By Anuradha Nagaraj
CHENNAI, India (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A group of street children is the face of a new citizens' campaign demanding better policing and community programs to track missing children in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, where at least two children are reported missing every day.
The campaign, which launched this week, aims to spread awareness among the homeless, help police understand the challenges of street children and push the Tamil Nadu government to address safety issues of those living on the streets.
"I know what it's like on the street. There is always the fear of something not good happening," said C. Ashok, 19, a runaway now living in a shelter run by a local charity, Karunalaya.
"I want to be the voice of the two babies stolen from Chennai's streets in the past month," Ashok added, referring to recent reports of two incidents of child kidnapping.
He is one of the faces of Project Abhayam (safe shelter), which has the backing of several Tamil film stars demanding the quick rescue of missing children.
According to data released by the state crime record bureau on Thursday, 4,280 children were reported missing across Tamil Nadu last year. The number is up from the 3,373 missing in 2014.
Alarmed by the disappearance of 271 children in Tamil Nadu in the first three months of this year, the National Human Rights Commission last week asked state authorities to account for the situation.
The disappearance of children has raised concerns they may be trafficked into prostitution, handed over to criminal gangs or sold for illegal adoption.
"The recent cases of two babies stolen, in what appears to be a very organized and blatant manner, has rattled everyone," Paul Sunder Singh, secretary of Karunalaya, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation on Thursday.
"There is an urgent need to keep a watch on children growing up on the street because they are the easiest targets for trafficking or child labor," he added.
An estimated 40,000 people live on the streets of Chennai, Singh said. "There has to be constant public pressure on authorities to ensure these children are found."
As part of the initiative, the four children chosen as ambassadors will be trained on the issue and asked to share their experiences with a wider audience.
"When you sleep on a pavement, there are often cases where any stranger will just lie down next to you and go to sleep," said E. Usha, 18, who is also an ambassador.
"Nobody stirs and that is the scariest thing."
(Reporting by Anuradha Nagaraj, Editing by Alex Whiting; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)