On a humid February afternoon in 1988, during their hide-and-seek session, S Krishnan knew something was amiss when his holler of defeat wasn’t met with the impish smile of his brother S Venkatesan emerging from behind a wall. The 10-year-old had vanished without a trace from their East Tambaram neighbourhood.
For 28 years Krishnan, now based in the US, has been distributing, uploading and sharing photos of his brother hoping for leads. He recently discovered an office in Adyar where, though the trail turned cold, he found a team led by IT professional Vijay Gnanadesikan that had a rich repository of data of missing children and used facial recognition software to track them.
For close to a year now, Vijay and his team have been surfing various central and state government websites and social networking sites to create a bank of photos of nearly three lakh children, some of them in government or private homes but missing from their families.
“If you feed in a photo, our software automatically links it to children who look similar in our database,” said Vijay, pointing to a photo of a 4-year-old child beggar in Allahabad he chanced upon on Facebook. It matched with the picture of a boy on the Centre’s Track Child portal reported missing from Haryana by his parents.
At present, the closed application, Facetagr, has helped track more than 100 children across the country. Vijay’s team is now in talks with the anti-child trafficking unit in TN and the directorate of social defence to incorporate facial recognition in its tracking system. It also working on a project to track families of around 15,000 children from Nepal rescued while being trafficked into India. “We are giving 15 handsets with the app to volunteers there,” said Vijay.
To register missing children, the Centre has ‘Khoya Paya’, (‘lost and found’) website for public use, and Track Child which allows police, government and charities to coordinate repatriation. Sifting through more than two lakh photos is often tough. “And sometimes the children’s spellings may differ in the lost and found pages, so they don’t link,” said Vijay. In case families don’t have photos, a picture of a sibling can also help the team track the child.
According to Track Child, 2.5 lakh children have gone missing between January 2012 and March 2017, roughly translating into five children vanishing every hour. It also shows that nearly 73,000 children remain missing despite intensive government public awareness campaigns. Officials say reasons behind cases of missing children could be kidnapping, abduction, trafficking, illegal adoption, runaway children and displacement during natural calamities.
To widen the scope of the search and to improve rehabilitation, the Union ministry of women and child development recently formulated a Standard Operating Procedure to trace missing children. However, it has come under criticism from various quarters. “It is a 100-page document that quotes international conventions in a language that isn’t easy to understand let alone be memorized by a various stakeholders, including those who may not be exclusively working in the field of child rights,” said P M Nair, chair professor and research coordinator on human trafficking at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai. He said although the Central government frequently uploads its child tracking portal, not every state gives reports. “The problem is that in many places police are not trained and not integrated into the existing mechanism to register and trace missing children,” he said, adding that a face recognition technology will be a big boost to trace children. “Integration of technology is very important in this day and age,” he said.