Despite COVID-19 related strict restrictions remaining in place for a good part of the duration, as many as 5,446 kids went missing in Madhya Pradesh between January and July 2020. Worryingly, 80 per cent (4,317) of these missing children were girls, a status report of five northern states compiled by NGO Child Rights and You (CRY) shows.
The average comes to 26 children missing per day in the central Indian state, of whom 21 were girls, the report further shows.
One of the most interesting aspect pointed out by the status report is that during the months of strict COVID-19 lockdown in 2020, the missing cases dipped considerably and a massive surge was reported upon the first relaxation. Only 271 missing cases including 51 boys and 220 girls were reported in April 2020—the month of strictest lockdown compared to 1001 cases in February. However, the cases jumped up to 750 in June 2020 (inclusive of 670 girls and 80 boys).
The status report was released by CRY on the eve of International Missing Children’s Day (May 25). The report focuses on five prominent northern states namely Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Haryana.
Both primary and secondary data were used in the report to illustrate the state of missing children during COVID-19. Secondary data were accessed through the National Crime Record Bureau (NCRB) Annual Reports ‘Crime in India’ (2015-2019). Right to Information (RTIs) was used to gather data from Ministry of Women and Child Development (MWCD) and respective state police departments for children who went missing during the COVID-19 first wave period, a CRY release said.
The report, compiled with the aim to understand the impact of COVID-19 pandemic led lockdown on status of missing children, revealed that a total 9453 kids went missing from five states namely Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Haryana and Delhi between January-July 2020 (see table). Of these, 57 per cent cases were from Madhya Pradesh alone.
Giving the highlights of the report, Soha Moitra, the Regional Director, CRY (North) said: “The missing numbers came down between March-April 2020 when lockdown was strict imposed but a surge was seen immediately after relaxation in lockdown. Another trend which raises concern is that the highest number of children who went missing were of age group 12-18 years—the vulnerable adolescent age group. Out of 5,446 total cases of missing children in MP, 4,562 cases [84 per cent] were in this age group. The situation is extremely alarming for girls as the status report suggests that out of these 4,562 children 89 per cent  were girls.”
A comparative look suggests in the year 2019, as many as 11,022 kids went missing in MP, according to the NCRB report, which meant average 30 children missing per day, of which 23 were girls, and 7 were boys. The percentage of missing girls in 2019 was 77.78, slightly lower than in first seven months of 2020.
Emphasising on the fact that the COVID-19 health crisis has only aggravated the issue of missing children, Dr Mohua Nigudkar, faculty member of School of Social Work, Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai said: “Due to the pandemic, the other implications in terms of loss of life and livelihood, rise in school dropouts, child marriages, children orphaned due to COVID related death of parents/guardian, and child trafficking has necessitated an even more urgent response to missing children. There is a need to conduct a quick survey on responses to missing children cases at the ground level.”
Pressing on the role of police in dealing with missing children cases, P.M. Nair, former director general of National Disaster Relief Force (NDRF) and now with Indian Police Foundation, said: “Issues of missing children can be addressed only by concerted efforts. There is need to prioritise and strengthen the law enforcement with professional investigation, bringing all traffickers to book. The linkages of source, transit and destination, along with the demand and supply links need to be broken. Police Dept needs augmentation of human and financial resources. Accountability of the responders has to be brought in. Also, there is need to involve panchayats by setting up PAHT [Panchayats against human trafficking] and college students by setting up AHTC [Anti Human Trafficking Clubs] in colleges. This will provide great support to police and public in effectively assessing issues of missing children”.