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India's missing children

Hundreds of thousands of destitute children disappear every year. Here is the story of one.

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.”

(Here you can watch Meena's story.)


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.”