“What was Modi ji? A chaiwala. A street child. And what is he today?” says Dr Puneet Jain and takes a pause. Neeraj answers in a barely audible voice, “Pradhaan Mantri.”

Jain is a clinical psychologist who volunteers with the non-profit Chetna which works with street children in Delhi. Every Monday, between 2 pm and 5 pm at Chetna’s centre in Nizamuddin, Jain counsels boys like Neeraj, who live on the streets without families and homes. Some are deep into drugs. Most can’t envision a future for themselves.

“If you get clean, you can become Modi,” says Jain in a booming voice (and then winks at me to make sure I understand he is joking about the prime minister once being an addict). Neeraj smiles wryly.

Neeraj ran away from his grandmother’s home with Rs 200 in 2007 when he was 10 years old. His father passed away and he barely remembers his mother’s face.

Every day, an average of 265 children are reported missing in India – some might have run away like Neeraj, others might have been kidnapped or trafficked. According to the Union home ministry’s data, over 3.25 lakh children went missing between 2011 and 2014. As many as 55% of them are girls. Forty five per cent of them remain untraced.

Last week, Minister of Women and Child Development Maneka Gandhi and Information and Technology Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad jointly launched Khoya Paya, a new website to help track missing children.

The website, meant to engage the public, has three categories – “My child is missing”, “I have sighted a child”, and “Search a missing child”. How does it work?

The case of Sneha

Sneha sits anxiously at the railway police station on platform one at Hazrat Nizamuddin Junction, dialling a number that won’t answer. On the verge of tears, she keeps looking at the platform waiting for a boy to rescue her from the clutches of two social workers sitting on her right and left. Her heeled platforms and shimmery salwar would not have allowed a quick escape. And there are too many policemen hovering around.

This wasn’t the future the girl had imagined when she ran away from home in Bilaspur, Chhattisgarh, and hopped onto the general compartment of a Delhi-headed train, to start a new life with her boyfriend.

She was exiting the station with her bag when a worker of Prayaas, an NGO working with street children, stopped and asked her where she was going. She fumbled. She claimed she was 18 years old but she barely looks 15.

If Sneha’s parents in Bilaspur had access to the internet, they could log into Khoya Paya, enter Sneha’s basic details, physical attributes, photo, family address, and instantly the information would be available to 121 million Indians on the internet, including the railway police at Hazrat Nizammuddin, who could use it to identify Sneha as a missing child. The process could also work the other way around – the police and the social worker could post Sneha’s image and her parents could look it up.

The attitude of the police

Zipnet (Zonal Integrated Police Network) and Track Your Child are two existing internal online search portals that are used by the police and a few select organisations. “When we find a missing child, we file an FIR,” says juvenile officer KP Singh who has seen more runaway children than most police officers in the seven years he has been posted at Nizamuddin railway station. “Then we upload the child’s details onto Zipnet and Track Your Child.”

But not all police officers are as cooperative as Singh and filing a FIR with the police can be a harrowing experience. When Rajamati’s 15-year-old son Sandeep went missing in March this year, she refused to go to a police station since she was sure it would be traumatising.

One of the houses where she worked as domestic help was that of a journalist who persuaded her to file an FIR. It was finally April when Rajamati mustered the courage to go to the Sarita Vihar police station. It took her three days of repeated visits and help from the journalist to get the police to lodge the complaint.

“When we all repeatedly kept going to the station asking them to file an FIR, the police in anger grabbed my phone and threw it,” recalls 24-year-old Monu, Sandeep’s brother.

Rajamati found Sandeep last month but not through the police. It was a relative who worked as a rajmistri (mason) in Lajpat Nagar who caught the boy picking up plates at a hotel. After his mother brought Sandeep back home and informed the police that she had found him, they lost no time in landing at her house to close the case – a display of alacrity entirely missing when she lodged the complaint.

New and improved

While Zipnet and Track Your Child allow only the police to upload pictures and details of missing children after filing the FIR, the new website Khoya Paya throws the platform open to the public. Anybody who wants to find a missing child or report a missing child can register themselves on the website and upload details of the child or browse through the names and details that have been previously uploaded. This, however, doesn’t mean that the process of filing an FIR can be evaded. A notice on the site asks people to inform the police in case of a missing child. It also says it is mandatory for the police to file an FIR upon receiving the complaint.

Although the new website looks like a simple technological intervention, Sanjay Gupta, the founder of Chetna whose suggestions were taken by the ministry while creating the website, feels that it has immense potential but much needs to be worked to make it a really useful tool.

There are primarily two issues. “Small children have evolving physical attributes,” says Gupta. “If a one-year-old is not found within a year, the child’s features would most certainly change from the physical attributes defined by the parents, making a later match increasingly difficult.” Parents most often don’t have a recent photo of the child, making identification difficult.

“Our suggestion to the ministry is to link this with Aadhaar,” says Gupta. If the database can plug into the biometric data recorded by Aadhaar, a parent who has the Aadhaar card of their missing child can search for a biometric match, which is likely to be more accurate.

The second issue, however, is the consequences that follow from this being a user interactive public domain where you and I could potentially spot a missing child, whip out our mobile phones and instantly upload a photo leading to an unnecessary information overload since many of these children return to their parents themselves in some days. “We fear that eventually this could desensitise the public,” says Gupta.

The question of runaways

Muhammad Alam walks on the Hazrat Nizammuddin station overbridge with eyes darting left and right. After spending nearly four years working for Chetna, he is trained to spot a runaway kid. “They all have a peculiar look – abandoned, hungry, lying curled up looking listless,” he says. “Most children run away from home because they have never gotten any love. They were raised surrounded in an atmosphere of abuse that they wanted to break free from.”

The first thing Chetna does is befriend the child and offer him food and water. The staff earn their trust through a slow process of counselling, by the end of which children usually open up and share basic details about their home. Those who feel overwhelmed by the difficulties and loneliness of street life and want to go back home are given help to do so. For those who don’t want to, the counselling continues and perhaps at a later stage they might want to go down the reconciliation path.

Chetna believes the decision to go home is squarely the child’s – sending back children against their will is counterproductive as they would run away again.

While a new website could help find children who accidentally lost their way, it can do little to change the conditions of abject poverty and struggle that compelled others to deliberately run away.

Names of all children have been changed to protect identities.

Shriya Mohan is a National Foundation of India and Save the children media fellow.