NEW DELHI // A year after her now eight-year-old daughter disappeared, Raj Rani saw a rag-clad little girl begging outside a temple in Amritsar in India's northern state of Punjab. "My neighbour pointed out that the girl resembled Priya. I stopped and stared at her. My heart was pounding as I recognised her," said Mrs Rani, who had suffered from depression after she lost her daughter. She called her husband and other relatives, who arrived soon after, and then approached the girl, who did not initially recognise her mother. "I ran towards Priya - the beggars grew suspicious and became alert. However, I caught hold of the child, who had started crying. I told her that I was her real mother and had lost her. Then she quickly clung on to me."
Whether the reunion was destiny or coincidence, the reality is that such good fortune evades thousands of other Indian parents whose children have been abducted and forced into begging. While Slumdog Millionaire, the upbeat award-winning film about impoverished children in India, is winning international acclaim, the reality of these youngsters is grim. According to police statistics, 44,000 children disappear in India each year. Many are eventually recovered, but one fourth remain untraceable, police say. The true number of abducted children is believed to be much higher, with some estimates putting it at up to one million a year.
Organised begging that involves the abduction of children - known as the begging mafia - is common in India, with the states of Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Bihar, New Delhi and Orissa having the most severe problem. "Thousands of cases of child abduction and forced [begging] don't see the light of the day. The children belong to all economic sections. It is unfortunate that instead of schools they have to beg on the roads and nobody talks about them," said Swami Agnivesh, a child-rights activist from New Delhi. "The beggar mafia is a huge industry and the perpetrators get away scot-free every time. There is always collusion between the lawmakers and lawbreakers. Some accountability in the system is needed to stop this menace." A report by India's human rights commission said these stolen children are "working as cheap forced labour in illegal factories, establishments, homes, exploited as sex slaves or forced into the child porn industry, as camel jockeys in the Gulf countries, as child beggars in begging rackets, as victims of illegal adoptions or forced marriages, or perhaps, worse than any of these, as victims of organ trade and even grotesque cannibalism".
Most of the victims are between two and eight years of age. They are often not fed so that they cry continuously, enticing passers-by to give them money. After being abducted, the children are taught begging techniques. "They are taught the ways and nuances of begging such as the most appropriate place to beg, the kind of people one should approach, the kind of dialogues and mannerisms that would make everyone sympathise," said Mufti Imran, a researcher with the non-governmental organisation Save the Children. "The more a person is tortured or tormented, the more unfortunate he looks - all this will invoke more sympathy among the people who will then give them alms, and religious places are the perfect to extract more," said Mr Imran, explaining why the beggars seek out places of worship. Child beggars do not get to keep their takings but rather have to hand them over to the group controlling their area at the end of every day. "On average, a beggar earns two to three US dollars [Dh7-11]. They get food in temples and masjids and sleep in public places," Mr Imran said. The Bombay Beggary Prevention Act of 1959 makes begging illegal, though the law has not been effective in curbing the practice. The Delhi government is considering an official ban on begging and the imposition of a $25 fine on those found giving money to beggars before it hosts the 2010 Commonwealth Games. About $3.6 million is the annual amount collected by beggars in Mumbai, according to the Maharashtra state government. In Delhi, where an estimated 30,000 child beggars roam the streets, the figure is even higher, approaching $7m annually, according to researchers. Adults are also kidnapped and forced into begging. Often, to entice empathy among potential contributors, their limbs are amputated or they are disfigured with acid. Sometimes blood vessels are stitched to block blood supply to parts of the body, bringing about gangrene. In 2007, Indian news channel CNN-IBN conducted an undercover investigation of the doctor-beggar mafia connection. Three doctors working in government hospitals in Delhi were filmed by hidden camera striking a deal with the beggar mafia. Police filed charges against the doctors who had been given $200 to amputate the limbs of individuals who were abducted. As for the case of Raj Rani and her daughter, police arrested a female beggar known as Jeeto and charged her with abduction and other crimes. Jeeto, however, is part of a gang of beggars, and those behind the abduction remain at large. Her case is to be heard in court next month. "We have arrested Jeeto and have launched a manhunt for the other gang members," said Manohar Lal, the investigating officer. firstname.lastname@example.org