Missing Children
© DNA, India
If your child ventures out alone in the afternoon to play in a nearby ground, you have reason to be worried. He or she could be one of the 600 children, from Navi Mumbai, who never return home, each year.

According to the Navi Mumbai police records, around 50 children go missing from the city every month. While a small percentage of these are found by thepolice, and some make their way back on their own, a majority of them are lost without a trace.

According to activists, there are two reasons to be anxious. Firstly, the Navi Mumbai police department never takes the issue seriously. As most parents of missing children are poor and uneducated, the police tend to ignore such cases and, at times, don't file an FIR, activists said.

Secondly, there are many active begging rackets in the city, which lost children fall victim to.

An RTI query filed by an NGO, Conscious Citizen Forum, revealed that the Navi Mumbai police has not taken any action under Bombay Prevention of Begging Act, 1959, in the last 10 years.

Maharashtra state home minister RR Patil recently wrote a letter to Navi Mumbai police commissioner AK Sharma, asking to take the menace seriously.

"We can see hundreds of children begging near bus stands, railway stations, temples, markets and other public places. It's quite shocking and shameful that the police have not registered a single case under the provisions of Beggary Prevention Act in last 10 years," said K Kumar, president of the NGO.

Shobha Murthy, founder of another NGO, Aarambh, which has been working for the promotion of slum children's education for the last 17 years, said, "I can claim from personal experience that the Navi Mumbai police are not child-friendly at all. It is unfortunate that certain officers even take money from parents of missing children just to file an FIR. On the one hand, the police don't take action to tackle the issue of the children roaming the streets; while on the other, if such children commit a petty crime, they are picked up and put in remand homes where they are forced to share a room with a 16 or 17 year-old who has committed serious crimes like robbery and murder."

"We have come across many officers who, just by looking at the face of the child, decide that he or she is a criminal. If a 6-year-old boy or girl becomes a criminal, I don't think it is his or her fault.

The whole of society is to blame for it," she said.

According to Murthy, there are many rackets in both Mumbai and Navi Mumbai that drop children at the busiest junctions to beg early in the morning and pick them up in the evening. "Most such children have a similar background: An alcoholic father who abandoned the family, a mother who works as a maid, economic conditions that forced them to leave school etc. Begging rackets target such children and use them to make money," Murthy said.

"What is heart-wrenching is that they get beaten up at the end of the day if they cannot collect the desired amount. They are only paid Rs10 to 15 to have a vada pav and the rest of their collections is taken away by their bosses. As the children are afraid of getting beaten up, they commit crimes like theft and picking pockets to satisfy their bosses," said K Kumar.

"We don't know if the police really have any idea about this menace. Unless and until they take this issue seriously, nobody can save these poor children from begging rackets," he said.

Police vow to act against racket

Shrikant Pathak, deputy commissioner of police, crime, confirmed that no action had been taken under the Bombay Prevention of Begging Act ever since he took charge one year ago. "We don't know if there are any begging rackets, but if we find evidence against anyone, we will take action," he said.