In 2017, it took Radhika (name changed), a minor, almost a week to share the atrocities she went through at the hands of a gang that forced her into prostitution. Her confession came after she was rescued by the team at Tulinj Police Station, Maharashtra.
While narrating her trauma to the police team led by IPS officer Raj Tilak Roushan, Additional Superintendent of Police of Vasai-Virar, Palghar, Radhika requested the team to rescue her friend as well.
Just when our rescue team was shutting Radhika’s case, we got a lead through her to two elderly women who were behind kidnapping minor girls in Palghar. This further led the team to a gang who was running a larger prostitution racket for years, Raj tells The Better India.
A major reason why Radhika was able to look past her trauma and show courage by sharing the details was the post-rescue protocol followed by Raj and his team. According to this, the investigating officer monitors and supports the rescuer even after he/she has returned to normalcy.
Radhika’s case was one of the hundreds of successful child rescue operations conducted in 2017 in Palghar district. That year, 89 per cent of minor missing cases were solved, and 450 children were reunited with their parents or sent to safe shelters like Child Welfare Centres.
Additionally, more than 100 victims of sex trafficking and labour trafficking were rescued.
Interestingly, before 2017, the tracing rate of missing children was low, and detection was slow. However, things changed after Raj was transferred from Osmanabad to Palghar.
An alumnus of IIT-Kharagpur, Raj worked in the private sector for nearly five years, in India and abroad. Though a well-paying job, it served as a wake-up call for him.
While working in the private sector, you are only making rich people richer. At the peak of my professional career, I found my true calling, which was to serve the country. Hence, I prepared for the Civil Services and joined the Indian Police Service, says Raj.
The first thing he did after moving to Vasai-Virar, Palghar, was to study the cases and crimes high in the district. Among all the reports, he was surprised to see the statistics of missing children.
“There were 30-40 cases of missing children per month in Palghar alone, registered under section 363 of Indian Penal Code (legal provision for kidnapping). The worry was that a child could be forced into human trafficking, including sex trafficking, labour trafficking, organ trafficking and so on. So, it was important that these cases are taken seriously and investigated just like other serious offences like murder. We needed to come up with a more efficient tracking method,” he says.
Forming A Procedure/Protocol That Resulted In 89 per cent Success
Known as the Standard Operating Procedure (SOP), every police personnel has to follow it to carry out complex routine operations efficiently. The SOP aims to bridge miscommunications and achieve a quality output in the quickest time possible.
While there are sufficient guidelines available with the Investigation Officer (IO) in-charge, the objectivity of the investigation often gets overlooked due to the lack of police sensitisation on such a delicate issue.
Raj and his team brainstormed on the previously recorded data in the last six years. This was used to find the lacunae and gaps in the investigation procedure at the IO level.
The SOP was targeted at the IO level so that investigation is prioritised, scientific, fast and treated sensitively with utmost seriousness. It included new team formations, process improvements, design and use of scientific formats, along with other measures, he says.
A 72-column objective format proforma was designed for missing children cases which covers a complete 360-degree profile of the victim so that the IO covers everything during the investigation.
The new SOP had a new set of guidelines that each police officer was expected to follow. Listed below are some of them:
1) The officers were briefed that they should investigate each case as if someone from their own families had gone missing.
“The purpose behind including something as basic as this was to go over and above the mentioned guidelines. Often, the police are restricted to the protocol, and even if they want to go beyond it, they aren’t allowed to. I wanted the SOP to cover everything under the sky during the investigation,” explains Raj.
2) The officers were also asked to investigate each case from the angle of human trafficking, “Every missing minor may not be a victim of trafficking but treating every case with this mindset would help solve the case faster, with sensitivity.”
These cases are even more serious than offences like murder because a victim of human trafficking dies each moment, forced into unwanted activities like prostitution, he adds.
3) For PITA (Prevention of Immoral Trafficking Act) cases (sex trafficking), three annexures were designed for IO which capture the complete movement of the victim, including forward and backward linkages. This ensures that the criminal network behind it is also detected.
Giving an example, Raj says, “If a girl is rescued from an area of Nagpur, that area will be given a sanity check. The case would be shut, but after that, the area of the rescue and all the places the victim has travelled, will be checked thoroughly.”
The police would regularly conduct anti-trafficking exercises by using facts and data from PITA cases. Data crawling and data analysis led to the finding of a gang which was involved in trafficking more than 500 children from Bangladesh over years. They were put behind bars, and an MCOCA proposal was also prepared.
4) Awareness is the key to nab the offenders, so the police team undertook awareness programmes in schools and colleges of the district. Students were taught about good and bad touch, human trafficking issues, ways to file a missing report and so on. Corner meetings for auto and cab drivers, bus conductors and vendors near the railway station, were held to brief them on this aspect. Stakeholders on railways like the GRP and RPF were also taken into confidence.
5) An innovative way was also used to spot any traffickers who were on the lookout for young kids who could be influenced. A lady police constable was briefed to act as a distraught teenager sitting in a public space like a garden with other policemen as a backup.
6) To further treat this issue with seriousness, Raj also formed separate teams who would solely focus on missing minor cases in each police station. The 72-column objective format proforma designed by him for IO also directed the police teams to reopen cases that were as old as 20 years.
7) To monitor the progress of the investigation, Raj used colour codings. While red denoted cases in which there were no clues and required maximum attention, green denoted information gathered.
8) After the minors were rescued, the team would help them return to normalcy. For the same, the teams would partner with city-based NGOs and Child Welfare Centres.
Impact of the new SOP
The new protocols helped the Palghar district police team achieve its goals, and in 2017 itself, the detection rate increased from 66 per cent in May to 89 per cent the end of the year.
The detection time decreased, and we were able to create a team of dedicated officers and staff who are self-motivated and compassionate towards missing and human trafficking cases, says Raj.
Maruti Patil, who has been associated with the Maharashtra Police since 2005, is grateful to Raj. Patil, who is now working with the Crime Branch in Kurla Police station, tells TBI,
The new protocol changed my entire methodology and perception towards solving cases of missing minors. The joy of reuniting children with their parents helped me stay committed and focused. Even now, I have profiles of untraced children on my phone. Whenever I get time, I forward the images to my colleagues and sources.
Seeing the detection rate, this SOP has been made functional in all districts of the Konkan range, concludes Raj.
(Edited by Shruti Singhal)