September 11, 2008
© Photographer: Pazham | Agency: Dreamstime.com
No way home for India’s stolen kids
More and more Indian children are being kidnapped and sold for adoption,
while others are trafficked into slavery or the sex trade — but the police
By Gethin Chamberlain
THE GUARDIAN, NEW DELHI
Thursday, Sep 11, 2008, Page 9
Rajesh was 14 when he disappeared. Beneath a mop of jet black hair, his
clear brown eyes glance sideways out of the picture that is all his family
have left of him.
He was his parents’ only son and they doted and relied on him. One morning
in April last year, his mother, Sunita, asked him to go out to fetch water.
She remembers him loading the empty plastic containers on to his cart and
setting off cheerfully down the lane. It was the last time she saw him.
Rajesh, like tens of thousands of other Indian children every year, had
“It would have been better that he died,” she says, tugging at her headscarf
and dabbing at tears. “At least then I would have known, but now I don’t
know whether he is alive or dead.”
Official figures show that 44,000 children disappear each year in India.
Some are eventually recovered, but one in four remain untraced. Yet, with
many parents reporting that police are reluctant to register cases or
investigate and other parents complicit in the sale of their own children,
the true figure is believed to be much higher — with some estimates of up to
a million children every year.
The human cost
・ Official figures record that 44,000 Indian children go missing every year
and 11,000 are never traced.
・ There are more than 400 million children in India.
・ A UNICEF report claims trafficking in people occurs in the majority of
the countries in South Asia.
・ According to the Delhi-based National Center for Missing Children,
prospective parents from Western countries have paid up to US$7,500 to adopt
・ There are an estimated 11 million abandoned children in India.
Investigations by Indian authorities and aid agencies have found that many
children are kidnapped and sold for adoption, into slavery, or worse. They
believe that some end up in the UK.
A new report by India’s human rights commission says that while some of the
children are killed almost immediately, others are “working as cheap forced
labor in illegal factories/establish ments/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.”
‘Children were renamed and prospective adoptive parents were presented with
faked pictures of mothers they believed were offering the children up for
Every day there are pictures in the classified sections of children who have
vanished. “Search for kidnapped boy,” one ad began last week. “Abhayjeet
Singh, 13, 5’2’. Kidnapped on 13 August in Prashant Vihar.”
Hundreds more are listed in the books of organizations trying to help the
parents who search for years in the hope of finding their lost children:
Anikat, eight months old, missing since July 2003; Sultana, 5, disappeared
in 2007; Nitesh Kumar, 7; Sunita, 5 ... the list goes on.
The plight of the disappeared has been brought home to India by revelations
about the abduction and sale of children, often to order. An adoption agency
and orphanage trading in Chennai as Malaysian Social Services is accused of
acquiring children from criminal gangs who had taken them from the poorest
parts of southern India.
The children were renamed and prospective adoptive parents were presented
with faked pictures of mothers they believed were offering the children up
for adoption. Seven people have been arrested after some of the children
were found in Australia. A previous investigation into another Indian agency
revealed that two children adopted by an Australian couple had been sold by
their drunken and abusive father without their mother’s knowledge for the
equivalent of US$40.
It is estimated that there are 11 million abandoned children in
the country. Last year the Indian government’s Central Adoption Resource
Authority announced that it planned to make international adoption easier,
especially for British parents.
But it is those children who have been taken from loving homes without the
consent of their parents that is causing the concern. Last week, Dan Toole,
the South Asia regional director of UNICEF, said he believed the UK was one
of the main destination countries, a view supported by India’s National
Center for Missing Children.
“In India you also have children being trafficked to Europe, to the USA, to
the Far East, primarily for labor and sexual exploitation,” Toole said.
International adoption was also a serious problem, he added, though
researchers were hampered by a lack of official statistics.
Asked if some of those offered for adoption ultimately ended up in the UK,
he replied: “I would guess so but we don’t have numbers on them. I know
international adoptions are happening in India. [Parents] come from almost
every Western nation.”
Anuj Bhargava, managing trustee of the National Center for Missing Children,
said that in most cases of international adoption, parents were unaware of
what had happened.
Referring to international adoption in general, he said: “In a lot of cases,
children are being sent to foreign countries. We have been contacted by
children who have been kidnapped in India and adopted through an orphanage
by foreign parents.”
By the time the children were old enough to explain what had happened, it
was too late, he said.
“A lot of cases of this type are happening. I believe people from abroad pay a lot of money to adopt a child.” he said.
For the families whose children are snatched to meet this demand, the
heartache is unbearable. Many search for years in the hope of finding their
Sitting in a small room in the village of Neb Sarai in south Delhi, Sunita
stares at the picture of Rajesh. She is a small woman, dressed in a black
sari decorated in red and orange detail. She is unwell today, because
yesterday she walked 13km to the satellite city of Gurgaon in the baking sun
looking for her boy. Rajesh, who was mute because of a birth defect,
disappeared on April 26 last year.
Sunita has two daughters aged four and five, but Rajesh was her only son.
“I spend most of my time crying,” she says, dabbing again at her tears.
Rajesh had left the house at 10am. When he had not come back by 1pm, she
started worrying. He had only drunk a small cup of tea in the morning, and
would be hungry.
“I started searching for him with my friends. Late at night, about midnight,
I went to the police to file a report. They wrote it down but when I went
back again the next day they threatened to slap me if I bothered them
again,” she said.
“The police said it was their responsibility to file a report and that was
where their job ended. They said it was my responsibility to find him. I was
so terrified that I would be thrashed that I did not go again,” she said.
Instead, she started to search the city, and never stopped.
“I only knew that he may have been kidnapped. I don’t know why someone would
take him. He used to smile a lot, that’s what I remember whenever I am going
to sleep. I can see his smile. But no one cares about it. No one will
listen. Whenever I prepare food for my girls I think of him and how he would
have enjoyed the meal too and now I don’t enjoy cooking any more,” she said.
New Delhi has the second-highest official abduction rate in India after
Kolkata. The Nav Shristi (New Birth) organization helps parents in the Neb
Sarai area of the city whose children have disappeared. It has a long list
of children on its books, some missing for years. It produces
plastic-wrapped cards for them to show to people; a photograph, the child’s
name and the date reported missing. Its files contain reports on each case,
sad little typed form letters with the name of the missing child inked in
and a picture pinned to one corner of the sheet.
“I am the father/mother/ guardian of Sanjay missing since 02/06/05,” one
reads. “I did my best to locate him/her but failed. I have tried to lodge my
complaint in Sangam Vihar police station but deliberately the officer in
charge of said police station declined to entertain my complaint.”
Vikas was 10 when he vanished seven years ago. His black and white picture
shows a small boy with big eyes. One of a family of three boys and two
girls, he had been doing well at school, especially mathematics, but classes
had broken up for the summer.
His mother, Kamini, remembered him running off with his friends to play. She
hasn’t seen him since.
“He went to the playground with his friends at about 6am, but he did not
come back. His friends said he was playing with them and then they noticed
he was not there. They began searching for him but couldn’t find him. He
must have been abducted,” she said.
The police took their report and said they would call if they heard
anything, but seven years later, the call has never come.
“My friends said he would be fine and that one day he would come home, but
he has not. For the first three or four years I spent every penny on
searching for him. I searched the whole of Delhi. Once a year I go to my
home in Bihar to look for him and whenever a lead comes up, I go,” she said.
Anuradha Maharishi, from the child charity Bal Raksha (formerly a branch of
Save the Children) said children from the poorest areas were the most common
“Sometimes they are lured with food or told they will have a better life and
they come voluntarily,” she said. “Children say they have been given a
sedative injection and they wake up and find they are in a railway station
and if they make a sound they are burned with cigarettes.”
She said changes to the adoption laws had made it likely that more children
would go abroad.
“There is a business of taking children and putting them up for adoption,”
she said. “It is a big, big issue. What people think of as legitimate
adoption agencies are actually stealing them and selling these children to
But for parents of the children who are taken, it is often too late.
“It is true: Missing is worse than death,” Anuj Bhargava said. “If a child
dies, the parents know they are gone, but if they are missing, they die