All it took was for Hema Devi to turn her back. In those few seconds, just enough time to close the front door to her home, her world was shattered.
'Until my last breath, I'll look for her'
NEW DELHI // All it took was for Hema Devi to turn her back. In those few seconds, just enough time to close the front door to her home, her world was shattered. Her 8-year-old daughter, Kajal Yadav, the second of four children, who was waiting patiently on the road for her mother, was gone.
It has been more than a year since Kajal was abducted. Her father, Raj Kumar Yadav, 38, has not stopped looking for her, exhausting every possible lead in an attempt to find his daughter.
He has advertised in newspapers, been on police raids to rescue abducted children and interviewed convicted traffickers in prison.
"Till my last breath, I will look for her," Mr Yadav, who sells children's clothes at the local market, said. "Till I die, I shall hope."
Kajal's disappearance underscores the inability to find abducted children in Delhi.
About 18 children go missing every day in the capital city, according to a report published last week by Child Rights and You (Cry), a non-governmental organisation that works with underprivileged children in India.
Last year, 6,250 children were taken from homes, playgrounds and the streets of Delhi. In the first four months of this year, 1,260 children were missing.
The problem seems to be getting worse. The organisation said that in 2009, the number of children reported missing in India was 60,000, up 36 per cent since 2005.
Most are thought to have been trafficked as child labourers, domestic help, or street beggars.
Employing a child under the age of 14 is illegal in India, but there are approximately 12.6 million child labourers in the country, of which 20 to 40 per cent work as domestic help in homes and businesses or in the hospitality industry, according to the International Labour Organisation, a UN agency. In other instances, they are sold into prostitution, or girls are taken as child brides. Children are often kidnapped from neighbourhoods on the periphery of Delhi, where they are more vulnerable because there is a smaller police presence and these communities have fewer amenities such as childcare centres.
They are part of migrant families from lower castes and neighbouring states such as Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. They live in unauthorised housing areas or slums. Lacking paperwork that establishes residency in another state, the parents, who work as ragpickers or factory workers, do not have access to government-sponsored childcare centres, where their children may be safer than playing in alleyways. Also, prejudice keeps some parents from enrolling their children in the centres.
"These people are also not aware of their rights if they are turned away by the police or from the childcare centres," said Yogita Verma Saighal, the director of volunteer action with Cry.
In the report, Cry also placed the blame on the lack of police action, saying finding missing children was not a priority for them.
"There are good policies and laws in the country," Ms Saighal said. "But they are not being implemented."
When a child is reported missing, police first assume he or she is a runaway. The parents are asked to return in a day or two, plenty of time for the child and their abductors to leave the city unnoticed.
After the Cry report was released, Delhi police said they would launch a special inquiry into all cases of missing children compiled by the organisation.
In many cases, the families of abducted children turn to each other for support. In Nangloi Lat town in western Delhi, Mr Yadav lives in a one-room flat he shares with his wife and two children. Outside, electricity poles are plastered with photos of lost children.
That is how Mr Yadav met Amit Gupta, 25, a rubbish collector whose 3-year-old son, Nikhil, disappeared last month.
His son was last seen playing with his cousin on his doorstep. The cousin, Mr Gupta said, left to go home but forgot to tell anyone that Nikhil was left alone outside.
"Every time I go to the police station they keep asking me where I have searched. They don't tell me where they have looked. I ask them: 'So many kids are going missing, where are they going?'"
Mr Gupta sent for 10 relatives from his village in Bihar to help find Nikhil. He put up posters, hired an autorickshaw equipped with a megaphone to make announcements about his son in the nearby slums and visited the police station frequently hoping for an update.
Mr Yadav, who called Mr Gupta, walked him through the bureaucratic process to register a missing persons report. To start an investigation, parents must provide the police with 24 photographs of the child and return after 48 hours to inform the police that their child is still missing. Only then will the police start an investigation.
"They are not aware of where to go if there is a missing child. They just instantly don't think the child has been kidnapped," said Jaya Singh, the head of Delhi operations for Cry.
While Mr Yadav and Mr Gupta have yet to find their children, some stories of abduction have happier endings.
Four days after she went missing, 9-year-old Raina [name has changed to protect her identity], was taken back to her village of Nangloi Jat from Agra, 230 kilometres away in Uttar Pradesh. Home to innumerable beggars and visited by foreign tourists who throng the city to see the Taj Mahal, Agra is a prime destination for trafficked children.
Raina was returned, at dawn on July 25, by two men to the market near her home where she first went missing.
Raina and her 5-year-old sister were playing on the street outside their home, when a woman asked them to accompany her to the nearby shops and offered them sweets as an incentive. Raina's little sister, who grew bored of the expedition, slipped away and returned home from the bus stop. Later, she told her mother that her sister had wandered off with a visitor. The family informed the police and eventually had the woman arrested. But Raina was not with her. She was in a room in Agra with another young boy and three girls.
"There was a fat man, and another man, and there was this woman. The fat man kept saying he was my father and this was my family now," Rania said.
The next day, when the parents went back to the police station to ask about their child's abduction, the woman in custody was missing. Less than 12 hours later, Raina was returned to her family.
"When I went away, I thought of my mother," she said. "I thought of all the ways she was kind to me. I wanted to come back but I was very confused about how to do that."