NEW DELHI — Every six minutes, a child goes missing in India.
They are boys like Irfan, drugged and abducted at the age of 9 by two men on a motorbike as he walked home one day after playing with friends.
“It was living hell these past two years, trying to figure out where we could find him,” said his father, Iqbal Ali. “I used to run a biscuit bakery, but from the day he disappeared, I got so caught up trying to meet politicians, police and people who claim to do magic to get children back, that I had to shut down my bakery. I had no time for it.”
More than 90,000 children are officially reported missing every year, according to data compiled and released late last year by leading children’s rights group Bachpan Bachao Andolan, which showed the problem was far greater than previously thought.
Up to 10 times that number are trafficked, according to the group — boys and girls, most from poor families, torn from their parents, sometimes in return for cash, and forced to beg or work in farms, factories and homes, or sold for sex and marriage.
It is an epidemic that, until a few years ago, remained unreported and largely ignored by the authorities.
But years of tireless work by activists, a few crucial victories in court — and the shocking discovery of the bones of 17 slain girls and young women around a businessman’s home in a suburb of New Delhi called Nithari in 2006 — have gradually put the issue on the nation’s agenda.
India’s 24-hour news channels have also played a role in highlighting an issue long tolerated by the country’s middle classes. The media frenzy surrounding the Nithari killings was a watershed, reminiscent of the way the disappearance of Etan Patz in Manhattan in 1979 helped spark the missing-children’s movement in the United States.
In recent weeks, footage from surveillance cameras — a new phenomenon in modern India — has also been repeatedly broadcast on television here, showing infants being brazenly snatched from train stations and hospital lobbies as parents slept nearby.
“A couple of decades ago, there was no understanding of the issue of missing children or trafficking for forced labor — child labor was not even considered a crime,” said Bhuwan Ribhu, an activist for the children’s rights group. “Though things are slowly changing, the biggest issue is the lack of political and administrative will to enforce the law, which is often outside the reach of the common person.”
Irfan suffered perhaps the most common fate — kidnapped to satisfy India’s insatiable demand for cheap, agricultural labor.
In India and many other developing countries, children often work in agriculture. What is only now becoming apparent is the huge trafficking industry that has grown up outside the law.
Irfan’s story, though, has a happy ending. Last month, after more than two years away, he finally made it home to his joyous parents, after climbing on a chair in the shed where he was held and breaking a window with an earthen vase to escape.
“I was supposed to bathe the buffalo, to feed them, to pick up the dung,” he said, describing his life imprisoned in virtual solitary confinement in a room adjoining a buffalo shed outside the town of Mullanpur, some 200 miles northwest of Delhi.
“I was fed just once a day, just leftovers. When I used to shriek and make a fuss, they would tie my hands and feet at night.”
After escaping, Irfan found shelter with another family for several months. Then, last month, as the media furor about missing children reached its peak, he saw photographs of his parents and himself on a TV show.
Only then did he journey back to the New Delhi district of Nangloi, the only address he had in his memory.
“I took the train to Delhi, and a bus to Nangloi,” he said, “but when I arrived it had all changed. Before, there was no overpass, no metro. It looked like a completely different place to me.”
After half an hour of wandering, Irfan says he bumped into a friend, who took him home.
“We were just overwhelmed with happiness,” said his mother, Shabnam. “We went and got new clothes made for all of us. All his old clothes were too small, because he had grown so tall.”
Kidnapping represents just the tip of the iceberg of a vast child-trafficking industry in India. Many young children are sold by their parents or enticed from them with the promise that they will be looked after and be able to send money home. Never registered as missing, many simply lose touch with their parents, working long hours in garment factories or making cheap jewelry.
Globally, trafficking of children for forced labor and sexual exploitation remains a “largely hidden crime,” says the International Labor Organization, with no reliable data even existing on the scale of the problem.
The organization makes a “conservative estimate” that 5.5 million children around the world are trapped in forced labor, but in India alone the government uses estimates of 5 million to 12 million children forced to work.
On a recent raid with activists and police, 36 children were rescued from a series of tiny rooms where they were making bangles for 10 hours, some for just $4 a month.
One was just 6 years old, the son of a rickshaw puller from the faraway city of Patna, his hair and skin covered in glitter from the work. “They didn’t let me talk to my mother on the phone,” he said.
Last month, the Indian government proposed a blanket ban on the employment of children younger than 14, building on a 2009 law that established a child’s right to education until that age. Activists hailed the proposal, which now needs parliamentary approval, as a major step forward, but warned that enforcement will remain a significant challenge.
The U.S. State Department says India is making “significant efforts” to comply with minimum global standards for the elimination of trafficking, but notes challenges in enforcement and “the alleged complicity of public officials in human trafficking.”
The parents of several missing children interviewed in the past month said they had received little or no help from the police, largely, they said, because they were poor.
“The police were very cold. They just kept saying: ‘A lot of kids are missing. What can we do?’ ” said Kunwar Pal, 48, whose son, Ravi, was 12 when he went missing two years ago after going out to ride his bicycle. “Maybe if I had the money to pay a bribe, they would have found my kid.”
Nearly 450,000 cases of children trafficked for labor were reported in the past three years, but prosecutions were launched in just 25,000 of those cases and 3,394 employers were convicted, official figures show.
Twelve years ago, Pal’s wife died in childbirth, their infant daughter succumbing to diarrhea soon after. Now, in his bare one-roomed house, he pines for his favorite son, an obedient, undemanding and studious boy who dreamed of becoming a detective.
“He liked soap operas on TV, one called ‘CID,’ and he used to say he wanted to study and be educated and become a policeman,” said Pal, before breaking down in tears. “I am always expecting a call. ‘Papa, can I come home?’ ”
Rama Lakshmi and Suhasini Raj contributed to this report.