By Emily Arnold:
Losing a child, in any form, is said to be one of the most painful experiences one can endure in a lifetime.
In India, that pain is felt by an excruciating number of parents, with The Times of India reporting that between January 2011 and June 2014, a staggering 325,000 children went missing, with 45% of these children untraceable.
This unimaginable pain is something Dharmendra Singh, Chief of Police at Ghaziabad Police Station, hopes he will be able to help take away.
On the 24th of September, 2014, Operation Smile was launched under Mr Singh’s leadership, and within a one-month period, over 200 children had been recovered.
“As a major law enforcement agency, responsibility lies with us to find and investigate the cases of missing children, but I realised that we as police were lacking an organised, scientific and coordinated approach,” said Mr Singh.
“This thought gave birth to Operation Smile,” he said.
The execution of Operation Smile initially proved a considerable challenge.
It involved detailed planning regarding documentation, personnel selection and team formation as well as the training of these teams.
Mr Singh explained that it was a difficult task selecting the Operation Smile team.
“I certainly had to keep a number of factors in mind,” said Mr Singh.
“These included sensitivity towards children, dedication to such rigorous work and awareness of laws,” he said.
Operation Smile began with the documentation of missing children in the district being updated so that any information gaps could be filled.
A drive was then launched in which all of the missing children over the past ten years were ascertained by a one child, one constable tasking.
This process ensured that all information was up-to-date and a photo album of missing children, with their detailed description, was prepared.
“Finding a missing child or investigating such a case, in fact required a lot of homework, coordination and above all, hard physical work,” said Mr Singh.
“My team really worked hard days and nights,” he said.
This hard work truly began to pay off.
Among the 227 children recovered in the first phase of Operation Smile was eleven-year-old Sahil, who went missing in March 2013 after he and his older sister, Shivani, decided they would leave home to try and find their mother who had recently left the family.
Sahil and Shivani travelled almost 1500km from their colony in Ghaziabad to the populous city of Mumbai, home to almost 20 million people.
The journey took a couple of days and the pair slept on footpaths when they needed to rest.
It wasn’t all bad though – a highlight for Sahil was seeing the Taj Mahal which he shyly described as “good”.
The brother and sister had not been in Mumbai long before a lady spotted them on the street and took them in, then took them to the nearest shelter home.
At this shelter home, Sahil and Shivani were separated into male and female accommodation and lived there until they were found by police on September 10, 2014.
The pair’s extremely distressed father, Mr Sanjiv Kumar, who had not seen his children in over 18 months, remembers the moment he finally saw them again.
“I was very happy to see them,” said Mr Kumar.
Sahil was equally as delighted to see his father saying that he “just ran and got hold of him.”
Although Sahil and Shivani’s case had a happy ending, there are some children who aren’t as lucky.
In some cases, the parents of children who have been found cannot be located, or the parents are too poor to take the children back.
In order to care for these children, however, Operation Smile works closely with the Asha Deep Foundation, in particular the Residential Programme, so that these children are given another chance to succeed in life.
The children live in the Ashaniketan Girls and Boys homes respectively and attend school within the same grounds during the day.
Mr H. K. Chetty, governing body member of the Asha Deep Foundation says the partnership with the police has so far been very successful.
“We work together for the benefits of the child,” said Mr Chetty.
“We address all the issues of the children – children should not feel like they are alone,” he said.
Since the homes were opened in 1992, approximately 2000 children have been cared for and have gone on to achieve great success.
“Some are working as journalists, some are working as teachers, some are practicing lawyers,” Mr Chetty said.
Secretary of the Asha Deep foundation and Mr Chetty’s wife, Mrs Jothi Chetty, also works at the homes and says the organisation really does do its best to provide the children with the best opportunities.
“We, as an organisation, try to fulfil their dreams,” she said.
Mr Singh is grateful for the partnership Operation Smile has developed with the Asha Deep Foundation.
“It was a good experience to work with non-governmental organisations like the Asha Deep foundation,” said Mr Singh.
“Coordination with NGO’s has been a necessary strategy for Operation Smile as these organisations have a lot of information on this field which can be used by police to retrieve the missing children,” he said.
Due to the success of Operation Smile since its introduction, the Indian Government has directed all of the states across India to replicate the operation.
Mr Singh says he is extremely proud of this operation and says he looks forward to seeing more children and families smiling because of it.
“I can not express in words the happiness my team and I felt during this drive,” said Mr Singh.
“This is my life time treasure and I feel happy knowing I could do few better things for society, and especially for children,” he said.