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September 21, 2017

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A mother's fears for one of India's 50,000 missing children

NEW DELHI--Thirteen-year-old Shivam Singh promised his mother he would be back to do his homework as he ran to get some sweets. He never returned, becoming one of the 50,000 children who go missing every year in India.

"My son left his books open, put on his sandals, combed his hair and ran out," Pinky Singh recalls tearfully of the fateful evening in July when Shivam popped out of the house. "It was the last time I saw him."

Three months on, perched on the edge of her son's bed and surrounded by his toys and sports trophies, Pinky Singh is terrified by what may have befallen him.

"I just pray that he is not forced into drugs or begging. He is a very innocent and studious boy."

According to recent crime data, 14 children go missing in New Delhi every day, at least six of whom are victims of human trafficking.

The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) says around 1.2 million children are victims of child trafficking across the world every year.

India's mega cities such as Delhi and Mumbai are a particular target for criminal gangs that police say traffic children in much the same way they sell drugs.

In August this year, the country's top court ordered the federal and state governments to provide data on 50,000 missing children after a petition blamed them for failing to solve the trafficking of children by organized gangs.

Police officials said they have rescued hundreds of children from factories and busted large-scale child prostitution rackets but they accept they are sometimes overwhelmed by the scale of the challenge.

The country's federal detectives admitted last year that there were 815 gangs comprising of more than 5,000 members involved in the kidnapping of children for prostitution and begging across India.

"Very often we find kidnapped children are forced to work as cheap labor in factories, shops and homes. They get exploited as sex slaves or are pushed into the child porn industry," Delhi police spokesman Rajan Bhagat told AFP.

"These gangs target urban slum children because they can easily track their movement, lure them with food and kidnap them.

"Some poor parents are scared to even report the case to the police and most do not have photographs of their children to submit as evidence," said Bhagat.

In 2006, body parts of 17 children stuffed in plastic bags were found by the police in Nithari, a suburb near New Delhi, a horrifying case that shocked the nation and triggered a raging debate on the safety of children in India.

"Most kidnappers target children aged between 6 to 13. We cannot trace the child without photographs," said V. Renganathan, a senior police officer in New Delhi.

Renganathan is the founder of an initiative called Pehchaan (Recognition) in which policemen take pictures of children in slum areas for their records and also provide copies to the youngsters' parents.

"The idea is to safeguard vulnerable children belonging to the poorer sections, millions of families in this country are too poor to even think about taking pictures," said Renganathan.

For Pinky Singh, who provided pictures of her missing son to the police, the wait for news just goes on.

"Every morning I wake up only to wait for my son's return and I fall asleep waiting for him. Waiting is the only way of life for me."

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