Lost on the railways - India’s missing children

In India, 275,000 children were recorded as missing in the last five years - but charities estimate that number is much higher, as Romilly Weeks reports from Delhi

At Old Delhi’s busy, chaotic railway station we are searching for lost children.

The hundreds of trains coming in and going out don’t just bring workers, families and travellers - but vulnerable children too.

Charities estimate that in India a child goes missing every 8 minutes - and the railways are the focus of efforts to find them.

Charity workers search for missing children at several stations in India. Credit: On Assignment

I went to Delhi to investigate why for ITV’s On Assignment Programme.

At the station, the Salaam Baalak charity has set up a permanent presence - with teams scouring trains and platforms.

"The station is not safe for any kind of children"

Meena Kumari explains to me the risks the children face if the charity doesn’t reach them. 

"The station is not safe for any children. The dangers are child labour, prostitution, domestic work, or even factories where small children are needed."

Indian government figures suggest that a staggering 275,000 children went missing in the last year five years alone, but even officials admit the real figure is much higher.

"The average was about 58 children a day in one station"

Varun Patak, chair of the Child Welfare Committee says that in April when the government ran a 7-day rescue operation in New Delhi Station they recovered 400 children.

"The average was about 58 children a day…in one station."

There are multiple reasons children end up on the railways. Some are running away from poverty or abuse at home, others are being trafficked to be used as child labour.  

At a shelter that takes in children from the station, we meet 9-year-old Adil.

He was missing for 4 days before eventually being found hundreds of miles away, alone in Delhi.

His story is horrifying, kidnapped from his village by a stranger and bundled onto a train.

"The man forcefully took me with him"

He explains what happened to him: "The man forcefully took me with him. He grabbed my hands and put me on his shoulders.

"There were many people they were telling him to leave me.  They were pulling my hands but he wasn’t leaving me.”

"Don’t cry," his Dad tells him.

"Whatever happened is over now. Don’t cry."

Adil is returning to his village, to his siblings and his mother who is promising to cook his favourite meal to celebrate.

But every minute, every day more children are turning up at India’s stations, and only a tiny proportion are reached by the charity first.

On Assignment airs this evening at 10.45 pm on ITV1 and catch up later on ITVX

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