NEW DELHI, INDIA – Every new visitor fills Iqbal Khan with a hope that there might be some news of his only son, Irfan. Two years ago, the 9-year-old left home in the morning for school and never returned.
Khan, a resident of Delhi’s Nangloi slum, shows off a photograph of the smiling boy wearing a school uniform. Khan gets talking about how his child was not the mischievous type. He excelled in school and aspired to be a doctor.
Then, holding his forehead, Khan clears his throat and says that he has repeated these lines to dozens of visitors. But help hasn’t arrived yet.
His wife, Roshan Khan, returns from fetching the day’s water, thrusting two full buckets down onto the floor. She then bursts into tears and pleads for help in finding their son.
She joins her husband on a run-down cot, the only piece of furniture in their tiny, dilapidated dwelling. The slum where they live is home to many migrants who earn a living as daily-wage laborers.
“When we moved to this area, the first thing we did was to get our son enrolled in a school,” Iqbal Khan says. “He had made friends there and was happy. And then, he vanished in the thin air.”
He says his son was abducted somewhere along the way to school.
“That fateful day, he didn’t even reach his school,” he says.
And the Khan family is not the only one in the country waiting for lost children to come home.
Families of missing children and children’s rights activists say that the majority of disappearances are of children from poor families. They also say that authorities are apathetic toward helping these families, prioritizing the cases of families of higher socio-economic statuses. Authorities say that coordination between parents and police must improve to achieve more accurate records, though the police’s information-sharing network regarding missing children has drawn criticism from the High Court of Delhi. Meanwhile, children’s rights activists recommend increased collaboration and use of technology in order to trace missing children.
Nearly 11 children go missing every hour in India, says Bhuwan Ribhu, national secretary of Bachpan Bachao Andolan, or Save the Children Movement, a local children’s rights organization. About two-thirds are traced, while one-third are not, according to a recent study by the organization.
A missing child could be the victim of kidnapping or abduction for various reasons such as ransom, begging, slavery, illicit intercourse and marriage, according to the Indian Penal Code. Children and families from socially and economically poorer backgrounds form the majority of victims, according to the report by Bachpan Bachao Andolan.
Delhi has the highest number of missing children and untraced children of any metropolitan city in India, according to the report. Some attribute this to the large migratory population living in the slums here, as children are seen as easy targets.
Kunwarpar Singh, a daily-wage laborer, says his son, Ravi, went missing in 2010. Ravi, 12 at the time, had gone out to