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Maharashtra's Missing Girls: Lack Of Action from Law Enforcement Agencies Causes Concern

The Maharashtra police recently said that thousands of girls have gone missing from the state between January and March this year. Law enforcement agencies' lack of proactive measures has amplified the distressing situation of missing girls in Maharashtra. Naziya Perveen reports for The Probe.

By Naziya Perveen
New Update

Missing girls | MaharashtraMissing girls of Maharashtra | Data courtesy: Maharashtra police

“Last week, we rescued a missing girl from Pune. In another operation, we rescued 18 minor girls from Bihar. We have been conducting so many rescue operations along with the police, and there are so many organised trafficking rackets involved in this that we have realised this is a billion-dollar industry. I can say with certainty that this is the third largest crime syndicate after weapons and drugs,” asserts Triveni Acharya, Co-founder and President of the Rescue Foundation. 

Triveni Acharya, Co-founder and President of the Rescue Foundation, speaks to The Probe’s Naziya Perveen.

Maharashtra police recently sent the alarm bells ringing when it released the list of girls and women who went missing in the state. Between January 1 and March 31 alone, 3594 girls and women aged 16 to 35 went missing in the state. The numbers have sent shockwaves across the country, and experts say many of these girls and women were victims of gender-based violence, human trafficking and forced marriages. 

Acharya notes that post-Covid-19, girls have become more vulnerable, and there has been an increase in the number of missing girls. “See, we have been doing rescue operations for 30 years. We used to rescue 100 to 125 girls every year. After Covid, the numbers have just risen to more than 500. When a thousand girls go missing, only 10 per cent of these girls are rescued and brought back. The fault lies with the police as well as the families. Firstly, the families feel ashamed to go to the police station and register a missing persons complaint because they feel their reputation will be tarnished if they let society know their daughter has gone missing. Secondly, the police refuse to register an FIR, and they ask the parents to wait or to go about and make their own enquiries.”

The Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, aimed at preventing and combating human trafficking and related offences, lacks effective implementation. The Act does not have a uniform and stringent penalty structure. Section 363 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) deals with kidnapping-related offences. But over the years, several concerns have been raised regarding Section 363. The language used in the section is broad and open to interpretation, leading to ambiguity in defining what constitutes “kidnapping”. 

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Acharya admits rescue missions are often filled with procedural problems and bureaucratic hurdles. “For instance, when we rescue a girl from a red light area in Kamathipura in Mumbai, the girl says she was brought from Sangli. Our police do not even have the power to go to Sangli and investigate. They don’t have the powers of interstate investigation. Now, anti-human trafficking units have been set up, and they do rescue operations, but they don’t have the powers to investigate. They hand over the case to the concerned police station, and then the FIR is registered. Our law enforcement agencies need to be given more power to deal with such cases. This is the larger issue.”

In Mumbai alone, between January and March this year, 383 girls went missing, but not all girls are victims of trafficking. Audrey Dmello, an advocate and the Director of Majlis, a legal centre for women and children, has a different take on the data. “For the past ten years, I have been working on cases of rape in Mumbai, and I am incredibly familiar with the data related to Mumbai. We have our own data and have found that many of these girls are subjected to extremely high levels of violence within their homes, and their sexuality is completely controlled. We have also found that there is a high rate of sexual abuse within the families itself of these girls. As far as the Mumbai data is concerned, I can tell you with my experience that more than kidnapping and trafficking, the police need to look at why many girls are leaving their homes. The truth is many leave their homes because they want to escape the torture and abuse within their own families." 

The Probe approached Rupali Chakankar, the Chairperson of the Maharashtra State Commission for Women. Chakankar states: “A committee will be formed to investigate the missing women, and the law enforcement agencies should immediately start efforts to conduct search operations to trace the women. The statistics of the disappearance of women and girls in the state in the last few months are alarming. I have asked the Home Department to form a committee and carry out search campaigns, and we have asked them to submit the report of the action taken every fifteen days to the Commission.”

But Dmello notes that setting up committees will not solve the problem. Rather, it will only complicate matters. “I am absolutely against any committee being set up because, out of my experience, I am telling you that these committees would further end up harassing the girls. The girls don’t need more harassment. They have already faced much torment within their families. Moral policing is so much high, and there is no way to stop the abuse of parental power over these girls. These angles are never looked into. First, we need to address the abuse that girls undergo in their homes.”

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Dmello explains, "I still remember the case of a 17-year-old girl who ran away from her home because her parents abused her. She slept in the rickshaw and on the streets, and she did this for two whole weeks because she preferred to stay on the roads rather than go back to her home. The problem is that we never ask what happened to a girl in her own house. There is so much reverence attached to family, parents, and parenthood that we fail to recognise parental abuse in our country. The sad part is that when most of these girls are caught by law enforcement agencies, they are pushed back into the same homes and into the same abusive environment. I have seen girls who say that I will not go back home. Put me in a shelter, and I will stay there till I turn 18. So, there are multiple facets to this issue."

Lata Bhise Sonawane, the Pune State Secretary of the National Federation of Indian Women (NFIW), says we need affirmative action from law enforcement agencies. “The police have given out the numbers but have they given us the numbers or statistics about what they have done in these cases? In how many cases have the police found some breakthrough? How many women are close to being traced? Where can we see the data related to police action? Additionally, when they say that a committee will be formed, the question is who will be part of it. Will socially sensitive women’s rights activists be part of the committee, or will the committee be filled with political appointees? Merely forming a committee is not enough. The committee should work in a time-bound manner."

Dr Meeran Chaddha Borwankar, an IPS officer who retired as the Director General of the Bureau of Police Research and Development, emphasises the need for concerted action. Borwankar also served on the Maharashtra cadre of the IPS from 1981 to 2017. She was the Director General of the National Crime Records Bureau and the Commissioner of Police in Pune. Having handled many complaints about missing girls and women, Borwankar says the increase in missing women could be because of crime syndicates, but it is more than just the job of the police. As a community, we need to work together to bring the girls back and rehabilitate them. 

“There could be a crime syndicate, which needs to be investigated. But I would say there needs to be concerted efforts. The community, the panchayats, parents, school and college teachers need to be very prompt in reporting missing girls to the police and the police, in turn, must use informants and technology to trace them and bring the perpetrators to justice,” says Dr Borwankar.

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Borwankar adds, “The proper use of Crime and Criminal Tracking Network & Systems (CCTNS) can help trace many girls and women as the CCTNS is an integrated national system that helps in effective policing. Some patterns about missing girls can be traced through this system. Traditional beat policing can also help as the beat police personnel have good knowledge about local developments. I reiterate that modern technology and conventional policing methods both should be used to bring back our girls”.

Ranjana Kumari, Director of the Centre for Social Research in Delhi and the Chairwoman of Women Power Connect, a national organisation of women’s groups cautions that the Maharashtra data should be a wake-up call to other states. “In our own personal experience, working in Delhi, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, we know for a fact that only one case of such a crime gets reported when ten such crimes take place. So, the other way of looking at it is when such large numbers are being reported, we at least know that the police have now started registering cases. But the reality is that women have been missing from every part of our country for decades. The problem is that the police do not consider these cases priority cases.

The heart-wrenching saga of missing girls in Maharashtra highlights a grave concern that demands immediate attention. The lack of action from law enforcement agencies has only deepened the plight of these vulnerable individuals, leaving families devastated and communities in fear. Consequently, the urgency to address this issue and rectify the gaps in the system has never been greater. The missing girls of Maharashtra represent more than just statistics; they are daughters, sisters, and loved ones who deserve justice and protection.