A staple storyline of popular Bollywood films over the years has been about siblings getting lost in a village fair or being forcibly separated by a hideous villain, only to be reunited years later. The happy endings normally spelled success: moviegoers went home happy while the filmmaker went laughing all the way to the bank.
But reel life has little resemblance to reality, and happy endings are not as common for those who go missing in India as they are on celluloid.
Official statistic shows that some 60,000 children go missing every year from across the populous nation. Though some are finally traced, many are never found.
According to Jitendra Singh, the federal minister of state for home affairs, about 22,000 of these missing children vanished without a trace in 2011.
The figures are startling and symptomatic of a scourge that's long gone unnoticed, until the findings of a commission instituted by the government in the wake of the notorious Delhi gang-rape of a young girl in December brought out the hidden dangers that stalk India's children.
The Justice Verma commission report served to jolt the nation, as it found that a child goes missing in India every eight minutes, on average.
"Children in this country are no more safe. I get worried till my daughters reach home safely after their school and tuitions," Nagurajun R, a father of two teenage girls from Hyderabad who works in the IT industry, told Al Jazeera.
For one, it's easy to get lost in a nation as crowded as India. Seven-year-old Ramu lost his way while travelling on a train with his family from Maharashtra to Uttar Pradesh. Luckily for him, he was picked up by the police, who with the help of child activists tracked down his address a fortnight later and handed him back to his distraught parents.
But similar luck mostly eludes those who fall prey to sinister designs and go missing.
There were a total of 33,098 crimes reported against children in 2011, of which 15,284 were kidnapping cases.
Child activists blame the missing children phenomenon on a number of reasons, from organised traffickers to families eager to dump their daughters, whom they see as a liability.
"This act of wilful crime by parents often goes unreported or unregistered with the police," Nishit Kumar, an activist with Childline - a 24-hour helpline for children in distress - told Al Jazeera.
"Even though this is an unfortunate trend, I feel the primary reason for this is the lack of attention paid by parents - either poor, or single, or broken families," said Suma M, an assistant professor of computer science from Bengaluru who is concerned about her young daughter's safety.
That doesn't mean that only children from poor families go missing, though. "Children from well-to-do families become victims of circumstances - here too, lack of attention towards them being the prime reason," said Suma.
Activists like Kumar also speak of the "Kumbh Mela syndrome" - the Hindu religious congregation that draws millions of pilgrims to the city of Allahabad on the banks of the river Ganga once every 12 years - where some fathers are said to deliberately lose their daughters in the crowd. That getting rid of the girl child is not a pious act is hardly a deterrent, the activists say.
But kidnappings account for most of the missing. According to a report issued by the social statistics division of the Indian government, there were a total of 33,098 crimes reported against children in 2011, of which 15,284 were kidnapping cases. The kidnappers may send the children to other countries, hold them for ransom, or force them to beg.
Shockingly, the report also noted 3,517 incidents of child trafficking - which includes the buying and selling of girls for prostitution, child marriage, and trafficking children for the illegal transplantation of organs - in 2011.
Addicted to street life
India has the largest number of child labourers under the age of 14 in the world. Even though law prohibits children below the age of 14 from working, as many as 12.66 million children work as labourers.
"Very often we find kidnapped children are forced to work as cheap labour in factories, shops and homes. They get exploited as sex slaves or are pushed into the child porn industry," NDTV reported Delhi police spokesman Rajan Bhagat as saying.
India is well-connected by the train network, which comes in handy for children who run away from homes - as well as for the abductors who kidnap them.
It gets difficult for police or activists to trace the children, as many parents fail to give recent photographs of their lost children.
And in most cases, when child rights activists or volunteers find children on streets, they find it difficult to rehabilitate them. "They are addicted to the street life," Kumar notes. "It's the complete anonymity which draws kids to the streets. They enjoy complete freedom … they are not bothered by elders, they are not forced to study," Kumar told Al Jazeera.
Other child rights volunteers agree: "If we can't take a child off the street within the first month of finding him, it's difficult to rehabilitate him later, as he gets addicted to street life. He is not at all interested to study, or to get rehabilitated."
One of the main reasons for the increasing number of missing children and kidnappings is "inadequate law on missing children in the country", say experts.
Police in many states are often reluctant to register first information reports for missing children, which means no formal case is even filed. Their insensitivity could be because they are over-worked and ill-equipped and tracking down missing children are not their priority.
Suma, the computer science professor, says the government should "set up special police stations that register 'only child-missing complaints' and see to it that such cases are taken to a logical end".
But some states, such as Delhi, have implemented strict laws after serial killings in Noida, Uttar Pradesh in 2006 that claimed the lives of 17 children. For instance, after 24 hours, if a missing child is not found, police in Delhi are required to file a case of kidnapping.
The police in some regions have also begun a database for missing children, but forensic experts say a DNA databank needs to be established to help identify missing children.
Professor Jose A Lorente, a forensic geneticist at the University of Granada known for identifying the remains of Christopher Columbus and South American liberator Simon Bolivar, says that in a big country like India where so many children go missing, "DNA can play a unique, positive role". A DNA databank can also help "to avoid stolen, kidnapped children to be sold for illegal adoptions", Lorente told Al Jazeera.
One potential model could be Guatemala. In 2010, the impoverished Central American country passed the Alba-Keneth Law, requiring the government to create a DNA databank of missing children and giving the relatives of missing children the right to have their DNA analysed.
Source: Al Jazeera