“The alarming rise in cases of missing girls, kidnappings along with human trafficking in India has cast a dark shadow over the nation's conscience,” says a report by Child Rights and You (CRY), a Non Governmental Organisation that works towards ensuring health, education, and safety of children. The report, which refers to the data published by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), states that the number of missing/kidnapped/trafficked girls points to a “deeper societal issue.”
According to the NCRB report, in 2022 on an average every day more than 172 girls went missing, another 170 girls were kidnapped, and almost three girls were trafficked. While more than the number of trafficked girls were rescued in the same year, a large number of missing and kidnapped or abducted girls remained untraced and unrecovered.
Trafficking is considered a ‘hidden’ criminal activity and hence, reliable data on its extent is not readily available. Known or reported cases form only a subset of all trafficking cases. Accurate numbers of children trafficked for various purposes are hence almost impossible to obtain.
The NCRB started collecting data on human trafficking cases from the Anti-Human Trafficking Units (AHTUs) across the country in 2016. Since then it has been publishing such data under a separate chapter titled “Human Trafficking”. It also details the separate numbers for victims according to age and gender.
According to the NCRB report, in 2022, across India, a total of 2,250 cases of human trafficking were registered and 6,036 victims were identified, of which 2,878 were children, including 1,059 girls.
According to the report, 1,190 girls were rescued from trafficking the same year. This is 131 more than the number of girl victims of trafficking in that year, meaning girls trafficked in previous years were also among the rescued ones.
When compared to the total population in the country, the number of trafficked girls may seem small. But combining these numbers with those of kidnapped/abducted/missing girls tell us a different story.
Overall, an alarming 62,099 girls were reported as kidnapped or abducted in 2022, say the NCRB statistics. Added to this number is the unrecovered reported girl victims of kidnapping or abduction from previous years, which was 40,219.
Thus, the total number of girls reported kidnapped or abducted by 2022 increased to 1,02,318. Out of these, 63,513 girls were recovered alive and 590 girls were recovered dead in the same year. It leaves 38,215 girls from the reported kidnapped or abducted unrecovered by the end of that year.
Last year, another 62,946 girls were reported missing. When added to the 31,133 girls reported missing but yet untraced or unrecovered from the previous years, the total number of reported missing girls rises up to 94,079.
Out of these, 60,281 girls were recovered or traced in the same year, leaving 33,798 girls untraced or unrecovered by the end of that year. It is possible that many of the missing and kidnapped girls and children might have been victims of child trafficking.
A matter of grave concern is that girls constitute a significantly higher proportion of missing and kidnapped children in India. In 2022, of the total 83,350 missing children 62,946 were girls. That means more than 75% of missing children were girls. The proportion of girl children in total missing children has been rising from about 65% in 2016 to 75% in 2022 at the all-India level. This has been the trend for all the states mentioned above.
The phenomenon of more girls going missing when compared to boys could be driven by several factors such as demand for domestic help, commercial sex work, and girls themselves running away due to domestic violence/abuse and neglect. The missing boys’ numbers are also of concern as demand for child labour has increased in the face of shortage of labour during the pandemic.
The high numbers of girls reported as missing or kidnapped is also attributed to elopement, particularly among teenage girls seeking love marriages. In many cases, these girls choose to leave their homes voluntarily to marry partners of their choice, often against the wishes of their families or societal norms. While some elopements may indeed involve consensual decisions by the girls involved, others may be coerced or manipulated, leading to concerns about the safety and well-being of the individuals involved.
The NCRB data underscores a disturbing reality — the vulnerability of young girls to abduction and trafficking. It is disheartening to note that these incidents often go unreported or are inadequately addressed, perpetuating a cycle of injustice.
In 2008, the officially reported figure for missing children was 7,650 cases in India as per the NCRB. According to CRY (Child Rights and You), the issue had little recognition when the NGO started its intervention in the issue in 2008. Back then, even filing a first information report (FIR) in the case of a missing child was a challenge. A timely FIR and investigation is the most important step in quick rescue and recovery of missing children. CRY, with the support of its partner organisations and networks, started working on the issue meticulously and engaged in continuous dialogues with relevant stakeholders based on evidence, cases, and ground experiences.
The infamous Nithari case also evoked a national-level deliberation on the issue of missing children and its seriousness. The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) took cognisance of the issue of missing children and now issues time-to-time guidelines and directions on the same.
The issue of missing children gained credence over time and the number of officially recorded cases has gone up considerably. There is an almost 1000% increase in the number of cases of missing children reported annually between 2008 and 2022, as per the NCRB data.
Over more than a decade of CRY’s work with cases of missing children, the NGO says it has observed that although there have been many proactive measures taken by different departments and authorities, there have been several constraints due to which the situation remains grim. One significant observation was that the authorities often did not see any linkage between missing and trafficking of children. As a result, there is no concrete plan for coordinated intervention at the destination, transit, and source areas with regard to missing and trafficked children.
Incidents of missing children are not uniform across the country. Some parts of the country report higher incidents — such areas could be either the source, transit, or destination for trafficking. For example, West Bengal and Madhya Pradesh reported the highest number of missing girls – nearly 10,000 girls in each state – in 2022. Likewise Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, and Bihar reported more than 5,000 missing girls in each state, while Delhi and Odisha each reported more than 4,000 missing girls in the same year.
There are many factors contributing to children going missing, being kidnapped or abducted, and getting trafficked. They are multifaceted, ranging from economic disparities to gender-based discrimination that leave girls disproportionately exposed to exploitation.
Poverty is also a significant driver of child trafficking in India. Poverty and lack of opportunities for disadvantaged communities push vulnerable families into desperation, making them susceptible to traffickers promising better lives for their children, especially during the pandemic when families lost their sources of income. This made it easier for traffickers to appease such affected families with jobs for their children, which led them to agree to send their children away with the traffickers.
Limited access to education leaves children more susceptible to exploitation, as they are unaware of their rights and potential dangers. Also, gender discrimination in Indian society makes girls particularly susceptible to trafficking, especially for sexual exploitation and forced labour. The demand for cheap labour in various sectors and the flourishing underground sex trade perpetuate the trafficking of children.
According to CRY, ground experience shows that the children from vulnerable backgrounds were at greater risk of going missing, being kidnapped, and getting trafficked. Domestic abuse, lack of freedom at home, absence of social interactions, and stress could be the possible reasons for children to run away from their homes.
CRY also points out that one thing that has been seen to be practically working on the ground is vigilance by the community and the parents for preventing incidents of children going missing.
Even the Integrated Child Protection Scheme (ICPS) has recognised the significance of prevention along with the focus on the processes followed after a child has gone missing.
The complex and multifaceted nature of child trafficking in India demands a collective effort to protect children, especially girls, from exploitation and abuse. It requires a multi-pronged approach that tackles these underlying factors.
India must confront this crisis head-on by enhancing law enforcement efforts and ensuring that cases are thoroughly investigated. The laws and guidelines are too strict and there are gaps in implementation of the same.
The Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) framed by the Ministry of Women and Child Development are very well laid down; however, there is lacuna in the implementation of the guidelines. If all the relevant stakeholders work in coordination, then there would be greater chances of tracing missing children at the earliest.
State governments can initiate regular awareness campaigns on missing and trafficked children in the communities, schools, markets, railway stations, and other relevant areas.
Considering most children go missing in the age group 14-18 years, state governments may specifically design a programme for adolescent protection and awareness. This programme can be structured around existing programmes by forming community groups for children belonging to the above-mentioned age group.
Proper training and orientation of the concerned staff and authorities dealing with the issue of missing children need to be carried out by states.
The law enforcement agencies should make strong charges against the accused based on the statement of victims and other circumstantial evidence. All rescued children should be produced before the Child Welfare Committee and appropriate authorities as early as possible based on the existing guidelines and SOPs.
Special drives by police such as Operation Smile have shown a positive result towards ensuring child protection. These special drives however, have been discontinued. Such drives should be implemented again so that the risk to a child‘s life gets reduced and an atmosphere of safety and security is ensured.
Closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras should be installed in schools, streets, and other locations as a monitoring mechanism to control the rapid increase in crime against children and ensure their safety and protection.
Governments, NGOs, communities, and individuals must collaborate to create a safe and nurturing environment for our girls and children. By addressing the root causes, strengthening law enforcement, and providing comprehensive support, we can work towards a future where every girl and child is free from the horrors of trafficking and can fulfil their potential with dignity and rights upheld.
Data for all graphics sourced from NCRB Report 2022.