Sellers at the red light: Whose children are they anyway?
Manoj watches cynically from the sidelines of a street in east Delhi's Mayur Vihar as five-year-old Shahrukh Kasim peddles pens and his elder sister begs for alms at the red light.
Keeping an eye on them from a distance is their mother, but 22-year-old Manoj, who ran away from his home in Mughalsarai, Uttar Pradesh, seven years ago, is unimpressed and disbelieving. "There are gangs who keep a close watch on these kids at these signals and when the police comes to rescue them, they claim them to be their children," said Manoj, who sells flowers for a living.
Speaking with the distrust of somebody way beyond his years, Manoj said many of these children were trafficked from other states and the women at the traffic signals just pretend to be their parents. That assumption about Shahrukh and his mother may be unfair but it reflects the reality of the thousands of children trafficked in the Indian capital, many of whom go missing and are never found, say activists.
According to a recent study, "Missing Children In Delhi 2018", by Alliance for People's Rights (APR) and NGO Child Rights and You (CRY), 26,761 children went missing in Delhi in the last five years. Of these, only 9,727 could be traced, the report stated. That is, of every 10 children going missing in the national capital, six remain untraced.
According to the report based on National Crime Records Bureau data and RTI replies from the police, 63 per cent of missing children in Delhi were untraceable, almost double the 30 per cent figure for the rest of the country. Soha Moitra, CRY regional director (north), said the rehabilitation of young trafficked children poses a "big challenge".
"The tracing of a trafficked child can take more time if he was trafficked at a very young age and hence, cannot remember much about his home. An updated face-recognition technology is underway and the police is confident that it will aid in the rehabilitation of children who were trafficked as infants," she said. Manoj is one in the statistical profile of trafficked and missing children. He was rescued by the police when he first came to Delhi to escape an abusive father but ran away from home again.
"My father still does not know I am alive. I will never return to that life and I would have escaped a hundred times from that life," he said. Oblivious to the harsh truths of Manoj's everyday life, young Shahrukh said he does not remember a life outside the streets of Mayur Vihar.
He dreams big, hoping to become a professional salesperson and get a job in the big mall, but is right now content selling pens under his mother's watchful eyes. When Shahrukh's mother was asked for the reason behind letting her son sell pens at the traffic signal, she said he earns more than her.
"People prefer to give him more money out of sympathy than they give me and he is supporting his family in this way, that is his responsibility too," she said, refusing to identify herself or her seven-year-old daughter who begs at the same traffic signal. Shahrukh, she said, brings about Rs 2,400 per month to support the family of four.
The National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) found over 600 children begging or selling at 36 traffic signals across Delhi. But that is just a sampling with the real number being exponentially higher, said an official. Many of these children are put to begging and selling pens, flowers or balloons among other things at traffic signals by their parents while many have been trafficked to Delhi, the official said.
NCPCR member Yashwant Jain said the child rights body has written several times to various officials as well as the chief minister to step up the rehabilitation plans for children at the signals, but to no result. "The matter keeps getting pushed from one department to another and no one is willing to take accountability," he said.
"There are times when child welfare committees went to rescue the children but NGOs got involved and alleged that we were separating the child from the parent, which was untrue," Jain said. He added that many families have made it their business to send their children for begging or selling things at traffic signals.
"You can always spot an elder watching over a child as he or she sells at the traffic signals. These families believe that there is no point in sending these children to school as they are already earning livelihood for their families," Jain said. Another issue faced by the NCPCR teams is determining the veracity of those claiming to be the children's parents.
"It is very difficult to determine the origin of the child. The child might have been trafficked or stolen from somewhere else and might not know that the people claiming to be his parents are actually his traffickers," another NCPCR official said.