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Maharashtra claims most success in finding missing children

MUMBAI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The western state of Maharashtra has traced the largest number of missing children in the country as part of a national campaign to find them, kindling hopes that new measures put in place will also help check trafficking in the state.

The state is one of the largest destinations for trafficked children in the country.

Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis said this week it has traced more than 12,000 children as part of the national Operation Smile and Muskaan (smile), launched first in January last year to find and reunite children with their families.

A child goes missing every eight minutes in India, according to the National Crime Records Bureau. Almost 40 percent of them remain untraced.

While some are kidnapped or trafficked and forced to work, some are abandoned by families who cannot afford to care for them. Older boys may be runaways seeking better opportunities.

“Maharashtra has shown good results in bringing back the children and connecting to their families,” Fadnavis told the state assembly.

The state’s efforts have also boosted the conviction rate for perpetrators to 52 percent from 9 percent before the campaign, he said.

Few cases of missing children in the country were even filed with the police until the Supreme Court, in response to a petition by Nobel Laureate Kailash Satyarthi’s Bachpan Bachao Andolan (Save the Childhood Movement), made it mandatory in 2013 to register all cases of missing children.

Police must assume missing children are victims of kidnapping and trafficking, and conduct an investigation when a child is recovered to ascertain the involvement of organised gangs in trafficking and child labour, the court had said.

In Maharashtra, first information reports - the first step to an investigation - had been filed with the police for less than a quarter of the children found, said the state’s Inspector General of Police Brijesh Singh.

“Most children are not even registered as missing,” Singh told the Thomson Reuters Foundation on Thursday. “That makes it very hard to trace them and return them to their families.”

Nationwide, almost 29,000 children were rescued in two month-long operations last year, according to the home ministry. National data for this year’s January campaign are not yet available.

In Maharashtra, 4,244 children were rescued in January, of whom only 665 had been recorded as missing, Singh said.

Last July, 4,296 children were traced in the state, of whom about 1,400 were girls, he said. A similar number were rescued in January 2015.

Some children were found begging on the streets, and others had been forced to work. Some had been trafficked from the eastern states of Bihar and Orissa, Singh said.

As part of the campaign, police stations in the state appointed child welfare officers, and the state’s 12 anti-human trafficking units worked closely with child welfare centres. Police also tapped NGOs for help with rehabilitation.

These measures, if sustained, could also help check trafficking, said Jyoti Nale, head of the anti-human trafficking programme at Save the Children India in Mumbai.

“Sustaining the momentum may be difficult, as this was a concentrated effort,” she said. “But they have shown that it can be done, that we can get good results with these measures.”