Where are our Etan Patzs and Charles Lindberghs?



Continuing my American series from my previous editorial, I must admit that my American tour didn’t start so well. On my flight to the US, I saw three films which symbolized the epitome of boredom of made-only-for-Oscars and Oscars nominated stuff! First, I saw The Iron Lady; then I saw another forgettable movie whose name also I have thankfully forgotten; and finally I saw the movie J Edgar – each outdoing the other in trying to be slow, boring and almost meaningless. But then, when you want to win at the Oscars, a boring biopic is often the best way! Nevertheless, in the most boring J Edgar, what struck me was the fact that perhaps the biggest achievement of the iconic Hoover, the man behind American intelligence, was his investigation of a case of kidnapping of a little boy called Charles Lindbergh. The film and the American society, way back then in 1932, made such a huge issue around the kidnapping and disappearance of a kid – so much so that a famous newspaper writer called the kidnapping and its trial thereafter “the biggest story since resurrection”. The whole incident led to landmark acts and laws being passed, making transporting a kidnapping victim across state lines a federal crime. The accused was given the electric chair after being caught a couple of years later. But Hoover had used that particular kidnapping as a tool to lobby for a centralized record-keeping system leading to the fingerprint mapping of every citizen and the beginning of the world’s most efficient intelligence body – the Federal Bureau of Investigation; FBI.

Upon landing and reaching the hotel, even as my thoughts on the importance given by the American society to a single case of kidnapping had barely subsided, I read in the papers about the story of a 1979 kidnapping... that of a child called Etan Patz. What amazed me was that though the boy was kidnapped 33 years ago at the age of 6, and declared dead in 2001 since he could never be found, the police and FBI didn’t give up on him and continued their search. And then, in April 2012, they discovered a basement under a road near the boy’s home, where a carpenter lived, who was possibly someone who had had a hand in the murder. What struck me in the story again was how the kidnapping then in 1979 had shaken up the entire America and had resulted in amazing new awareness and changes in various systems – of parenting and schooling. Earlier, schools never alerted the parents if a child didn’t show up at school; but post the Etan case, schools started doing so, in order to ensure that in case there were a similar tragedy, it wouldn’t take till the end of the day for the parents to come to know – thereby saving precious hours for search operations to begin. Ronald Reagan even declared May 25th – the day of Etan’s disappearance – as the Missing Children’s Day. More importantly, a national system was laid down to track children who disappeared. The National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children since then has tracked down more than a hundred and fifty thousand kids. And as per statistics, the rate of recovery now stands at an extraordinary 97%, up from 62% in 1990!

What do these two incredible stories have in common? Well, the commonality is the importance placed on every human’s life – more so if it’s a child’s – in the country that personifies democracy. In America, eighty years ago in the last century, the life of a kidnapped child was as valuable as it is today. Compare that to India of the 21st century. In May 2008, The Sunday Indian did a cover story on how children were vanishing by the day from Delhi and its suburbs as Noida and Gurgaon emerged as medical tourism hotspots (read the story at http://www.thesundayindian.com/en/story/mystery-of-the-missing-children/7/5375/)! In fact, one of our top editorial members, Anil Pandey, had gone two years before that to Nithari to find out more about the issue of disappearing children there. The policemen there, unlike the American ones 80 years back, negligently blamed the physical affairs and immoral character of girls as being the main causes of the children disappearing. Two years later, of course, the shocking case of Nithari killings shook the country.

Our story was then picked up by newspapers, one after the other. But nothing much happened. Even now, every other month, I see some or the other newspaper doing rigmarole follow-up coverage on that story... but that’s about it. The fact is that from areas in Delhi like Nangloi, Sultanpuri, Tigdi, JJ Çamp, Sangam Vihar, Prem Nagar etc, every other day, many children go missing, adding up to thousands every year. The Union Home Ministry accepted a few days back that 5,111 children went missing in Delhi last year; 1,146 children have already gone missing in Delhi till mid of April this year – and these are only those cases that are officially recorded by the police. These figures would numb the mind of any sane individual. One can only shockingly imagine the true numbers of missing children in Delhi that go much beyond these officially reported figures. Extremely sorrowful parents with tears in their eyes go to the media and police and meet with indifference. The big suspicion now is organ trading as Delhi and its suburbs have become a hot destination for medical tourism. But there is no action and nobody to chase these cases and bring justice to the thousands of affected families. After all, these cases aren’t as sexy in terms of media appeal as the one Aarushi murder case.

I only wonder – is the value of a child’s life that worthless specially when the child is from areas like Sultanpuri and Sangam Vihar, areas which typical mainstream journalists don’t even care to know the names of? Eighty years after Charles Lindbergh was kidnapped, there are such cases happening in hundreds every day in India. But there are no brave men, no J Edgars, no FBIs and no policemen chasing these cases and bringing systems in places so that the poor don’t need to pay a hundred times over for being poor, first due to their economic conditions and then due to such apathy for their sorrows. To add to all this, we have a passionless Prime Minister at the top, who is basically sleepwalking through his tenure, and shows no urge to make a single worthwhile change, leave alone care about missing children.

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