Lost and found: childhood – and lives

Operation Smile of Ghaziabad police, which has helped 1,084 children unite with their families, is now the model across the country after praise from home ministry. Here’s how it works

GN Bureau | December 17, 2015




Policing Uttar Pradesh, India’s largest state with 20 crore people (2011 census), is no easy task. So when Dharmendra Singh, a native of the state, made it to the IPS in 2006 and was allotted the Uttar Pradesh cadre, he knew how challenging his job was going to be.
He was aware that being a cop in UP was a thankless job – a thin force could never come up to the expectations of people in a land with high crime rate and rampant human rights violations. As against the national average of one policeman for every 761 citizens, there is one cop for every 1,173 persons in UP.

“However, from the beginning, it was on the back of my mind that I must help children who go missing and are apparently abused,” says Singh, who is known for his humane approach in policing. He was painfully aware of the bad reputation of his force. He wanted to change it.

In 2014, Singh was posted as the senior superintendent of police, Ghaziabad, abutting the national capital. He decided to work on his dream idea. First, Singh looked at the data of missing children: 3.25 lakh had gone missing in three years (2011-2014) and 45 percent of them remained untraceable. He decided to act.

On September 14, 2014, Singh ordered a day-long drive against child labour in Ghaziabad. The cops could find the ‘chhotus’ everywhere – working in dhabas, motor workshops, as rag pickers for a wholesaler, at homes. Many of them were ill-clad and living in sub-human conditions. At the end of the day police had rescued 51 children.

The policemen heard their stories and most of them were shaken by the brutalities heaped on them by society. “Most of the stories narrated by the children were touching, heart breaking and horrifying,” said Singh. Many of them were in fact the missing children and had no memory of their families. Most of these children had gone missing after they strayed too far from home while playing.

This experience made Singh launch a full-fledged operation to track the missing children. He called it Operation Smile.

Singh’s team took 10 days to get prepared for Operation Smile. They relooked at the existing list of missing children in Ghaziabad district for the past 10 years. It needed to be updated. Station house officers (SHOs) were asked to contact parents to know about their missing children. Based on this, the police compiled an album with high-resolution pictures of the missing children and their other details. 

Realising that police alone could not do it, Singh coordinated with child welfare commissions, NGOs, child rights activists and shelter homes.
However, Singh’s biggest challenge was the mindset of his force, for whom tracking a missing kid was not as important a task as cracking a murder case. “The truth is that sensitivity of police towards missing children is not as much as it should be compared to other cases of heinous crimes,” says Singh. Several sessions of ‘mind training’ and sensitisation were conducted with the cops.

In all 40 sub-inspectors were involved in the first leg of the operation. Each police station was asked to set up teams for the operation – some had just one team, others many. Each team was given a file containing relevant information like pictures and description of missing children, names of NGOs, child welfare bodies, police stations, and civic bodies of the cities where the teams intended to go in search of the missing.

Police teams launched the search in at least 18 cities including nearby places like Delhi, Haridwar and Faridabad as well as far-off places like Mumbai, Bengaluru and Kolkata.  

Each team stayed in a city for seven to 10 days. They contacted NGOs and shelter homes. They found some of the children whose names were on their lists. However, after talking to them the police came to know about more missing children and also the places where they can be found.

The cops found majority of the children at railway stations and also at bus stands, traffic junctions, crossings, and under bridges and flyovers. The teams made contact with the missing children in presence of citizens and media to create awareness and publicity.

Though Operation Smile was launched to track the missing children of Ghaziabad district, now at the shelter homes the policemen were meeting children from other states as well. Many of them longed to go home. 

The operation had now become a broader mission; search and recovery of all the missing children belonging to Uttar Pradesh – more than 20,000 of them.

An officer of the rank of deputy superintendent was made the nodal officer for Operation Smile. His job was to keep in touch with each team on a daily basis. After being rescued the children would be lodged in shelter homes across UP on order of child welfare committees. Based on available information and statement of a rescued child, the police would try to locate his parents. The Operation Smile team would also inform the police in other districts about recovery of children belonging to their area.

“If the team found children missing from other states they tried to get his address like name of the village from him. Then they would call up the village pradhan to verify if a child had gone missing from his village,” says Singh.

The operation lasted one month and by then the cops were happy to have facilitated 227 reunions.

The good work of Singh’s team reached the North Block; union home minister Rajnath Singh announced a year ago to make Operation Smile a template for tracking missing children across India. He asked all the states to emulate Operation Smile and even directed them to seek help from the Ghaziabad police for training their officials.

Such a measure is crucial in a country where children go missing in unbelievably large numbers: between 2008 and 2010, 1,17,480 children were reported missing from 392 districts; 74,209 children were traced and 41,546 children remained untraced, according to replies to RTI applications filed by Bachpan Bachao Andolan (BBA).

Following the home ministry directive, many states launched such campaigns. Nearly 3,000 mission children have gone back to their homes this year so far.

Meanwhile, Singh’s team is continuing their work more enthusiastically. They have united 1,084 missing children with their parents so far. Singh says his teams are now smaller and compact. The learning has helped and more and more policemen want to be part of the coveted Operation Smile teams.

Singh and his team of 35 officers involved in Operation Smile were felicitated by Rajnath Singh on October 7 this year for their pioneering effort. SSP Singh has now promised to intensify Operation Smile. A humble policeman by nature, Singh’s work is an example of how a small idea executed well can change lives and also bring citizens closer to the police.

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