Uma and Lal Diwan need not be reminded of the statistics. One lakh children go missing in India every year — or, as the National Crime Records Bureau estimates, one every eight minutes. Over the course of a few such minutes one evening, their two daughters joined those numbers. During the six years that followed, they never stopped counting.
Now, they have.
Feb 22, 2010;
Wazirpur Industrial Area
The weather had started getting warmer after a few days of cold wave. Lal Diwan, 36, was sleeping at home, a low-ceiling one-room accommodation in lane ‘C’ of the industrial area, after a 12-hour shift. Uma, 32, wasn’t yet back from the construction site a kilometre away, where she worked as a daily wage labourer. The sun set early still, and by the time Uma returned at 6 pm, their lane was plunged in darkness.
Uma and Lal’s five children — sons aged 11, 4, 2; and daughters Kumari Manjula, 6, and Meena, 3 — were left to themselves when their parents were away. For the past year, Lal’s sister Geeta, who was mentally disturbed, had been staying with them. Geeta was married but after suffering physical assaults at the hands of her husband, had been brought to his home by Lal.
That evening, before Uma got back and Lal got up, Geeta walked out with Manjula and Meena.
The parents waited for four hours before filing a police complaint. They searched the JJ colonies of Ashok Vihar, and the nearby Murga Market. Uma and Lal’s neighbours joined them in the search.
When the girls remained missing, police brought out “ishtehaar shore-e-goga (notices for cry/agitation)” posters carrying photos of the girls and of Geeta, a number for ZIPNET (Zonal Integrated Police Network, a portal with data of missing people of eight states) and the addresses of the parents in Delhi and at their native village.
When they exhausted all the places in the city, the parents headed out to nearby states. Lal’s brother Jagjeet, the family says, cycled “100 km” searching for the girls.
Feb 24, 2010;
Raja ki Mandi, Agra
As per records with the Child Welfare Committee (CWC), Kanpur, Government Railway Police personnel spotted Manjula and Meena in Agra’s Raja ki Mandi two days later. Many Delhi-Agra trains halt at this small, bustling area.
The girls were taken to NGO Chetna in Agra, and on February 25, 2010, sent to a shelter run by another NGO, Subhash Children’s Society (SCS), in Kanpur. It’s not clear why the girls were sent so far away. Sources in the CWC say perhaps the Agra CWC did not have a meeting that day.
According to Gaurav Sachan, an SCS employee, when Manjula and Meena were asked their parents’ names, they gave them as Pappu and Maya Devi (Lal and Uma’s nicknames, which may have hindered the search for the parents). The girls also said they had left home with Geeta and taken a train.
Asked what their parents did, Manjula said their father “made utensils”. Lal, at the time, worked as a helper with a steel utensil manufacturer.
In the days that followed, as the girls and Geeta remained missing, Lal lost all interest in work, and remained unemployed for a long time. In August 2015 finally, he again started working full-time.
He also took to visiting holy men. In January 2016, Lal claims, a tantrik told him his daughters would return.
March 25, 2016; CWC, Kanpur
It has been a week since news came of a girl from Delhi, Aarti, being traced to a government-run home in Kanpur eight years after she had gone missing. In the course of the story, this reporter is told by Kanpur CWC member Girish Awasthi about two girls similarly lost from Delhi placed in a private girls’ home in Kanpur. Their parents’ address, the portal shows, is ‘Jhuggi No. C-388/389, S S Nagar, Near Jagdamba Mandir, Ashok Vihar’.
At 5 pm on March 25, we knock on the door of Uma and Lal Diwan. The house is locked. Neighbours call the parents up, informing them that someone had come with news of their children. Half an hour later, Uma arrives with Jagjeet, her brother-in-law. On hearing that Manjula and Meena could be at the Kanpur home, both break down.
Later that evening, Preeti Singh, a counsellor with Don Bosco NGO who works with the Kanpur CWC, and CWC member Awasthi, both of whom were instrumental in reuniting Aarti with her parents, call up Lal. They tell the parents to bring an identity proof as well as a police verification letter when they come to Kanpur.
“Is Geeta also there?” the parents ask.
March 27; Kanpur Rly Station
The past two days organising the papers have been painful. “I have been getting around 25 calls daily from relatives. I haven’t slept. All I think about is my children,” says Uma.
It is finally time to leave. On March 27, Uma, Lal and Jagjeet stuff their clothes in three carry bags and board a general compartment of the Shiv Ganga Express leaving from New Delhi Railway Station at 7 pm. Six hours later, they are at Kanpur Central Railway Station.
They spend the night at the station. “We will get our children tomorrow and leave,” Lal tells the others.
March 28; Naubasta, Kanpur
Around 7 am, they call up Preeti Singh. Her answer is not what they have been expecting. She says Kanpur is observing a holiday due to Ganga Mela, held after Holi, and the identification of Manjula and Meena would not be possible till the next day. The handing over, if it happens, would have to wait another day, till Wednesday, when a sitting of the CWC would take place.
The distressed family starts wondering where to stay. With no money to rent a hotel room, they try figuring out whether they know anyone in the city. After a series of calls, Uma manages to find someone — an old neighbour, Ladli, from her maternal village, Bhaghmau in Madhya Pradesh.
Ladli’s husband Ram Avtar Verma, it turns out, is a head constable with the Uttar Pradesh Police. It’s early morning yet when Verma gets the call, and the words rush out of Uma, “Jijaji main Ladli ke gaon se bol rahi hoon. Mere bachche kho gaye the cheh saal pehle, aur woh Kanpur mein hain. Hamare paas rehne ki suvidha nahin hai (I am Ladli’s neighbour from her village. My children got lost six years ago, and they are in Kanpur. We don’t have a place to stay).”
Within 40 minutes, Verma is at the station, to take them home to Naubasta, 10 km from the railway station.
Verma admits it was the first time he had heard of Uma. “I asked my wife and she confirmed the story of the missing girls. I didn’t think twice,” he says.
As the Diwans recount their story to Ladli and the others, the police officer, sitting in his porch, shakes his head in wonder. “I am in police since long and I had no clue the children were here!”
The day has dragged on, and it’s around 9 in the evening, after they have had dinner, that someone asks Uma the question that is on everyone’s lips. Would she recognise her children when she meets them?
“Badi waale ka chehra thoda jala hua hai. Pehchaan loongi (The elder one’s face is a little burnt. I will recognise her ),” she says.
And would they recognise her and the others? Jagjeet doesn’t doubt it. “Meena has played on my lap. She will recognise me.”
They also make plans for later. The first stop once the girls are back would be the Ganga in Kanpur, to offer prayers.
March 29; Subhash Children’s Society (SCS), Kanpur
It is 11 am when they reach the SCS office near Kidwai Nagar. Preeti Singh talks to SCS owner Kamal Kant Tiwary, and he asks the Diwans a few questions. He also seeks their identification proof, and says it would have to be sent to Delhi for verification. “We will call you in two-three days,” Tiwary says, before leaving.
The parents and Singh are taken aback. Singh tells SCS officials, “The parents are here with their identification and also with a police verification of their missing person’s complaint. At least they should be allowed to meet the children.”
Apart from verification from the Ashok Vihar Police Station in Delhi, the Diwans have a letter from Wazipur MLA Rajesh Gupta confirming their address.
As Singh continues to argue with the NGO employees, SCS officials question the Diwans on basic details about their children. Gaurav Sachan asks them how their daughters went missing. The details they give match the story the SCS has.
The officials at the home scan the Aadhaar cards of the parents, while one of the employees calls up Delhi NGO Prayas for further confirmation of their address. Prayas also runs a child helpline, in Delhi.
At around 1 pm, the Diwans are told that Manjula and Meena have gone for their final examinations and would be reaching shortly. Minutes later, two girls walk in, wearing white shirts and blue skirts of the Subhash Children Academy, its initials on a tie that the elder girl wears.
Uma lets out a scream — “I recognise my elder one.” However, she stays in her chair, as if glued to it, her hands balled into fists.
The NGO officials quickly take the family members into a separate room, where Richa Tiwary, a counsellor, brings six children face to face with the parents and uncle.
Tiwary asks the parents to identify their children from among them. Uma doesn’t hesitate a second. Holding Manjula’s and Meena’s hands, she says, “These are my kids.”
Tiwary next asks the children if they recognise their parents, and both say, “Yes.”
Tears rolling down her cheeks, Uma hugs Manjula and Meena tightly. The girls too start crying, followed by Lal and Jagjeet.
Her face flushed, Uma admits she was afraid. “I feared the younger one would not recognise me, but she did.”
Jagjeet suddenly realises how thirsty they all are, and rushes out to get a 2-litre cold drink bottle.
Sachan shows Uma some videos of Manjula dancing, on his mobile phone. Uma watches fascinated as her 12-year-old swings to Bollywood song Nimboda, Nimboda, Nimboda. “A month back she participated in a dance competition,” explains Sachan. Manjula had also participated in a play, Beti Bachao, where she played the part of a mother who wanted a girl child and the husband didn’t, he tells the family.
Singh, who has gone quiet, regrets that she was not able to find the parents of the girls sooner. She takes out a register where she has scribbled down details of every child she has met at homes. Flipping through, she gets to Manjula’s name.
She reads out that on January 14, 2015, she had placed the first call to Ashok Vihar Police Station in Delhi and told them about the two missing girls with them in Kanpur. “We told them the details of the complaint lodged at this police station and asked them to find out their address. However, even after 15 attempts, I couldn’t get it,” says Singh.
Every time she called up the station, Singh says, she was directed to different inspectors. “They all said Ashok Vihar was big and to locate the parents was impossible.”
Singh also says that unlike in the case of Aarti, the girl traced to Delhi, there was not even an FIR in the case of Manjula and Meena. In 2013, the Supreme Court had directed that an FIR must be registered in every missing complaint of a child.
An officer of the Ashok Vihar Police Station says while he couldn’t say why an FIR had not been registered in the case of Manjula and Meena, it could be because they had left home with a relative. “It was not suspicious.” He adds that even if the FIR was not registered, the drill was the same.
However, he has no answer to why Singh didn’t get a follow-up response to her repeated calls.
Around 3 pm, Tiwary’s wife Anita arrives. A CWC member herself, she says the girls could be handed over to the parents earliest on Friday. “This is a question of small children. We need to do this properly. Also, the children have to appear for another examination on Wednesday,” she says.
The Diwans look at each other in dismay. Lal says, “We have three more children who we have left with neighbours.” As they urge her to reconsider, Anita relents and says, “I will try to hand over the children to you after their examination Wednesday.”
Anita also tells the parents that the people at the SCS home had got attached to the girls. “We have taken good care of them. Once they are with you, they need to be admitted into school.”
Singh, who has been meeting NGO officials in another room, says they too are surprised that the girls’ parents had proved so easy to track. The NGO had given up after an initial round of search in 2010, she says.
March 30; CWC, Kanpur
In a one-room office in Kalyanpura, Awasthi is getting ready for the CWC sitting where a call would be taken on handing over Manjula and Meena to their parents. The Diwans are waiting outside the office.
The CWC is the sole authority on matters of children found or to be restored to parents or guardians. It also decides which home a missing child is to be sent to.
The files with these details are stocked in an old iron cupboard. Along a wooden table sit the chairperson of the CWC and four other members. Awasthi says each member receives Rs 1,000 per sitting and around 11 such sittings are held a month. However, he adds, “We haven’t received our salaries for 15 months.”
By 2 pm, almost all the CWC members have arrived. Hordes of people are moving around, including a policeman enquiring about a missing child, a relative of a child who wants to adopt him, and a group of children who are being counselled by Singh.
Half an hour later, Manjula and Meena arrive, their exams over. They enter holding Uma’s hands. Meena greets everyone, while Manjula keeps quiet. Asked to introduce herself, the 9-year-old says chirpily, in English, “My name is Meena and I study in Class II.”
On popular demand, Meena breaks into a poem — “Aaye titili rang birangi, hai sunhari pankhon wali… (Here comes the colourful butterfly, on its golden wings).” As she finishes, Meena hides behind her mother.
Singh asks the parents if they can afford to give the girls an education, and says NGOs in Delhi could help them.
By 3.30 pm, the paper work is done, and the CWC returns the girls to their parents.
After a cheerful goodbye, the family leaves for the home in Kidwai Nagar, around 20 km from the CWC office, where Manjula and Meena have been staying for six years.
The parents have got packets of sweets and distribute them to the girls at the home. No one there can keep their tears away.
“All the children were crying and hugging each other. We couldn’t stop ourselves and broke down too,” Uma says later. There are around nine other girls at the SCS home, some of whom have been there for five years.
Meena and Manjula have only some clothes and books to carry, and take these in their schoolbags.
At 7 pm, the family makes its way to the Ganga, crossing the festive Phool Bagh area. Ladli is with them. Uma fills an earthen lamp with ghee brought from Delhi and lights it. Then they all offer prayers to the Ganga. Uma resolves to take care of her children, before breaking into a bhajan.
At 11 pm, they board the Shram Shakti Express to Delhi from the Kanpur Railway Station. They have no reservation, and travel back sitting on the train floor.
* * *
March 31; Home
The train is late by two hours. By the time they reach Wazirpur Industrial Area, it is 8 am. Around 50 people are gathered to welcome Manjula and Meena home. One of them tells Uma, “You never harmed anyone. You have received the reward of that.”
The girls’ elder brother, who works in a factory, is not home yet. The other two siblings come running out. The family again celebrates by offering all their guests cold drink.
No one mentions Geeta, who has not been seen since that 2010 evening.
Uma remarks apologetically that she no longer remembers her daughters’ birthdays. March 31 would be as good a day as any.
Connecting the dots
Indian Express Reporter
On March 19, the Delhi Police issued a press release about a girl who had gone missing eight years ago from North East Delhi and had been tracked down to Kanpur. While following the story, I got in touch with a few CWC officials, including Girish Awasthi, who had helped reunite Aarti with her family. While discussing the case, Awasthi mentioned two sisters who had gone missing six years ago from Delhi, and were staying at a private NGO home in Kanpur. The girls had told officials their father’s name was “Pappu”.
Awasthi had been trying to trace the family for some time now. He told me the date the girls had been found by officials, and I used the same to run a search on ZIPNET. I also found that their photos matched that of two missing girls on the portal.
In a few attempts, I had found a complaint number and an address in Ashok Vihar that matched their case. At 5 pm, March 25, I visited the colony and began asking for someone named ‘Pappu’ whose daughters had gone missing. Many pointed me to the Diwans. One look at the photos I was carrying, and the family confirmed the girls were their daughters.