for a missing child were framed which further clarified accountability and standard procedures that must be followed by stakeholders to ensure holistic approach in handling the cases of missing children, including prevention, investigation and rehabilitation. The case in point, however, is how technology has paved the way for legal frameworks and processes that made the system even more robust and effective. Expeditious dissemination of information through various networks has significantly helped in nabbing the culprits and rescuing the children. Maintaining data base of missing children facilitated the efforts of tracing the missing children.

The zonal integrated police network (ZIPNET) which was started in 2004 as an initiative by the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Union Government, helped to not only trace the missing children but also to keep information related to unidentified found children. ZIPNET works with the objective to help the Government, the parents and NGOs working in this field to successfully trace the missing children. Another such initiative, the Talash Information System, maintains a national-level database of missing persons under the following broad categories — missing, kidnapped, arrested, deserted, escaped, proclaimed offender, wanted, unidentified dead body, unidentified person and traced/found. This easy categorisation helps in sorting and quickly finding a missing child lost in the system.

Similarly, the National Informatics Centre, maintained by the Ministry of Women and Child Development, has developed a national portal ‘Track Child’ which not only contains data on missing children  but also has a live data base to track traced children kept in child care institutions. It also provides a networking system amongst all stakeholders and citizens to facilitate tracking of a child in distress. Live database monitoring requires regular updation by stakeholders in the justice system, such as police stations, child care institutions/child welfare committees and juvenile justice boards. The software also facilities the mapping of vulnerable locations and space from where a large number of children have been reported to be missing, so that effective and timely intervention can be taken.

The process of repatriation of a child is both overwhelming and challenging. Though  a significant progress in terms of use of technology has been made, some gaps and loopholes remain. Underlying issues are lack of use of advancement in technology and available resources like UID, Aadhaar cards and face recognition software to reunite recovered children. Procedures and systems need to evolve with technology so that gaps canb be bridged to successfully repatriate more unidentified traced children.

In a recent judgement the Delhi High Court directed the use of facial recognition software. Due to the absence of facial recognition software on www.trackthemissingchild.gov.in, a number of recovered children were not getting united with their families. A plausible reason for this was a lack of coordinated information system and the information was getting updated variously by the police, CWCs, staff of child care institutions with minor differences in the spelling of the child or the place. This prevented matching of the children ‘found’ with those found to be ‘missing’.

On April 20, in one of the greatest victory in the chapter of missing children, 2,930 missing children recorded in the database were matched with ‘found’ database records after the Delhi Government ran the facial recognition software as per the directions of the Delhi High Court. Identities of the missing children were established and the Delhi Police made thorough efforts to repatriate each child, after ages of struggle. This chapter in the Capital now looks to be replicated all over the country to save thousands who are lost and subjected to abuse.

It is ironical that despite the Union Government’s push for Digital India, they have been unable to develop and integrate basic facial recognition software. All Child Welfare Committees, Police and Staff of Child Care Institutions must be equipped with computers, Internet facility and an operator to be able to use track child and facial recognition software to effectively trace children and digitalise all documents and information.