Sasidharan, a Writer at the Government Hospital police station in Chennai, found it hard to contain his curiosity as he prepared a note to aid the legal department in opposing the bail application of a woman named Aiswarya, one of the people accused in a child abduction case.
Aiswarya and four others had been arrested on September 18, in relation to the abduction of a child from the Egmore Children’s Hospital. During the course of their investigation, police officials further discovered that the five were also allegedly involved in at least one other case of child abduction in Chennai.
The work of preparing the note itself was routine, something Sasidharan had done for innumerable cases before. What drove Sasidharan’s curiosity was that Aiswarya had said in her confession statement to the police that she had no family members or relatives to rely on.
So, Sasidharan and other officials wondered, who was behind the bail plea filed on Aiswarya’s behalf? Their curiosity was further aroused by the fact that the accused’s lawyers refused to provide details on who the person or persons behind the bail plea were.
The bail plea, according to the police officials, indicates the existence of a well-funded network behind those accused of child abduction, which is ready to splurge money to get them out on bail. Some investigating officials are of a strong view that all the five accused arrested on September 18 had given false statements to forestall any investigations into a larger network behind them. All five people, sources say, claimed to have been involved in the abductions for varying personal compulsions, and denied any larger racket or trail of persons involved in the case.
However, these officials add, senior police officers have proved more than willing to take these statements at face value, so as not to complicate matters and extend the investigations further. This has effectively blocked any further probe into the possibility of a well-organised network behind this gang.
“What they have told us about the situation and the reasons for abducting the children were all lies. They have just diverted our attention, guarding others in the network. But our senior officers are happy to go by the statements given by them,” a police official who was part of the investigation said on condition of anonymity.
According to data provided on the Government of India portal for missing children – trackthemissingchild.gov.in – at the time of writing this article, 2,329 children were reported missing from Tamil Nadu in the last one year. In the 24-hour period starting from Friday morning, the website recorded nine children missing from the state, and a total of 183 children in the last month.
Data gathered by the Chennai police shows that 517 children went missing in 2017 in the city till October 20. Of these, 413 children were traced, while a further 104 children are yet to be found. In 2016, of the 611 children who went missing, 579 were traced while 32 still remain untraced. And of the 546 children who went missing in 2015, only 529 were traced.
Police investigators say they have strong reasons to suspect the involvement of a network behind a number of child abduction cases reported across Tamil Nadu. This conviction was further reinforced when the Madurai police arrested another gang of alleged child abductors in the past week.
According to sources, this gang, after persistent interrogation, have provided investigators with a list of 14 agents across Tamil Nadu, who are involved in procuring buyers for abducted children.
Officials say that the majority of those purchasing abducted children are childless couples. “More than 80% of the abducted children are sold to childless parents. They take minimum of Rs 5 lakh for a child and the rate goes up according to the financial status of the parents who approach them. A small percentage is still being sold to beggars and there is also information regarding girl children being sold to prostitution houses,” the police official said.
Last year, the Madras High Court had come down heavily on the state government and the police department, while hearing a habeas corpus petition filed by Exnora Nirmal in relation to two children who had been abducted from Chennai.
“If we lose faith in the local police, then we have to think some other ways to deal with the issue,” the Madras High Court had observed, while seeking urgent action from the police to trace the two missing children.
However, there are doubts being raised on the seriousness with which the Chennai police are investigating these two cases registered with the Flower Bazaar and Esplanade police stations in February and March last year. According to sources, vital information gathered from CCTV footage has been ignored by senior police officials in the Flower Bazaar case.
The CCTV visuals in the case revealed that a Hyundai Verna was used for the abduction of a nine-month-old girl child from the pavement of Walltax Road on February 29 last year. A youth, wearing a white shirt and grey pants, who was driving the car, had abducted the baby and handed it over to a woman sitting inside the car.
One police officer, who was also involved in the arrest on September 18 this year, had spotted the accused and identified the car in the footage as a black Verna. However, other senior officials insisted that the car was maroon-coloured, and only records of Maroon Verna cars were collected from various toll booths.
The officer is also learnt to have traced a black Verna passing the Red Hills tollbooth at around 5.30pm on February 29, approximately 1.45 hours after the infant was abducted from Wall Tax Road. The officer had passed on the license plate number and details of the car to the Flower Bazaar police, but no follow up action was allegedly taken on the matter.
When contacted, the Chennai City Commissioner of Police, AK Viswanathan said that he would seek the investigation records of these abduction cases and would speed up the investigation process into them.
What is troubling about these cases is that this is not the first time that organised child abduction rackets have been found to be working in Tamil Nadu. In 2005, a major international trafficking racket involving an adoption agency called the Malaysian Social Service Centre had come to light.
Investigations into the case by the Central Crime Branch found that hundreds of children had been trafficked over more than a decade to multiple countries including Australia, Finland, the US and the Netherlands. The case was subsequently taken over by the CBI, which helped trace some of these missing children from countries across the globe.