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466 kids in three bogies

The children at Palakkad in Kerala on Saturday

Thiruvananthapuram, May 25: A group of 466 tired and hungry children from Bihar and Jharkhand who got off a long-distance train in Kerala yesterday afternoon have been intercepted by the authorities who are investigating possible child trafficking.

The children --- mostly aged 5 to 14 but some apparently as young as 3 --- have been taken to a rescue home while local police have detained the two dozen-odd adults accompanying them for questioning.

Sources said the adults claimed to be taking the children to the well-known Muslim Orphanage at Mukkom in Kozhikode district to provide them with education, but failed to show any documents.

Some of the adults claimed to be madarsa teachers from Bihar and Jharkhand, the sources added, and the rest said they were parents of some of the children --- which would imply that not all the children were orphans.

Mukkom is a short bus drive from Olavakkode, the station in Palakkad district where the group had got off the Patna-Ernakulam Express, after which suspicious local commuters alerted railway police.

Asked whether the orphanage had confirmed the detainees’ version, no one from any of the agencies that have got involved in the matter gave a clear answer.

Sources in the district and railway police, district administration, and the state commission for the protection of child rights hummed and hawed, while those in the NGO Childline India said they were yet to contact the orphanage.

This newspaper’s calls to the orphanage’s landline number went unanswered.

State child rights commission member N. Babu told The Telegraph the matter was “serious” and there seemed to have been “a clear violation of the law”.

Speaking generally, he said: “It’s a criminal offence to transport children from one state to another without valid papers.”

Sources said the children, at least half of them girls, were “packed” into three compartments ---- far beyond capacity --- and had gone without food and water for several hours. Many of them were travelling ticket-less too.

Babu said he had been told the railways had imposed a fine of about Rs 1 lakh for the ticket-less travel and that this had been paid by somebody on behalf of the children. He couldn’t say who paid the money and where.

The child rights commission has registered a case on its own and sought a report within a week from the district police chief, social welfare officer and the railway police. No police case has yet been registered.

“We found that about 237 of the students (children) had IDs from their native places, but the others didn’t have any documents on them,” said the director of Childline in Kerala, Father Jos Paul Edakkalathur.

The authorities said some of the children studied in a school run by the orphanage and were returning from home after a vacation, but that doesn’t explain the other children who lacked ID papers.

“We’ll speak to the (Mukkom) orphanage committee and then decide what further course to take as this could invite child trafficking charges,’’ Father Edakkalathur said.

Jharkhand police seemed unaware of the incident this evening. Inspector-general (organised crime) Sampat Meena said his subordinates would contact the Kerala police to “cross-check”.

Sanjay Mishra, member of Jharkhand’s child rights commission, did not know, either.

Trafficking of children from the central, eastern and northeastern states to the south — in connection with rackets such as bonded labour and organ trade — has been a matter of concern for a long time.

In April 2010, the Supreme Court had asked the National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights to probe allegations of the trafficking of tribal children from some of the northeastern states. The directive had followed the rescue of 76 children from Assam and Manipur in Tamil Nadu.

Jharkhand and Bengal are among the states worst hit by human trafficking, from teenaged girls to very young children. Fourteen children from the state were rescued in Bangalore as recently as May 8.

Every year, some 300 children go missing from the state. Many are forced to work as maids in Delhi, Bangalore and Calcutta with little pay and are often tortured and raped.