Dehradun, Aug 22 (IANS) Two months after the Uttarakhand tragedy, the wounds continue to deepen as stories of missing and orphaned children come to the fore with fears expressed that many of them may fall prey to human traffickers.
While the state government estimates 455 children missing after the floods ravaged towns and villages, the state's child rights commission puts the number much higher. The commission and aid agencies are also worried that orphaned and vulnerable children may be falling prey to traffickers.
"The risk of children falling prey to traffickers is always there after a natural calamity, especially of this magnitude," Ajay Sethia, chairperson of the Uttarakhand State Commission for Protection of Child Rights, told IANS. "My concern is how to handle the more than 300-400 orphaned children because the government has no infrastructure."
Flash floods and landslides caused by cloudbursts claimed thousands of lives in Uttarakhand in June. Among those killed and affected were both pilgrims and locals. As a result, families have been torn apart, some being entirely washed away, others leaving only a few survivors and orphaned children.
Quoting the latest state government figures, Sethia said that as of now, 287 children from other states - mostly pilgrims' children - have been reported to have gone missing after the tragedy. The most among these missing children - 130 - were from Uttar Pradesh. Others were from Gujarat, Haryana, Jharkhand, Punjab, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Delhi, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Chandigarh.
"The district administration figures of children of local people going missing is 168, but the commission believes the figure is higher," Sethiya said. "For instance, in Rudraprayag district, the official estimate of missing children is 146, but the commission's figure is 181. So our total figure is 203 missing children, but there may be more."
Kailash Satyarthi of the Bachpan Bachao Andolan (BBA) said that the focus of the government has not yet reached the children, which is a matter of concern.
"The focus was on rescuing the missing people, the pilgrims first because they were in such big numbers and then the locals. Children have still not got the focus, which is worrying, because from our experience, after every natural disaster a place becomes a trafficking zone. We had seen it during and after the Kosi floods, during the Tsunami, and now we fear the same in Uttarakhand."
The Uttarakhand SCPCR pushed the central government to start the Integrated Child Protection Scheme in the state under which all existing child protection schemes, with additional interventions, will be brought together to build a protective environment for children.
"The central government will allot the funds and we have given directions for the care of vulnerable children and orphans. We have said that of the 13 observation homes, only three should remain and the rest should be made children's homes. In Tehri, there is one shelter home which should be converted into a children's home," Sethia said.
Although no case of trafficking or kidnapping has been reported till now, recognising the looming threat on vulnerable children, Sethia said, he had instructed the director general of police to activate the four anti-trafficking units in the state.
Civil society, on the other hand, has been doing its bit to offer a protective environment to the affected children. Save the Children India, for instance, has plans of building 100 child-friendly spaces in as many villages in which trained caregivers will help children learn, play, get medical help and interact with one another for psycho-social support.
"Children are at a loose end and unprotected, either because their families have disappeared or they are left alone because their parents have gone looking for alternative livelihood. Schools have been washed away and the kids are extremely traumatised. In such a scenario, these child-friendly spaces, which are tented areas, aim to provide support," Devendra Tak of the NGO told IANS.
Of the 100 planned, 13 such spaces in three districts - Chamoli, Uttarkashi and Tehri Garhwal - are functional and support 25-30 children each, although their capacity is 50 each. The initiative has the support of both the state government and the Centre.
Satyarthi further said that BBA has written to the Uttarakhand government to instruct the local police to prevent outsiders from entering the 2,000 affected villages without verification.
"It's very easy to lure away children from parents on the pretext of a job in a city and a good livelihood when they have lost everything. Traffickers will be on the lookout for such vulnerable families to source child labourers," he warned.
(Azera Rahman can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)