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In Three Years, Nearly 2 Lakh Women Went Missing In Madhya Pradesh. Here's Why

Madhya Pradesh has the highest number of missing women and children in India. Hunger, climate change are to blame.

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In April 2022, 12-year-old Rashmi* told her mother, Devi*, that she will try and get hired as a construction laborer at a building in Alirajpur city. This was par for the course for any child growing up in their village, Chhaktala, as was for practically every village around in Alirajpur district, Madhya Pradesh.

Devi, a widow, has spent the last many decades of her life bringing up her eight children, four sons and four daughters.

“We have our land here, and I work on it. But how much can one small patch of land provide for a family of nine? Every member of the family has to work, that’s the norm here,” says Devi.

The year before this, Rashmi had been sent to Gujarat’s Kathiawar, where she spent three months working as a labourer. Rashmi asked her mother for Rs 200 to buy some clothes from the nearby market before she can start her job hunt. Rashmi didn’t return home that day, or the next, or the day after.

Devi went to look for her at the market— a good 10 kilometers away from their home in the middle of the field —but couldn’t find her. Relatives and other villagers joined the hunt before quickly giving up.

Just like child labour is commonplace in the region, so is children going missing.

Madhya Pradesh has the highest number of cases of missing children as well as that of missing girls and women in the country. Between 2019 and 2021, nearly 2 lakh women and girls went missing from Madhya Pradesh, as per the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data tabled by the Home Ministry in the parliament in July this year. No other state had these many missing women and girl cases. In 2022, 32 children went missing every day in Madhya Pradesh, of which 24 were girls (75 per cent), as per a Right To Information (RTI) report gathered by the Child Rights and You (CRY) NGO.

Data also shows that it is the tribal or Adivasi districts where missing women and children cases are most common. The Quint traveled through the tribal district of Alirajpur, which ranks highly in the missing women index, to meet families of such missing women— some of whom were found, and some who weren't. The Quint found that a large number of these missing cases are linked to distress migration, lack of job opportunities, climate change, excessive poverty, low levels of education, limited freedoms and biases in the system. All of these collectively lead to the towering number of missing cases.

Rashmi's case was just one among them.

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How Aspirations For A Better Life Lead To Missing Cases

Devi, however, wasn’t willing to let her 12-year-old daughter be reduced to a mere statistic.

Madhya Pradesh has the highest number of missing women and children in India. Hunger, climate change are to blame.

Devi wasn’t willing to let her 12-year-old daughter be reduced to a mere statistic. 

(Fatima Khan/ The Quint) 

She tried registering a missing complaint registered at the local Chhaktala police chowki, and submitted Rashmi's Aadhaar card and other details. But Devi could tell they aren’t serious about pursuing the complaint.

“They would say to me ‘she must have run away with a boy, she will come back’. I begged them to take this seriously,” Devi recalls.

By July 2022, it had been three months since Rashmi went missing and there was no lead of where she could be. Then, a villager told her about Aajeevika Mission, a government programme meant to help with social and economic inclusion. Devi got in touch with one of its members, who in turn got her connected with the ChildLine NGO’s Manisha Bagole.

Madhya Pradesh has the highest number of missing women and children in India. Hunger, climate change are to blame.

ChildLine team with Devi. 

(Fatima Khan/ The Quint) 

Bagole began visiting Devi's house frequently, spending hours there trying to figure out clues that could help with Rashmi’s case. On one such visit, as luck would have it, Devi received a call from an unknown number. It was Rashmi. On the call, Rashmi told her that she is in Gujarat’s Jhalot and asked for her to come visit her. Throughout the call, Rashmi maintained a forced stoicism, holding back the details of her situation, but the trembling fear in her voice was unmistakable. “She wouldn’t reveal anything about why she is there or if she is doing fine,” says Bagole, who could hear the conversation on speaker phone.

In the background, Bagole and Devi picked up on a faint voice of a man telling Rashmi to “finish the call quickly and get to work”.

That voice heightened Bagole's worst fear: Rashmi had potentially been trafficked.

Bagole and other ChildLine workers, as well as Aajeevika workers, involved the local police, and all of them decided to accompany Devi to Jhalot. On reaching Jhalot, Devi called on the same number from which Rashmi had called her, but this time an elderly-sounding man was on the receiving end. He gave Devi the address of a certain hotel, where he said he would bring Rashmi. The police officials, Bagole and Aajeevika workers all accompanied Devi dressed in civilian clothes, and they spread across the hotel, in order to not give away their plan. The man reached the hotel, but without Rashmi. Turned out, he was Rashmi’s father-in-law.

“He said he will not return Rashmi as he bought her for Rs 3.5 lakh from a man back in April— the same time she went missing,” Devi recalls.

The police forced him to take them to his home to see Rashmi. Finally, following a lot of back and forth— and a narrow escape of the wrath of the villagers— they were able to take Rashmi back home; only after the police officials told the family that a case of child marriage can be registered against them.

Madhya Pradesh has the highest number of missing women and children in India. Hunger, climate change are to blame.

ChildLine team after rescuing Rashmi (in pink saree). 

Rashmi says that when she was in Gujarat the previous year to work as a labourer, the building’s contractor had told her to return if she ever needs help. She didn't think she would take up the offer but gradually realised that her mother is struggling to earn to feed the entire family.

“My mother would cry every evening after returning from the field. She has to feed all her children as well as her brothers, with hardly any income. I wanted to learn tailoring but we didn’t even have the money to buy a tailoring machine. So one day out of helplessness I decided to just ride that bus to Bodeli (in Gujarat),” says Rashmi.

On reaching Gujarat, however, Rashmi says the contractor who had promised to help her sold her off to the Jhalot man and his father, who eventually got her forcefully married. After the marriage, Rashmi says she was forced to indulge in back-breaking labour work, and was scolded if she didn’t oblige.

Rashmi has now been home with her mother for over a year, but the trauma of what she went through still shows. “I try to ask her what all happened with her there, but she just withdraws whenever I try to probe,” says Devi.

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Why Tribals Are Migrating Away From The Lands They Are Native To

The western districts of Madhya Pradesh, a large number of which are tribal-dominated, all share a border with three states: Gujarat, Rajasthan and Maharashtra. Every few months, there is a mass-migration of workers from the tribal districts of Madhya Pradesh to these states.

Madhya Pradesh has the highest number of missing women and children in India. Hunger, climate change are to blame.

The tribal districts in western Madhya Pradesh share a border with three states. 

(Aroop Mishra/ The Quint)

These are often people desperately in need of work opportunities. Experts say it is impossible to address the problem of missing cases, without also looking at distress migration and climate change— all inter-connected with each another.

“There is no proper implementation of MGNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act) here. There is no focus on job creation. So Adivasis have no option but to take to dangerous routes to get to these neighbouring states, where there is often a contractor waiting for them who can get them labour jobs,” says Nitesh Alawa, a tribal activist with Jai Adivasi Yuva Shakti (JAYS).

Alawa says that many people go missing in the journey itself, especially if they are younger and don’t have a mobile, like Rashmi.

“The question we need to ask ourselves is why do these people need to move out en masse for jobs? Why do they need to undertake such long and potentially risky journeys? The government of Madhya Pradesh should have had enough jobs by now for all these people,” Alawa adds.
Madhya Pradesh has the highest number of missing women and children in India. Hunger, climate change are to blame.

The lands are no longer enough to sustain Adivasi families.

(Fatima Khan/ The Quint)

But there was a time when many of these families, now resorting to migrating for work, would earlier be sustained by their lands alone. In recent decades, Madhya Pradesh has witnessed frequent flooding as well as long patches of no rain whatsoever. While climate change is a global phenomenon, it makes those who directly rely on land for their livelihood, the most vulnerable.

“You can see near the Narmada river, villages get flooded so frequently. Even if these people are given new lands by the government, they might not be as fertile, or not enough to sustain whole families. The real tragedy is that Adivasis, who are native to all the forests and rivers, are today struggling to sustain themselves. The land has been corrupted, it is no longer enough to sustain them,” says Alawa.

In September 2019, at least 178 villages next to Narmada river got submerged after the Sardar Sarovar dam reached maximum capacity.

While many would suggest migrating with families to other states entirely for good, and not just for a few months, that’s not a viable option either. “No one will give up their land, even if it’s a small patch and isn’t fertile for the whole year, it is still their land. Adivasis are especially attached to their land. So they have to shuttle between Gujarat where they get labour jobs, and come back home for their land,” says Radiya Padiyar, a child rights activist.

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Women Queuing Up At 'Labour Market', Activists Call It 'Auctioning' 

The severe lack of job opportunities can be reflected in what is a horrid yet common sight in tribal districts like Alirajpur: young women queuing up early morning at what has come to be known as the ‘mazdoor bazar’ or the 'labour market' every single day. At around 7 am every morning, young women and girls in their teens can be seen walking to the labor circle, located on the central roads of Alirajpur. Shortly after, men on bikes arrive and based on their requirements, hire one or two or multiple women for the day or the week for a labour job. The going ‘rate’ is Rs 150-200 per day, and the job lasts about 7 days on average.

Madhya Pradesh has the highest number of missing women and children in India. Hunger, climate change are to blame.

Young women line up at the 'labour market' every morning. 

(Fatima Khan/ The Quint) 

“This is routine here. They are mostly unskilled, but they are able to learn quickly. I try and ensure I hire women who aren’t younger than 18-19 years of age. Because there are many younger ones in the queues too,” says Narayan, a karigar or artisan who requires labour for stitching work.

One of the girls in the queue is 16-year-old Dhani, she says this is her third time coming to the labour circle. “I got two jobs before this. Both were to do cement work. It paid me Rupees 200 per day, it’s not a lot but it’s something,” Dhani says.

Madhya Pradesh has the highest number of missing women and children in India. Hunger, climate change are to blame.

The women are then approached by men who are looking to hire labour for the day or the week. 

(Fatima Khan/ The Quint) 

A 19-year-old woman, who is a mother of a two-year-old says she is taking up these jobs so that she can send her child to school. “I never got to go to school, but I really hope my children can,” she says. In the conversation between the men and the women—which lasts under a minute—there is no discussion on working conditions or even verification of where the men are from and how near or far the ‘workplace’ is. The women then ride pillion on the men's bikes and are taken to the site.  

Madhya Pradesh has the highest number of missing women and children in India. Hunger, climate change are to blame.

After discussing the wage, the women ride pillion on the men's bikes and are taken to the site. 

(Fatima Khan/ The Quint) 

Harsing, a tribal activist, calls the kafkaesque normalisation of such labor markets akin to ‘neelami’ or auctioning. “What else is this? Our daughters are being forced to auction themselves on the streets. That is how dire the situation is. In this process of agreeing to work for just about anyone offering them some cash, they are likely to come in harm’s way,” Harsing says.

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With Limited Resources and Stigma, Most Families Give Up Search Quickly

While Devi was able to find Rashmi and get her home, this isn’t how it is for many other families. Baholi and Gina’s daughter, 16-year-old Ila went missing in June 2023. Four months later, they still aren’t entirely sure if the police has registered an FIR yet or not.

“We all went to a wedding nearby together. While leaving, we couldn’t find her. Since then she has been missing,” says Baholi. Baholi’s home is situated on top of an uneven hill, in the remote corners of Ghata village. Every morning, he and his wife Gina have to first walk down the hill, and then walk an additional several kilometres to procure water. Baholi also visits the ChildLine office in Alirajpur as often as he can; it is 40 kilometres from his home.

Madhya Pradesh has the highest number of missing women and children in India. Hunger, climate change are to blame.

Baholi and Gina's daughter has been missing for the last 4 months.

(Fatima Khan/ The Quint)

Ila has previously spent time in Gujarat working as a laborer; Baholi is hoping that is the case this time too and that she returns soon. But there have been rumors in the village that she ran away with a boy. In any case, Baholi can’t afford to spend too much time or resources on this.

“I am constantly worried about her and want her to be found soon. But in a month’s time I will have to go to Gujarat to find labour work for myself. I can’t delay it anymore. I have four other children to feed. Once we have harvested everything post-monsoon, there is nothing left to do here. And once I go, no one else in the family is equipped to follow up on this case. So I don’t know what happens next,” he says.

While Ila has been missing for four months, Sakari has been missing for four years. Her family, in Haraswat village, says she had gone to Ahmedabad in 2019 for work, as was common in the village. But after she left, the family never heard from her again. “We waited and waited, but she never returned. And now we don’t think she will,” says Gendi Chongar, her mother.

Madhya Pradesh has the highest number of missing women and children in India. Hunger, climate change are to blame.

Gendi (mother) and Herla (uncle) of Sakari, who has been missing for four years now.

(Fatima Khan/ The Quint)

The family, however, never registered a missing FIR in Sakari’s case. The stigma of admitting their daughter is ‘missing’ was what bothered them. “Initially, we thought she would return. We didn’t want to create a hullabaloo in the village. Families whose girls go missing are seen with suspicion. But now, everyone has figured that our daughter is missing, and we are treated differently,” says Chongar.

Sakari’s uncle, Herla, says that the villagers don’t invite the family to any weddings or social events, since they discovered that Sakari has gone missing.

“They say that we know where she is and that she secretly sends us money. It’s all nonsense. But because of this, we have been ostracised by the entire village,” he says.
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'The Mindset Is The Issue, Not Poverty': Police Officials

The other reason why many hesitate in registering complaints are the biases evident in the police system. Many families say the police’s standard response is to assume that the girl “ran away” with a boy. But police officials insist that that is, in fact, often the case.

“The parents here spend all day working in the fields, leaving their children alone back in their jhuggis (shacks). Young boys and girls end up mingling with each other. One thing leads to another and they decide to elope,” says Shivram Tarole, SHO, Alirajpur Police station.
Madhya Pradesh has the highest number of missing women and children in India. Hunger, climate change are to blame.

Shivram Tarole of Alirajpur Police. 

(Fatima Khan/ The Quint)

“If it is a minor girl, even if she ran away consensually, we are obliged as per law to file a missing complaint,” he adds.

While activists say poverty and consequent hunger is what forces these girls to look for better opportunities elsewhere, Tarole says that isn’t the cause. “There isn’t as much hunger anymore. You can avail schemes and get ration for free. But what a lot of people here do, is that they sell that free ration in exchange of alcohol. People who were earlier happy with a small phone now want an android so that they can video call their girlfriends and boyfriends. People who were earlier happy drinking Mahua (indigenous alcohol) now want beer. This mindset is the root cause of many problems here,” says Tarole. “Ultimately, no matter how much reservation is given, if their mindset isn’t changed, nothing will happen.”

As per the 2018 Global Multidimensional Poverty Index, Alirajpur was the poorest district in the entire country with 76.5 per cent people are living in multidimensional poverty. And as per the government’s 2021 Niti Ayog Poverty Index report, Alirajpur was the poorest district in Madhya Pradesh, and continues to be among the poorest in the country as well.

Jyoti Damor, the ladies station in-charge, says there is a lot of “ignorance” as well, about what constitutes a crime and what doesn’t. “Many a times, they don’t even know that eloping with a minor is legally a crime.” Damor conducts ‘jagrukta karyakram’ or awareness programs in schools about how it is a crime to elope with a girl, even if it is consensual. As per the 2011 census, Alirajpur has a literacy rate of 36 per cent, among the lowest in the country.

Madhya Pradesh has the highest number of missing women and children in India. Hunger, climate change are to blame.

Jyoti Damor and other police officials conduction awareness programs with young boys.

In 2016, CM Shivraj Singh Chouhan's government launched 'Operation Muskaan' to rescue the growing number of missing girls in the state.

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Blurred Lines Between 'Missing' And 'Voluntary Fleeing' Has Led To Creation Of Private Search Parties

Families are often cognisant of these police biases and thus adopt alternate routes to try and find their missing kin. This has led to the creation of private search parties led by individuals who are often from the village, but have the know-how, network, and willingness to search for the said missing person.

25-year-old Jignesh Sastiya is one such individual. “Police doesn’t pursue cases seriously. Or simply accuses the family of debauchery or negligence. This creates more tension for the families, so they have started coming to me,” says Sastiya. Initially, Sastiya helped one family find their daughter who had gone to work in Gujarat but met a boy there and didn’t return. “I have friends who helped me trace the girl’s location via her number, through which we were able to get to her,” he says.

Madhya Pradesh has the highest number of missing women and children in India. Hunger, climate change are to blame.

Jignesh Sastiya leads private search parties for missing women.

(Fatima Khan/ The Quint)

Today, Sastiya has helped a number of families reunite with their daughters. While a majority of these were cases of ‘elopement’, Sastiya says the line between what can be called voluntary fleeing and having gone missing, is blurred.

“Life here is not easy. If there is a family of eight or 10 members, chances are at least a few among them are going hungry, if not all. So if a girl is promised something by a boy she met...or if she has been told that city life has better opportunities to offer, then it’s understandable she will get tempted by that life and run away,” says Sastiya.

Sastiya’s nuanced understanding of the issues— perhaps by virtue of him being a local and not an outsider looking in —is what allows him to adopt a sensitive approach in handling these cases. “Once we find the girl, we tell her that her family is worried and that she need not worry. Nothing bad will happen to her. The idea is not to scare her, but to help her,” he says.

One such case in which Sastiya helped was that of 18-year-old Aarti* from Jamli village. Incidentally, he wasn’t approached by Aarti's family but that of the boy she ran away with. “The girl’s family was putting a lot of pressure on the boy’s family. The Sarpach had to intervene, and he approached me to find the girl soon to ease this situation,” Sastiya says. He was able to find Aarti and the boy, in Gujarat’s Junagarh.

Madhya Pradesh has the highest number of missing women and children in India. Hunger, climate change are to blame.

Aarti ran away from her home to work in Gujarat for better wages.

(Fatima Khan/ The Quint)

Aarti, who is pregnant now, says that initially she had fled because life away from Alirajpur seemed better. “There, we were getting 300 Rupees per day for harvesting cotton fields. Here, even if we do find such a job, we wouldn’t get more than 150 Rupees for the same thing,” Aarti says. As Sastiya says, Aarti was an example of a girl who ran away willingly, but that doesn’t mean that she doesn’t fall under the missing category.

“Staying away from family isn’t easy, I wanted to come back, but lost route and direction after some time. And then I was worried that my family will not accept me,” she says.

The village panchayat will now take a call on how to handle Aarti case, along with the family members.

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Fleeing To Escape Child Marriage, Regressive Restrictions

Beyond the problems of lack of economic sustenance pushing women to vulnerability, some of the missing cases are also a consequence of trying to escape difficult familial dynamics and restrictions.

In March 2019, when Shravasti* was still 20 days short of turning 15, her parents got her married to a 28-year-old man, who hailed from Rajasthan’s Chittorgarh. Shravasti’s parents, who are Bengalis, had discovered weeks ago that she was dating a classmate of hers, who was a Rathore. The family didn’t accept an inter-caste alliance, and was worried their daughter had “gone out of hand.”

Madhya Pradesh has the highest number of missing women and children in India. Hunger, climate change are to blame.

Shravasti was married off by her family when she was 15. 

(Fatima Khan/ The Quint)

When she got married to the Chittogarh man, the in-laws had promised that they would ensure Shravasti continues her education. “But soon after, they started burdening me with house chores and restricting me from going to college. One day I realised I have had enough and ran away,” she says. Shravasti's family as well as the in-laws registered a missing complaint, but in a few days time, she had reached a ChildLine center and called home. After a number of negotiations and Shravasti’s unwillingness to go back, her husband finally agreed to divorce her four years later in 2022.

“I was forced into child marriage because my parents thought they have given me too much freedom. They still think they have given me too much freedom, but it’s not true,” she says.

Some time before her marriage, Shravasti had expressed her desire to try her hand at modelling in Bhopal, after she saw Instagram posts of a friend’s relative who was a professional model for local saree brands. But her parents shut the idea down. “First, they said it’s an unsafe profession. Then they said I don’t have the height or the face to become a model,” Shravasti recalls. Her father, a BAMS (Bachelor of Ayurveda, Medicine and Surgery) doctor, wanted Shravasti to enter the same field. “But since childhood, she has been a rebellious kid,” he says.

Shravasti, now 19, lives with her parents and is trying to resume her education, make up for the lost four years and lead a life of normalcy. “Maybe some day,” she says, when asked if she still harbours the dream of becoming a model.

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'Don't Need Industries From Outside, Jobs Based On Natural Resources Will Help Women': CWC

Rem Singh Dodwa, chairman of the Child Welfare Committee (CWC) in Alirajpur, has spent several years on the field trying to rescue and then rehabilitate missing girls. The CWC is part of the Women and Child Development (WCD) department.

Madhya Pradesh has the highest number of missing women and children in India. Hunger, climate change are to blame.

Rem Singh Dodwa, chairman, Child Welfare Committee, Alirajpur.

(Fatima Khan/ The Quint)

“The situation here is often so troubling. Families don’t have money to eat. So when girls meet a contractor or anyone else who gives them a gold chain or a phone and tries to lure them, they get easily convinced. They go off with such men and are eventually trafficked or left to rot. But it’s not their fault. If these girls are shown some sign of a better life, why won’t they take it?,” says Dodwa.

Dodwa says that while lack of jobs and development is the primary cause of missing girl cases, the solution needs to be found internally. “Alirajpur was created as a separate district in 2007. So far, we should have had multiple women’s colleges and hostels. But we don’t, so how will poor parents feel safe to send their girls for studies,” he says, adding that there is ample potential for job creation for women here.

“We don’t need to bring industries from other states. Alirajpur has a rich resource of natural items that need to be used to create businesses. The fruit Sitaphal is thrown like rocks here—it’s that common. Mahua, Nendupatta, Doli oil, ayurvedic jadi-booti, Kadaknath murga (a variety of chicken), everything is available here and girls here grow up around these things. This is an environmentally rich land, but it needs to be capitalised on and popularised better. Jobs will automatically get created,” says Dodwa.

The high cases of missing women and girls cannot be addressed without solving these other issues, he says.

*The names of some of the women have been changed to protect their identities.

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