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The Lost Boys of Arwal

Four families have been waiting for two years for their children to return as the police twiddles its thumbs.

Between 2015 and 2016, six boys aged between 8 and 16 years went missing in Karpi block of Arwal district in Bihar. Two of them returned after managing to escape their captors. They have harrowing tales to recount. “These men hit me on my face and I fell unconscious. When I woke up I was in a different place. They told me it was Ludhiana,” recalls Manoj Kumar*. He as made to chop wood from nine in the morning till six every evening. “There were eight of us. The other boys were from Sultanpur, Aurangabad, Agra,Jharkhand. Twenty men guarded us. They would beat us if we didn’t chop wood and not give us food. There was no payment at all. They killed four boys. And threw them in the river nearby.” Chilling as his story is, Manoj’s impassive recounting of the horrific ordeal reveals how normalised such violence had been in his life as a slave.

Slavery--the one thing India excels at. According to the Global Slavery Index, India is home to 40% of the world’s 45.8 million modern day slaves. Slavery is a broad term which encompasses all forms of forced labour, including sexual exploitation. But the only kind of trafficking and exploitative labour, consistently highlighted by the media and international actors, remains the sexual exploitation of girls and women in brothels. Teenage boys like Manoj, kidnapped and brutalised and forced to work in inhuman conditions are largely ignored. A 2013 investigative report on the trafficking racket supplying youngs boys as slave labour to the sugarcane farms of northern India, details the depth of police apathy, even when faced with hard evidence of systematic exploitation.The scenario is no different for the harried parents waiting for their children in Arwal.

Mohammad Ansari whose fifteen-year-old brother went missing in 2015 recalls that the police initially dismissed their complaint. “They told us he must have run away.” Bittu Kumar was only eight when he went missing in August 2016. Fekan Yadav, his father, recalls bitterly, “We had to organise a road block and demonstrate in front of the Superintendent of Police, and only then did the police come to investigate. It’s only when we go to the administration that anything works. If we don’t go, they will not do anything.”

Community Correspondent Zafar Iqubal who has been helping the families approach authorities doesn’t hold much hope out for a pro-active stance on part of the administration. “When I accompany the family members to the police station, the officers in charge speak to us politely. But whenever the the family members go on their own, they are dismissed brusquely. The brother of one the missing boys was berated for coming and bothering the police repeatedly,” he adds. Zafar went to get updates about the case from the Inspector in charge recently: “He kept asserting that the police doesn’t have any information regarding the whereabouts of these boys, and so, can’t rescue them.” This is echoed in the testimony of Marmun Khatun whose son Arshad has been missing: “They come and ask us for information, telling us that they can only do something if we find out more details.”

What is important to note is clear violation of existing legal provisions. According to a 2013 judgement by the Supreme Court, all missing minors are presumed to be kidnapped or trafficked, until proven otherwise. The families of the missing boys in Arwal, however, have repeatedly been told that the boys have probably gone to work somewhere and will come back on their own and this logic has been used by the police to delay registering FIRs. In a Standard Operating Procedure for Cases of Missing Children, the Ministry of Women and Child Development further lays down the provision that if the child has not been rescued within four months, the case will be investigated by the district Anti Human Trafficking Unit (AHTU). This has also been violated by the police who is pestering the families for information instead of taking a lead on the investigation. This gross incompetence, and brazen disregard for the laws unfortunately is the hallmark of the criminal justice system for the most part. The results are here to see: 180 children go missing every day in India and two out of three remain untraced.

The two teenage boys who have returned home, have done so completely on their own, managing to evade and escape their traffickers at great risk to their lives. They were lucky. But what about the four other youngsters still missing? Will the criminal justice system, meant to protect them, finally step into action? Only time will tell. Meanwhile, there is only the interminable, excruciating wait for the families of Manish Kumar (16), Arshad Ansari (14), Bittu Kumar (8) and Sonu Ansari (17).

*Name changed to protect identity

Article by Madhura Chakraborty

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