Dhar, Madhya Pradesh: For five months, Gattu Lal has had no idea where his daughter is. In 2021, he sent her away with a relative he thought he could trust. The 16-year-old went from Gugali, their village in the Nalchha tehsil of Madhya Pradesh’s (MP’s) south-western district of Dhar, to Indore’s Mhow tehsil, more than 65 km to the north-east, to work as a daily wage labourer.
One day he got a phone call that his daughter was missing from the work site. When more time passed, he lodged a first information report (FIR) at the Nalchha police station near his village. She was never found.
“Pet paalan kaise karein? Isi liye bhej diya… (How do we feed ourselves? That’s why I sent her away),” said Gattu Lal, who belongs to the state’s Bhil community, a scheduled tribe with a literacy rate of just 42.2%, considerably lower than the nationwide average literacy rate for scheduled tribes of 59%.
The teenager, who studied till class 8, is among thousands of girls who go missing each year from MP and remain untraced. Government data
show that 8,751 children went missing from the state in 2020 (24
children a day), the highest in the country. More than 80% of them were
girls, many of them Adivasis.
Over 21% of the state’s population belongs to the scheduled tribes, communities that record the state’s poorest literacy and health parameters, lagging the general population by 18 percentage points on literacy, according to 2011 data, the latest available.
The National Family Health Survey-5 (2019-21) found malnutrition among scheduled tribe children to be higher than among other children in the state.
A Govt Priority, On Paper
The Bharatiya Janata Party’s longest serving chief minister, Shivraj Singh Chouhan, who had in 2016 flagged off the campaign Operation Muskaan or Operation Smile to rescue girls, had declared that tracing missing children would be a priority for his government.
However, FIRs in some cases were not filed even a month later, Article 14’s ground reportage showed. They were not filed at all in some cases where girls went missing a second or third time. Interviews with local police officials showed that the disappearance of adolescent girls was often passed off as a ‘custom’, along with the delay in lodging FIRs.
“The reality is FIRs are not registered till a significant amount of time has passed,” said Madhya Pradesh child rights activist Rekha Shridhar. “Trafficking networks move fast.” It is possible to track down children swiftly only when cases are registered within the first 24 hours, she said.
According to Shridhar, law enforcement agencies held “stereotypes and myths concerning certain communities” that hampered early investigation.
In 2013, the Supreme Court had directed that in every case of a missing child, police should presume it to be an abduction or trafficking incident, unless the investigation proved otherwise. Cases where missing children were not recovered for four months were to be forwarded to the state’s anti-human trafficking unit (AHTU). These are district-level teams comprising trained police officials, representatives of the women and child welfare department, and of local non-profits.
Article 14 interviewed nine families, including eight belonging to the Bhil community, whose children were missing, all of them impoverished and forced to migrate for work. Academicians and activists said that child labour and child marriages were common in this part of MP. The top court’s directives were violated in several cases.
Though worried about his daughter, Gattu Lal said he was struggling on multiple fronts. He had five other children to support on his income of around Rs 5,000 from watering plants at a nursery. The two bighas of land (a bigha is approximately 24,000 sq feet) that he and his wife own lay barren, and the 10 kg of wheat his wife earns as a labourer in the wheat harvest are inadequate to feed the family.
A despairing Gattu Lal said, “Kya karoon… bacchi nahi mil rahe hai.. Dukhi hain, lekin kya karein? (What should I do? We are in pain that we cannot find our daughter. But what to do?)”
How Distress Migration And Missing Children Are Linked
As the COVID-19 pandemic set back families that were already on the fringes, girl children bore the biggest brunt.
Satya Prakash, chief operating officer of non-profit FXB India Suraksha, said the failure to ensure safe migration has contributed to the crisis of missing children in MP. He said many children who went missing first appeared to have been recruited for work. “This modus operandi is common in Madhya Pradesh which shares a boundary with five states,” Prakash said, adding that it was necessary to “connect the dots” between the issues of missing children and trafficking.
The absence of a comprehensive response to the current scale of migration of labourers rendered girls in Adivasi areas vulnerable, said Umi Daniel, director, migration and education at Aide et Action International.
Multiple factors including poverty, climate change, barriers to accessing education, and lack of shelter and food act as triggers in children going missing, and the pandemic exacerbated these factors. Despite the special policies for migrant workers during the lockdown months, and the Niti Aayog’s draft policy for them, there were “question marks on what has been achieved so far in identifying migrant workers,” Daniel said.
In Dhar, among the top 10 districts for missing children in MP since 2017, more than 40% of the population is ‘multidimensionally poor’ according to government think tank NITI Aayog’s 2021 report on a national multidimensional poverty index. This index captures deprivation in health, education and living standards. MP was ranked India’s fourth poorest state.
According to experts, curbing the crisis of MP’s missing children required an integrated approach that tackled migration, lack of employment opportunities and hunger.
Radhyesham Kanjilal, Dhar district coordinator, Childline Foundation, said, “In cases where children accompany parents when they are migrating, they lose access to education.” Census 2011 data showed that 92.95 million children were migrants, or every fifth child in India.
Mother Filed A Police Complaint, Then Left For Gujarat To Work
When Surma’s 17-year-old daughter went missing in 2021 from their home in Gatla village of Dhar’s Bagh tehsil, she filed a report with the Bagh police station, and then left for Gujarat to work as a daily wage labourer where the peanut harvest was offering better wages. “I am an Adivasi from the Bhil community. I do not have land. I have to work. If I go to work, I will get work,” Surma, who is in her early forties, told Article 14. “If I am home, how will I get work?”
About a month later, she received a call from her daughter. The girl joined her mother in Gujarat and the two then returned to Gatla together.
Along with her mother and brother, the girl had worked as a daily wage labourer in Gujarat during the lockdown in 2020, but Surma could never conclude where she went during the period that she was missing in 2021. “Gum bhi akeli ho gayi aur wapas bhi agayi. (She disappeared, and then returned by herself),” said Surma, a mother of three.
“I asked her many times where she was. She did not say anything.”
Around six years ago, Surma remarried after her first husband died. Her second husband already had a wife. “He now stays with his first wife, but bears a lot of our expenses,” she said. “He buys me vegetables, clothes and medicines.”
Madhuri, who uses only one name, works with MP-based Jagrit Adivasi Dalit Sangathan, a people’s organisation. She said there is a distinct correlation between distress migration and children going missing in MP.
Tribal communities, once dependent on natural resources, are no longer able to sustain their traditional lifestyles.
“The Adivasis became destitutes,” she said. “There is hardly any Adivasi community which is not facing distress migration.” The link between distress migration and missing children among the Adivasis was being “invisibilised”, she said.
With families fragmented, children lose their traditional safety net, she said, and MP’s problem of missing children was one outcome.
Benoy Peter, executive director at Kerala-based civil society organisation Centre for Migration and Inclusive Development, said studies have documented that most people would not relocate if livelihood opportunities were available in their villages. “So, most people move out of distress,” he told Article 14.
Missing Girls Return To Greater Vulnerabilities
In January 2022, an orphan living with paternal relatives in Umariya Chhota in Dhar tehsil left home after a disagreement.
She walked some distance, then boarded a bus and reached Dhar town’s busy Pipli Bazar area. She managed to recall an address where she used to accompany her mother for domestic work when she was younger, and the person she approached called Childline’s helpline, 1098.
The NGO produced her before the child welfare committee the next day and, following counselling, the minor, who belongs to the Bhil community, was reunited with her family.
Toying with the volume of a nineties’ Bollywood song on a transistor radio and consciously looking over to check if her uncle was listening, the girl said in a low voice that the family had arranged to get her married.
“Someone in Manpura (a village),” she said, playing with a blue glass bangle and finally throwing it in a corner. “Holi baad (after Holi).” Forced to drop out of school since the pandemic, the girl spent most of her time in household chores.
Her uncle, Shyam Mera, said the alliance was not yet ‘concrete’. Asked about the girl’s age, he told Article 14 the family had lost her Aadhar card, and he was unsure of her exact age.
A Childline representative who handled her case said she was 13 years old.
Govind Kelkar, visiting professor at the Council for Social Development, said, “Poverty of both, financial resources and knowledge resources of the outside world, makes Adivasi families more vulnerable.” Though there is more mobility among Adivasi women, they remain vulnerable to exploitation by dominant communities, she said.
In Dhar’s Arjun Colony, 21-year-old Bhavna from the Bhil community described to Article 14 how her sister went missing three times.
Bhavna, currently pursuing her graduation, said the family has given up on her younger sister, a minor. After the first time she went missing, the minor was reunited with the family by Childline volunteers. She went missing again, and was again located and brought home.
When, three months ago, she went missing for the third time, their parents, daily wage labourers, gave up. No missing person report has been filed. The girl was intermittently active on Instagram, and Bhavna could tell she was safe. Relatives and neighbours had spotted the girl with a boy, they claimed. Bhavna felt her sister had aspirations for a 'better life', and did not want to live in poverty.
“We tried to convince her to study further after she was reunited with us through an NGO. But she has gone missing again,” said Bhavna. “I try to keep a check on her life through the stories she posts on Instagram.”
Poor Families Broker Cash Settlements For Girls Who Eloped
Three fathers in Dhar district, Sharma from Bhil Barkheda in Nalchha tehsil, Naruh Baghel from Padalya in Dhar tehsil and A N Shig from Mandu, had strikingly similar accounts of how their teenage daughters went missing.
All three were away from home, working in neighbouring districts, at the time their girls went missing. They enquired among relatives, eventually filed FIRs after about a week, and then tried to “settle” with a cash compensation when they got to know the daughters had allegedly left with men from nearby villages.
Police officials who requested anonymity said these three cases were “love affairs”, and it was in the girls’ “best interests” for these cases to be ‘settled’.
A N Shig decided to register an FIR in February 2021, after months of
trying to bring his then 16-year-old daughter home, but was discouraged
by the Mandu police. She had gone missing in September 2020.
“The police also said the same thing—why do you not sit with people from your society? There are always settlements, they said,” according to Shig, who works as a driver.
With more than four months having passed since she disappeared, he lodged an FIR through the CM helpline. Shig had got to know through relatives that the girl was living with a man in a nearby village, and she was recovered with the help of the police. She told police she had gone willingly and had not been coerced.
“He was over 35, and had a wife and children,” the father said. In April 2022, the girl was still two months short of 18 years.
Shig said that in the Bhil community, a collective decision is taken on such ‘settlements’— compensation for the damage to the girl’s family’s reputation. “They should give the money and also return our child,” Shig told Article 14. “In my case, they neither gave money nor my daughter back. They fooled me.”
After he brought the girl home, he enrolled his daughter in a six-month vocational course in Indore, and later got her engaged, to another minor.
In 2022, he enrolled her in a three-month course in Ujjain. When the class dispersed for the Holi break and children returned home, his daughter went missing once again.
“I have lodged a report in Ujjain…It is 150 km away from where we live,” Shig said. “How do I pursue the case actively from such a distance?”
The Core Problem: Lack Of Education
There is a need to redefine the age of consent and marriage so that girls can stay on with their partners in such cases. The union government’s proposed Prohibition of Child Marriage (Amendment) Bill, 2021 that aims to raise the minimum age of marriage of girls from 18 to 21 will bring in more problems, police officials said.
Seema Alawa, assistant superintendent of police in Khandwa, who has led teams that rescued over 500 minors from across Madhya Pradesh, said the issue of consent required analysis.
“When we talk about consent of minors, the question that needs to be asked is under what circumstances are the girls leaving their homes?” said Alawa. “If there is no food to eat, no education, no employment generation and someone lures away girls promising a better future, can this be called consent?”
Alawa said the police should be “compassionate” in cases of missing children.
G K Pathak, a retired Indian Police Service officer who has rescued and rehabilitated minors from MP’s Adivasi belt, said the state’s AHTUs need to be boosted.
The central problem, according to Pathak, was the poor education levels in MP’s Adivasi areas. “No government seems to have worked on this,” he said. “Ground experiences from under-developed areas show that there is a direct link between poor education and trafficking.”
Pragya Srivastava, additional director general of a Madhya Pradesh police unit recently renamed the ‘women's security wing’, said an internal analysis of data showed that a large number of girls or women were reported missing after they left home, seeking to do something the family was not permitting. Trafficking cases constituted a smaller percentage, she said.
The team will now talk to parents as a continuation of their analysis, she said. “We do understand it is poverty. But we do need to analyse it more,” she said. “We are also looking at organised gangs… We are in touch with senior officers from the bordering states,” said Srivastava.
Naruh Baghel’s four children never attended school. Every year, he and his wife would migrate to Gujarat to work in the cumin harvest. Unwell and bed-ridden for more than four months now, he began to rely on his eldest son to run the family.
The boy, about 17 years old, loaded bricks on trucks in the village. His wife stayed home to look after Baghel and their two younger boys.
The family lost their latest crop to a pest attack.
Fifteen days after his 16-year-old daughter went missing, the family eventually located her and, over the next 15 days, brokered an agreement. They were paid Rs 80,000, and the girl was married to the man she allegedly eloped with.
Of the Rs 80,000, the family spent Rs 20,000 on wedding expenses, including a feast for the village. The girl’s marital family is in Gujarat, but Baghel did not know if that was where she went when she went missing. “I do not know if it was Indore or Gujarat. Now, she is in Gujarat,” he said, “where she works as a daily wage labourer.”
For Sharma, who lost his wife to cancer around five years back, the biggest hope of recovering his daughter was that perhaps a ‘monetary arrangement’ could be worked out. “When my wife was alive, the girl would attend school,” he rued. “And then it all stopped.”
The police have told him the girl has been “almost” traced. Sharma had another 10 days of work in the wheat harvest. “Then I will look for her again.”
*Names of minors have been left out to protect their identities.
(Ritwika Mitra is an independent journalist.)