West Bengal reports second-highest number of missing children: NCRB

Credits: NDTV

Debosmita Ghosh

West Bengal, April 18: In a pandemic year, when people were under lockdowns, India reported a total of 54515 children missing when people were forced to stay inside their houses. According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), 42240 were girls and the other 12268 were boys and 7 transgender children.

However in 2017, India reported 56569 children missing among whom 17900 were boys, 38566 were girls and the rest 103 were transgender children. In 2018, the number of missing children reported was 60237 of which 42843 were girls, 17235 were boys and 159 were transgender children. In 2019, the number went higher up with 66470 children reported missing of whom 47773 were girls, 18682 were boys and 15 were transgender children. Considering the increase in the number of missing children over the year, 2020 saw a dip in the numbers with 54515 children being reported to be missing. 

The very same year 7648 children from West Bengal went missing. The state reported 6,640 girls and 1,008 boys to be missing with no number on the transgender children. In 2017 and 2018, the numbers were 8,178 and 8,205 respectively. The West Bengal data for 2019 is not available in the 2019 edition of Crime in India because the state was late in sending the data to the National Crime Records Bureau. However, in 2017 and 2018, 2047 and 1706 boys went missing respectively, while the number of girls who went missing was, 6131 and 6499. Even though in 2020, the state showed a slight decrease in the number of missing children, the number of missing girls only went high with 6640 reported being missing.

West Bengal has the second-highest number of missing children after Madhya Pradesh according to Crime in India released by NCRB. In 2020, Madhya Pradesh reported 10110 missing children. Different individuals from different organisations have pointed to different reasons as to why and how these children go missing. 

West Bengal Commission for Protection of Child Rights (WBCPCR) works with police officials to recover children who go missing. Most of these girls who go missing are sold for sex work in metropolitan urban cities. Aranya Sen, consultant at WBCPCR says, “The parents of these girls usually send their children with their relatives to urban cities for better education facilities. Instead, these relatives sell these girls for sex work.” Many girls between the age of 15 and 18 years who go missing elope with their partners and get married. Later, their partners sell them to the middlemen who in turn sell these girls to brothel owners. “Initially when these girls elope with their partners, the FIR is filed for them to be missing but if they aren’t found within 4 months, the case is then registered under Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POSCO),” says Sen.  Most of the partners with whom the girls elope are between the age of 21 and 25 years and are jobless. For them selling these girls seems like an easy way to earn money. 

Sen also throws light on the reasons why boys go missing. He says that most boys who go missing are between the age of 12 and 16 years. They are usually sold for cheap labour in factories and mines. The cases of boys that are transferred to WBCPCR, 70%-80% of them are resolved and they are usually bought back to their homes. But that’s not the case with the girls, most of the girls don’t return to their homes. According to the NCRB data, as of  2020, a total of 14071 children were missing of which 7937 were traced back in 2020. 

Sawanti Oarao, Babujot village near Odlabari of West Bengal went missing from her home 15 years ago when she was 14 years old. The local police, the state commission for women and children as well as different NGO’s have tried every possible way to find her only to return empty-handed every time. Her father and brother still hope to get her back even though her whereabouts are unknown till date. 

Pratima Joshi founder of Siliguri Nari Shakti  which is a NGO that works for women empowerment points out to other reasons as to why the number of missing children is so high in West Bengal. She also works with 21 other NGO’s in the region of North Bengal to form the Anti-Trafficking Network which works to stop trafficking of women and children. According to her, “There is definitely a point wherein these children are sent as domestic helps to other states but we can’t ignore the point of sex trafficking. The demand for younger girls is very high and younger the girl higher is her price which is also why the number of missing girls between the age of 10 and 14 years is high.”

According to Raju Nepali, founder of Duars ExpressMail, a NGO that works to rescue trafficked children and women in North Bengal and Sikkim, most of the children are trafficked to Delhi Sikkim, Punjab, Mumbai and sometimes even Nepal. He says that most of these young girls are sold as sex workers or domestic helps for cheap labour. 

Sabita Oarao, 19-years old of Bagrakote, a village on the outskirts of Odlabari near Jalpaiguri in West Bengal, recounted being trafficked at the age of 14 years. The man who took her with him promising her to provide proper education, came to their village church and sought to stay there. A few days later, he came to her house and took her with him saying that he’d provide her with education and books and that he had got her mother’s permission as well. They went to the railway station, took a train to Siliguri and then later to what she later came to know as Azamgarh in Bihar.  They had caught him red-handed of sexually assaulting Sabita. The NGO workers initially failed to recognise her because the man had cut her hair short to make her look like a boy. Raju Nepali had rescued Sabita from Bihar.

While there can’t be any denying that trafficking is a major reason as to why children go missing but girls and boys eloping from their homes is another reason. While the numbers of these children is much less as compared to that of other reasons, there can’t be denying that there are girls and boys who elope from their homes and get married. Deepa Orao from Odlabari ran away with her partner three years back when she was 15 years old. She was traced back by the local police within two months but a year later she eloped with her partner again. This time when she returned home when she was five months pregnant and was abandoned by her partner. Later, she gave birth to her child and is bringing up the child all by herself with the help of her mother. 

Raju points out that most of the children who go missing are from rural and sub-urban parts of the state. “You won’t really see that a large number of children from cities go missing and that is because they know about child trafficking and are aware of the consequences. A major reason why it is so prevalent in rural parts is because the children from rural parts are not aware of child trafficking,” says Raju. 

Activists say that sometimes, poverty and lack of money and food, push some parents to send their children with the traffickers in the hope that their children would get proper food and education but only to realise later that their children have been sold as sex workers or domestic helps in some distant city. Pratima Joshi says, “It is really sad when parents come to us to help them find their children because they had good intentions when they were sending their children. But later when they realise that their kids have been sold, it makes them guilty of makes such choices.”

While there could be various reasons that could be pointed as to why and how these children go missing but there’s one underlying reason and that’s lack of money and the problems that people face due to the lack of it. Parents are forced to send their children away in the hope that they’ll receive proper education and food. Relatives who sell these children also suffer from lack of money which is why they resort to such means to earn some money. 

“I have been working in the field for more than 16-17 years but with each passing day, it only becomes more difficult. One major reason for human trafficking is the need for cheap labour and in metropolitan cities and the lack of money and food for the people living in rural areas. Another reason is high demand of young girls for sex work. We might work day in and day out, but we still can’t stop human trafficking but can only control it to some extent,” bemoans Raju.