The administration of Telangana's Mahbubnagar district has been on an aggressive drive to crackdown on child marriages that are prevalent in many areas of the district.
According to the police, several hundred underage children get married off each year in the villages.
The district is already witnessing a serious problem of child labour and according to Rema Rajeswari, Superintendent of Police, Mahbubnagar, the issue of child marriages is equally bad.
"The main reason is the economic status of the district. It has been a traditionally backward district for many years now, and has also been receiving the Backward Regions Grant Fund (BRGF)," she says.
"The district is also drought-prone, and there is not a lot of economic activity in the region - either agricultural or industrial," she adds.
She also cites the prevalence of migration in the area, referred to as 'Palamuru labour', where several villagers migrate to neighbouring states, to look for work, mostly to Mumbai.
"When the parents migrate, the children are left behind, and it is often upon girls to take care of the family. As soon as the child reaches puberty, the girls are married off," Rajeswari says.
"Due to this, girls as young as 11 and 12 are getting trapped. Often, the girls do not even have a say, and are forced by the family," she adds.
With the help of NGOs and the District Child Protection Unit (DCPU), the police has been addressing the issue for a few months now.
"The numbers were so huge when we started it," Rajeswari exclaims.
A few months ago, the police launched a campaign titled, ‘Balyaniki Raksha - Child-Friendly Police’ initiative, to address the various problems faced by children in the district.
G Chandrasekhar, the director of the campaign, says that there has been a noticeable change since then.
"It is still a prevalent problem, especially in remote villages. However, we have been holding several counselling sessions from the Panchayat level to the Collector level, and the awareness has definitely increased among the public," he says.
"We are getting more calls on the helpline number (1098) that we set up," he adds.
According to data, around 400 children were rescued last year, while more than 3,000 distress calls were received.
When a distress call comes in, a Child Marriage Prohibition Officer (CMPO) is alerted, who visits the village, and counsels the parents of the bride and the groom, Chandrasekhar says.
"However, sometimes the parents don't agree to stop the marriage and we are forced to book a case and resort to legal action in such cases. We are also noticing some incidents where the parents take the child to the outskirts of Hyderabad or a relative's place and marry them there to avoid scrutiny," says Rajeswari.
At present, the police is conducting an intensive survey to get more detailed figures on the issue.
"We have village police officers deputed, who keeps visiting a particular village or a set of villages, and gets in touch with the local community. This way, even if an incident occurs and the child is not able to contact us, the information gets passed on," Rajeswari adds.
However, the real test for the program, would be in the next few months.
"Most of the girls are married off after they complete their intermediate education in the month of April or May. Ground work is being done right now and we have identified areas where there is a higher chance of such incidents," says Rajeswari.
Chandrasekhar agrees, adding, "Summer time is the main season for marriages. Our actual work starts then. Hopefully, we will see lesser incidents this year, while compared to last."