Mahatma Gandhi’s oft-quoted words, that “a nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members,” though uttered in 1931, can be applied to any era to measure the degree of civilization. In Roman law, the concept of patria potestas gave the male head of the family unlimited power over his wife, children, and grandchildren. He could even sell any of them into slavery or for prostitution. These powers, which were the same as over his slaves, lasted during his lifetime. As civilization progressed, women got a degree of emancipation, as did the slaves. Children, however, remained subject to the power of their father and on his death, of the eldest male member, till recent times.Roman law also had the concept of parenspatriae, which mandated that the sovereign is the legal protector of those unable to protect themselves. The concept forms part of most of the legal codes, with the exception of some theocracies. When a child is subjected to neglect or abuse by a parent, the state has the authority to take away the child from the parent and put it under its own care. That is as far as the concept goes. In practice, children remain vulnerable to parental abuse, apathy or incapability with the unscrupulous taking advantage of it.
India, with its huge disparities in income, social status and community support, is an obvious fertile ground for child exploitation. As it is still in the early stages of economic development, there is acceptance of low wages which make us competitive in international trade. This, by itself, makes child labour attractive. Begging has a positive connotation in India, with children in gurukuls sent out for alms. Buddha begged for alms and encouraged his followers to do so. Devotees at religious places consider it an act of merit to give to beggars there. Hence, the anti-begging law was never enforced in this country and it was finally made inoperative by the apex court.Eunuchs, or hijras, have an accepted role in social life particularly at birth and marriages. They now appear at road crossings and toll barriers too. Many hold them in a measure of awe and fear and rarely anyone wants to annoy them. With society becoming more affluent, their profession has also become more lucrative. They cannot have children of their own and unlike in the past, parents no longer hand over to them babies born with ambiguous sex. There are numerous published accounts of the unhygienic and dangerous castration performed on kidnapped boys to sustain the eunuchs’ numbers. International demand for adoption and poor enforcement of regulations has long resulted in demand for stolen children. Finally, the sex trade has always snatched children from a healthy life.
All these activities create a huge demand for hapless children who can be exploited for profit. Parents voluntarily meet some of this demand, out of greed or incapacity, surrendering custody of the child to the exploiter. One shudders to think of a tender child, living under parental care and affection, suddenly finding herself at the total mercy of an unscrupulous person. One would think that the society and the state would bend backwards to prevent this catastrophe from happening to any child in our country. Yet, during seven decades of independence, the number of children stolen for begging, sex trade, castration, labour and adoption has increased manifold. The collective indifference of India to this calamity falling on her children has been making headlines in other countries and international bodies. It is no consolation that many other countries, particularly China, also suffer from this crime. The one-child policy raised a huge demand as well as supply for children in China. The documentary — China’s Stolen Children — by Jezza Neumann, shows how all children were not actually stolen. People were keen to adopt a second child while single mothers and parents with an ‘illegal’ second child were willing to sell one, creating a class of middlemen. The difference with India, however, was that the buyer, whether of a stolen child or one willingly given up for adoption, considered himself blessed and brought it up with care and comfort. India’s stolen children are rarely that lucky.
The BBC reported last month that in India one child goes missing every eight minutes, that is 180 per day, or more than 65,000 every year. The response of the system to this tragedy is lukewarm. The Supreme Court ordered in 2013 that an FIR should be registered immediately on receipt of a complaint of a missing child. It is, however, followed more in the breach. Parents are often rebuked for not taking care of the child and counselled that the child must have run away because of ill treatment or as a result of a romantic relationship with someone. This may be true in some cases but its wider application results in stolen children being written off forever.
The difference between the demands of the situation and the results of the efforts is starkly huge. The Ministry of Women and Child Development of the Government of India has a website http:/khoyapaya.gov.in for tracking missing children. Its dashboard shows that during the last twelve months, less than 1,900 missing children have been reported on it. This is miniscule as compared to the 65,000 reported to the police every year and many more that remain unreported. The police have their own story to tell. Their multifarious duties stretching from traffic to homicide, and from dowry disputes to managing political agitations and pandemic lockdowns, leaves them with little time for a complaint where it is not even certain whether a crime has been committed. Then there is a contrary problem where rumours about child-lifters have led to lynching of innocent persons. The bigger part of the problem, however, is that there is no standard operating procedure to be followed for missing children. It is mostly left to individual initiative.
One laudable effort in recent times was when 3000 missing children were identified with face-recognition technology. However, this method also has limitations when the time gap is very long. The advent of cheap and quick DNA matching has opened new opportunities for identifying stolen children and reuniting them with their parents. All parents whose child has gone missing at any time in the past will be advised to go to the State Forensic Science Laboratory (SFSL) and give their DNA sample. Each SFSL will share this data on a regular basis with the Central Forensic Science Laboratory (CFSL), which will compile a national database of DNA profiles of parents of missing children and make it available online to SFSLs. Whenever a child is found in a raid on a workplace or a place of illegal sexual activity, its DNA sample would be taken. Similarly, the DNA sample of all children found with eunuchs’ groups will be taken. The SFSL will transmit all these children’s DNA database to CFSL for a national database of ‘found’ children to be used for instant matching where parents report the missing child after a delay. Before the next Children’s Day, we can start on this journey so that our stolen children do not keep accusing us in the words of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “Cry of the Children”: When we sob aloud, the human creatures near us/Pass by, hearing not, or answer not a word.