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In Shahbad Dairy, children don’t step out of their homes after dark.

Six kilometres from where the long yellow line of the Delhi Metro terminates at Samaypur Badli, Shahbad Dairy, or simply “Dairy" to the locals, rises in a profusion of tightly crammed, slim raw-brick houses two-three stories high. There is a maze of narrow lanes, choked with garbage and lined with open sewers, and a single broad road that hosts a crowded market. The highway to Bawana runs past the Dairy, dotted with rundown and abandoned factories, and patches of scrubland that are beginning to resemble landfills. This is the outer edge of Delhi.

R*, 17, lives deep inside the largest slum cluster in Dairy, a place so notoriously neglected that even the police say they avoid going inside unless they are in a large team. She is in class IX and hopes to be a teacher. Three years back, on a cold February day in 2014, she had a terrifying experience that left an impression so deep that even now, she says, every time she steps out of the house, she has to work hard at overcoming her fear of being outside.

That day, she had simply left the house to go to the market, less than 10 minute’s walk, to buy some jalebis. Her mother, U*, had warned her to be quick—it was just past six in the evening and would be dark soon—and then gone back to making dinner.

The market was packed as usual. R was inching towards the sweet shop when she felt a hand on her shoulder. As she turned to look, a funny-smelling cloth was pressed hard against her nose. She felt herself being yanked into one of the many narrow galis that converge at the market. She wanted to hit out, run, scream. Instead, she felt nauseous and extremely drowsy, and could not stand straight. The grip was strong. She was now leaning against the man for support even as she was being dragged through the maze.

The last thing R remembers before she lost consciousness was being pushed into a small house. She made a last, and hopeless, attempt at resistance, grabbing the edge of the wall as she was being shoved inside. She broke her nails. The door was shut from outside and locked and she was left alone. She passed out on the floor.

When U looked up at the clock again, it was almost seven, and a nasty shiver went through her. R should have been back by now. She stopped making dinner and called her husband, who works as a delivery man in a furniture factory nearby. When another 20 minutes passed, U became frantic. U’s husband, their eldest daughter—a year older than R—and their son, the oldest of her five children, were now all searching for R. U was standing a couple of feet away from her house, under a broken streetlight at the crossing of three snaky lanes, crying and calling out to each passerby if they had seen her daughter.

The mother of an eight-year-old rape survivor at her home in Shahbad Dairy. Photograph: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
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The mother of an eight-year-old rape survivor at her home in Shahbad Dairy. Photograph: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

R opened her eyes and realized she was still alone. It was dark inside the tiny one-room house—typically called a jhuggi—made of bricks slapped together with just enough cement to bind them. R could hear voices outside and that helped her shake off her fear. She needed a way out. She looked up at the ceiling and saw that it was pretty basic—just a few slabs of wood with a heavy cloth on top and a sheet of plastic on top of that. She quickly got into action. Beside the single bed inside the room, there were a couple of aluminum drums. She struggled to get one up on the bed and positioned it against the wall. As she stood on the drum, she could just about reach the ceiling with her hands. She gripped the top of the wall and pulled herself, simultaneously pushing the cloth-and-plastic roof with her head and hoping it would give. It did. R squirmed her way out and jumped down. She dropped straight into an open sewer line and was drenched in faecal sludge. It jolted her awake. She picked herself up and ran. After a few seconds, still in the dark, she stopped to get her bearings and realized where she was: At the other end of the scrubby wasteland that began a few feet from her house where people went to relieve themselves. Did she dare go into the thorny forest in the dark? She took a deep breath and ran in, heading towards home.

At around 8.30pm, more than two hours after R had left for the market, U saw her running towards the house, soaked in stinking sewage, and howling.

“It was only much later at night that she could stop crying and tell us what happened," says U, sitting on the bed that takes up almost all the floor space in her 20 square metre house. “We realized that we knew the man who did this."

U says that three days before the incident, R and her sister had gone to the “jungle" to relieve themselves and saw the man staring at them from behind a bush. U went to the man’s house and had a row with him.

“And then he goes and does this…," says U. “I am proud of my daughter. She has a lot of courage. Most girls will be too scared to run the way she did."

The family called the police and the man was arrested and later, bailed. The case is still on.

“But we live in fear," says U. “This can happen again. It doesn’t matter what the time of the day; we don’t let any of our children out alone."

Shahbad Dairy is so saturated with crime that at every couple of houses in any direction, you can stumble on the house of a “victim—rape and sexual assault, kidnapping, murder and, if you are lucky, theft.

Last year in April, at around 7.30pm, R’s friend and neighbour G was picked up from the same market by two men who came from behind and hit her on the head with a blunt object. As she blacked out, the men supported her on both sides, and took her to the “jungle" through which R had run home. (Later, eyewitnesses told the police that they thought the girl was ill and was being helped home by the men.) They took turns raping her. She was found unconscious, semi-nude and bleeding, by another woman.

“She has gone completely quiet since that day," says G’s mother. “A month after that, once the police and court stuff was done, we sent her to our village because she was terrified of staying here. She dropped out of school. She was in class IX. She still doesn’t speak to anyone."

Shahbad Dairy is so saturated with crime that at every couple of houses in any direction, you can stumble on the house of a “victim"—rape and sexual assault, kidnapping, murder and, if you are lucky, theft. During the two years between the attacks on G and R, 220 children were reported missing or kidnapped from the Shahbad Dairy police station’s jurisdiction, which covers 56 sq. km (146 have been found since); 18 were murdered (11 of them were under 10 years old); and 37 cases of rape (where the victims were children—aged 10 or under in nine of those cases) and 12 cases of sexual assault/attempt to rape were registered.

“It’s as bad as it can get," says a police officer who works at the Shahbad Dairy police station. “It’s like an epidemic. And the situation with children is very sensitive."

This year, till 18 April, the station had seen two murder, four attempt-to-murder, nine rape and 36 kidnapping cases.

Shahbad Dairy—an area that contains an urban village, some low-income DDA housing, a JJ (jhuggi jhopadi, or kacha slum houses) Colony, and industrial zones—is not unique, merely representative. The area generally referred to as “Outer Delhi", or simply “Outer", the north-western limits of the city bordering Haryana, is the most crime-wracked borough in the most crime-wracked city in the country. Shahbad Dairy lies in the middle of this, with Sultanpuri and Kanjhawala to its west, Bhalswa Dairy to its east, and Bawana and Narela just north. Between 1 January and 20 September last year, according to data obtained through RTI, 361 children went missing from the area and have not been found yet, with the most such cases (45) under the Aman Vihar Police Station in Sultanpuri, 8km south-west of Shahbad Dairy, which comes second with 32 cases. Thirty-four children were murdered in the same period, and 167 cases of rape against children were registered.

The latest data for a full year released by the National Crime Records Bureau is from 2015, and that year too, the Outer area left all other parts of Delhi behind when it comes to crimes against children, with 1,100 cases of kidnapping, 152 cases of rape, 146 cases of sexual assault and six murders.

Doomed from the start

The Outer area, which straddles the Delhi municipality districts of west and north-west, have been the city’s dumping ground since the 1980s. Anything that was seen as detrimental to the city’s health was put there—a prison, new landfills, waste processing plants, polluting industries; and inevitably, the people from demolished slums.

The influx into Outer Delhi started with Samaypur Badli, which was a rural area till the early 1980s, when a designated industrial zone came up there. In 1985, some of the workers at these factories, deprived of affordable housing, squatted on one acre of empty government land, which later bloomed into the sprawling and extremely congested Sanjay Gandhi Camp.

Around the same time, there was a drive to relocate dairies that operated in the “urban" areas of Delhi (the Outer area fell under the rural category then). Vacant government plots around Shahbad village, 2km north of Badli, and Bhalswa, to the south of Badli, were distributed to dairy farmers.

In 1986, after a fire burnt down a large slum settlement behind Azadpur Mandi, the residents were shifted to another vacant plot around the newly established Shahbad Dairy. This immediately led to days of rioting as Shahbad’s villagers opposed the influx.

G’s family was one of those shifted here from Azadpur.

“It was a terrible time," says G’s father. “We had lost whatever we had in the fire. When they brought us here, this was just a clearing in the forest, and there were some hand-pumps. We built our own houses from bamboo and plastic and thatch."

Since those early days, more “resettlement colonies" and industrialized zones have followed. In 1996, the Supreme Court ordered polluting industries within Delhi’s urban area to relocate to the fringes—most went to Bawana, Narela, Badli and Shahbad. As the government bought farm land for industry and housing, the original landowners made a killing. Not so the industries, which came to a place with minimal infrastructure and highly erratic electricity and water supply.

“Most of the businesses were doomed from the start," says Prakash Chandra Jain, chairman of the Bawana Chamber of Commerce. “And then in 2007, when some industries were allowed to operate within city limits again, a lot of factories moved away from here, and there was a battle for those vacant plots."

According to Jain, the failed industrial areas have played a major role in creating this epidemic of crime. According to Delhi’s industries ministry, 5,531 out of 16,000 factories and industrial plots in Bawana are either vacant or not operational. In Bawana Phase II, a newer industrial area created in 2011, only four of the 4,660 available plots have functioning industries.

Meanwhile, like industries, the relocation drive for people too continued in an unplanned way. One of the largest such migrations happened in 2003-04 when the slum settlements around the Yamuna floodplains were demolished, and the people moved to Bawana, in a “colony" separated from the original village of Bawana by the Munak Canal, which supplies a major portion of Delhi’s water. They too came to find a wasteland with no sign of the promised water connections, electricity, roads, or houses. There were no schools, and no hospitals.

The flow of both migrants from outside Delhi and the displaced from within Delhi continues unabated, says Ved Prakash, whose family is from Shahbad village, and who was the MLA from Bawana from 2015 to March this year, when he quit the Aam Aadmi Party to join the Bharatiya Janata Party.

“There is still no infrastructure here," says Prakash. “Where is the hospital? Where are the schools? Where are the toilets? Instead of proper houses or schools, what we have is crime. Murder is routine for us. Children are being kidnapped all the time. It’s completely out of control."

Prakash says that crime was embedded in the DNA of outer Delhi—as soon as the vast tracts of land went up for sale, a real estate mafia began to take shape, taking advantage of the vacant plots, the poor implementation of industrial and residential zoning, and the lack of legal deeds for the new settlers.

“You look at all the most wanted criminals in Delhi in the last 10 years, the big gangs, and they all come from Bawana or Narela…Neeraj Bawania gang, Rajesh Bawania gang, Sarwan gang…," says Prakash. “Outer Delhi is where crime in Delhi is born."

Gang wars

Though the leaders of the gangs Prakash names are all now behind bars, including Neeraj Bawana, who headed the police’s most wanted list for years till his arrest in 2015—and whose extortion from industries and real estate came to be known as the “Neeraj Tax"—the legacy they left behind is intact.

“There is plenty of scope for extortion, land grabbing, satta (gambling) and smuggling," says a police officer with the Special Cell. “And very little police presence because we just don’t have the numbers. That’s all you need."

The bodies of gangsters murdered outside Rohini courts in outer Delhi being taken to the morgue. Photograph: Hindustan Times
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The bodies of gangsters murdered outside Rohini courts in outer Delhi being taken to the morgue. Photograph: Hindustan Times

Inside his office, on a whiteboard, there are five names—all gangsters from the Outer area, and each one of them wanted for the murder of policemen.

“These are desperate criminals," says the officer, using the peculiar Delhi Police catch-all term for people they consider unhinged enough to commit just about any kind of crime.

As an example, he speaks about an operation on 26 April where three men from Rajesh Bawana’s gang were arrested.

“In February, these three, who all come from villages in the area, were drinking with two of their associates in a field not very far from where we are now," says the officer. “One of them got up and walked a little bit away to take a piss when he saw that there was a couple sitting nearby. He went back and got the others, and they first beat up the couple till they were barely moving. Then they tied the man down and took turns raping the woman. Then they took off the man’s belt and strangled the woman. Then they strangled the man. They dropped the woman’s body in a dirty pond a few kilometres away, and the man’s body in a drain next to the Munak canal, where bodies are found at the rate of one every two weeks. This is what we have to deal with every day."

Another Nirbhaya

“If these guys had a bus, there would be another Nirbhaya," says Monu, jerking his head in the direction of four men sitting huddled next to a festering pile of garbage a few feet away from the MCD primary school inside Shahbad Dairy. They are burning smack on a piece of foil torn from a cigarette packet and taking turns inhaling it. Though Monu is particularly proud of this observation, it is unlikely that these men, who show all the signs of being advanced junkies—they are extremely emaciated and listless, and unaffected by the high afternoon sun beating down on their shadeless refuge—will be able to muster the energy and agency needed for a crime of Nirbhaya’s magnitude.

Monu is involved in what the locals and the police of Shahbad Dairy all agree is the most profitable and widespread business in the area after real estate—the supply and sale of illegal local alcohol and “Indian Made Foreign Liquor" from Haryana. He is 28 years old, and sports a dressy white shirt patterned with thick black lines that run across the shirt at random angles, jeans and a carefully trimmed, thin moustache. He comes from a village in Rajasthan that he is unwilling to identify. He helpfully volunteers that Monu is not his real name either.

On being asked, like all the people interviewed for this story, on why rape is so common in outer Delhi, he offers to show this correspondent the spot where the daughter of a friend of his was raped in 2014. It’s a large, abandoned ruin of a public toilet complex, thickly carpeted in garbage and overrun by pigs, against the boundary wall of which the four men are chasing smack. Other boys and men, singly or in groups, walk in and out of the complex.

The girl was seven, and she was dragged here at night from right outside her house, which is a few feet down a narrow lane that skirts the abandoned toilet. The man quietly disappeared after the act. The girl staggered back home bleeding profusely.

“I was at her home when this happened," says Monu. “We wrapped her in two towels and the blood seeped right through, there was so much of it."

She was taken to the nearest hospital, and the police were called immediately, but the rapist was never caught.

“The police did not even ask around in the neighbourhood," says Monu. “When the girl told them she did not see the man, they ended the investigation right there. Why couldn’t they stake out the toilet, standing here like we are doing right now, and note down all the men who visit the place regularly?"

Monu is against rape, and says that the general belief that it’s mostly perpetrated by those involved in illegal activities is rubbish.

There is no safety at all here for women and children. But there’s no point being scared. The more afraid you are, the worse it will get.- Maya Devi, a social worker.

“It’s easy to just blame and move on," he says. “‘Everyone is a criminal here, so there will be rape’—once you’ve said that, then you don’t have to take responsibility for anything." Monu also believes that what he does is honest business. “About as honest as the factories here," he says.

Monu’s father was a farmer with around three acres of land. When he died in 2008, Monu, who is the fourth of six brothers, decided to move to Delhi to look for work—it would not have been possible to make a living farming out of his share of less-than-a-half acre of land. He worked for three years in a factory making cables, till he was caught stealing copper and sent to jail.

“I was making Rs4,000 a month working 10 hours there," he says. “Who can survive on that?"

In jail, he met members of the Sarwan gang, and others who worked in the outer area, and was “recruited". Six months later, he was out of prison and working at an illegal alcohol den in Shahbad Dairy.

“There are around 50 such thekas (liquor stores) inside the JJ area alone," says Monu. “A box of local stuff (around 24 half-litre bottles) costs Rs520 in Haryana, and is sold here for Rs850, and then each of those bottles is sold for Rs50 each. On a daily basis, around 250-300 boxes are sold here, so now you can calculate what this business is worth."

Monu says he sends Rs8,000 home to his mother every month, who thinks he works in a car factory—“Hyundai", he says.

Standing outside one such theka, which is little more than a small room on the ground floor of a two-storey jhuggi with its entrance covered by a dirty curtain, Monu says that alcohol fuels some of the rape: “What do people not do under the influence?"

He also has an age-categorized theory of rapists.

“Those who do it to children under six are terrible perverts," he says. “There is nothing right with their heads. The ones who are doing it to children between 6 and 12 or so are basically opportunists. Bad people, but very calculating—they are the hardest to catch. They know the child is too young to fight back and will be scared."

Presumably, according to this scale, those who attack girls above 12 are risk-takers.

Trouble everywhere

No matter what the age of the girl who has been raped, there is often trouble with the authorities. Police dither over filing the FIR, the overwhelmed government hospital struggles to find the time to do a medical , and even the Child Welfare Committee (CWC), a district level panel of five women who oversee the care and protection of children under distress, does not always offer a supportive environment for the victims and their families.

This is where Maya Devi comes in. The 30-year-old social worker is one of the driving forces behind Saksham, a non-profit that works with education in Shahbad Dairy, but has increasingly found itself working for the protection and care of children as well.

“We realized early on that parents were too scared to send children to school," says Maya. “And most girls who are raped or abused don’t go back to school either." Maya herself has two schoolgoing daughters. She is a former child-bride from a village near Arrah city in Bihar, who ran away from home with her children after years of brutal mistreatment for giving birth to girls.

Petite, soft-spoken and dressed in a jeans with graffiti-style text printed on it and a long kurta, Maya weaves through the narrow alleyways of Shahbad Dairy, meeting families whose children are either missing or have been raped or sexually assaulted, to follow-up on their cases. She will then make her rounds of the police station, the hospital, the courts, or to yet another new case where she has been called for help.

Her work has earned her scars—one that runs along her jawline on the left side of her face, and one on the back of her left hand—the remnants of an assault on her two years back when she was working on a case.

“There is no safety at all here for women and children," she says. “But there’s no point being scared. The more afraid you are, the worse it will get."

Maya’s first case was the abduction and murder of a one-and-a-half-year-old girl in 2012. An FIR was registered within 24 hours of the child going missing, but the police, following what seems like standard procedure, did not do a house-to-house search in the area. Three days later, the girl’s body was found on an empty plot a few houses down from her own.

“I remember her clearly," says Maya. “She was wearing a striped dress, gloves, socks, two pigtails. And two long gashes—one across the throat going down to the chest, and the other across her left belly."

The police do very little to earn any kind of respect from the people, says Maya. There is, instead, great mutual distrust, bordering on hatred. Maya talks about the case of a nine-year-old girl who was picked up from near the MCD primary school last year, and taken to a godown at Rohini Sector 18, and raped. She survived. At first, her family was opposed to the idea of going to the police; they thought it would be better to just suppress the whole thing. On Maya’s counselling, they went to the police station, but the police kept them waiting for so long that they returned home without filing an FIR. Maya went to the police station to help them get the FIR filed. Once an FIR is filed, the police are supposed to take the victim for “area mapping"—basically to establish the scene-of-crime.

“When they were taking the girl, they told her not to sit in the car because she was dirty," says Maya. “They said ‘go and stand in the back of the gypsy’. When we intervened, they got some newspapers out and laid them on top of the seats before they allowed her to sit."

According to Maya, when they reached CWC, the exchange between the panel and the victim’s mother went something like this:

CWC: Is this your girl?

Victim’s mother: Yes

CWC: How many girls do you have?

Victim’s mother: Three

CWC: Do you make all your girls do things like this? You want to put them in the profession? Is this why you are producing children?

Victim’s mother: No.

“I argued with them and they said, ‘You NGOs create all the trouble’," says Maya.

When this correspondent visited the CWC office in Rohini’s Asha Kiran Home for Mentally Challenged Women, the same verdict on NGOs was repeated by a panel member. The panel member also put the blame for both abductions and rapes largely on the parents, insinuating that they were incapable of raising children in a safe manner (“they have so many children that they can’t keep count, and they won’t be able to even tell you the name of all the children"), and that many of the older girls alleging rape were doing it in collusion with the NGOs to get the compensation money paid to victims. She was also resigned to the fact that the children CWC has helped to rehabilitate, mostly those rescued from brothels and orphans living on the streets, did not want the help and went back to their earlier lives as soon as they got the chance.

The missing

If the fear of sexual assault constantly shadows the girls and women, the fear of a child going missing weighs heavily on parents here.

Between 1 June 2014 and 31 March 2015, 1,093 children were abducted from outer Delhi—that’s an average of three children a day—and that’s just the ones reported to the police. And 313 of these children remain untraced. Most went missing from Aman Vihar (170), followed by Shahbad Dairy (113). With slight variations, this has been the trend since at least 2012, according to CWC, and continues without disruption.

“Aman Vihar, Shahbad Dairy and Narela are the worst affected," says Kamla Lekhwani, chairperson for CWC for the area.

“When it gets dark, no one here lets their children go out," says Maya. “It’s like living in permanent curfew."

But some abductions happen in broad daylight, in the most brazen fashion. Last year in May, from outside the gates of the MCD primary school, a car picked up five children pretending to be a school van, and then drove away towards Ghaziabad, across Delhi’s eastern border in Uttar Pradesh. The driver stopped for tea at a highway restaurant. A waiter at the restaurant thought that it was odd—he knew the schools in the area, and the uniform did not belong to any of them. He called the police, and the man was caught.

For parents whose children are not found, life acquires a curious rhythm dictated by the loss. Wherever they go, they carry a photo of the lost child, or children. They show the photos to every new person they meet. When they get time off from work, they visit children’s homes, railway stations and police stations. They do it for years.

When Urmila and Kalicharan’s self-built single-room home caught fire and burnt down six months ago, the first thing they saved is their son Ramprakash’s photo and the FIR that was filed when he went missing on 23 February 2016. Ramprakash was 12 years old then.

Sitting inside the cramped house with charred walls, a house that still smells of smoke, Urmila and Kalicharan recount the day their son went missing while on his way to school, and all that has happened since then. She tells the story with great zeal; she is confident that they are just a few steps away from getting Ramprakash back. Her husband is quiet and weary-eyed.

“The police said they will put up posters, but they didn’t," says Urmila. “We did that ourselves. The IO (investigative officer) in the case has changed three times in this last year. The first one was transferred after just a month. The next one was there for six. When we go to the police station, they ask us, ‘Have you come with any new information’?"

The month Ramprakash disappeared, 219 people were reported missing from outer Delhi and are yet to be found, four of whom, all children, were from Shahbad Dairy. From 1 February 2016 to 1 February 2017, 576 people went missing from the same area, 41 of those from Shahbad Dairy, and have not been found.

Urmila and Kalicharan came to Delhi 13 years back from the village Mahoba near Jhansi because they had little money and no land. “If we stayed in the village, we would have been farm labourers, and our children would have been farm labourers," says Urmila. They have three children, and Ramprakash is the youngest. They came to Shahbad Dairy in 2009, when a friend told them they can buy land here.

“We don’t have the resources to do much about this," says an officer at Shahbad Dairy police station. “When we get a missing complaint, we put it up on ZIPNet (zonal integrated police network), so that all police stations around the country can access it."

There seems to be very little procedure involved when it comes to the police looking for missing persons, apart from making a few calls to Delhi’s shelter homes for children, and putting up a notice on ZIPNet (see box) and a newspaper. Since staff at any police station is usually rotated within one year, the average time an investigating officer gets on a missing person’s case is less than a month (before another such case, or a murder, or a robbery, comes up). Then there’s the chronic staff shortage: the Shahbad Dairy station is short of 53 policemen at the moment, which means they have 160 policemen in charge of an area with a population estimated to be around 200,000. They also have 1,566 cases pending with them.

It is perhaps, only human nature then to construct certain myths to explain away the high rates of crime. There are three such beliefs that every police person interviewed for this story offered immediately: 1) In JJ colonies, you cannot expect any better; 2) In JJ colonies, all the people are migrants and they are here today, gone tomorrow, so no one can really keep a check on them; 3) As for missing children, most of them run away on their own because of conditions at home.

“See, these houses, they are the size of a large car, and there are eight-nine people living in each of them," says an officer at the Aman Vihar police station. “Then the children in the house see the parents doing what adults do at night—it’s only natural—and they can’t handle it, so they run away."

While there is truth in this—around 70% of the missing children are found within a month, and many of them are runaway cases—it’s what happens to the rest that is cause for serious concern.

The Justice Verma Committee, which was set up to look into amendments in criminal laws related to sexual assault after the Nirbhaya case, pointed out that most missing children are victims of human trafficking.

Rakesh Senger, programme coordinator with NGO Bachpan Bachao Andolan (Save Childhood Movement), says that in cases where the organization has been able to track the children, the trend was that boys are put to work in factories or in farms in Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Haryana, and the girls are sold either into prostitution or into marriage, and can land up just about anywhere in India, or the Gulf countries.

“In human trafficking, usually, places are either transit points, or source points or destination points," says Senger. “Delhi is all three."

Anita is 37 and has lived in Shahbad Dairy with her husband ever since they got married 17 years ago. She lives about five houses north of Urmila’s shack, and works in a factory in Bawana from 10am-6pm, packing protein powder, and says she is paid Rs4,000 for it.

On 2 June 2016, a blisteringly hot Thursday, she came back from work to find that two of her children—Ashok, 8, and Suraj, 10, were not at home. She has not seen them since. Anita is Urmila’s friend, and together, they continue to search for their children. They write letters—to district magistrates, senior police officers, the chief minister. “We’ve just written one to Narendra Modi," says Urmila.

According to Urmila and Anita, no police has ever come to their house, to the children’s schools, or even in the neighbourhood.

“I told the police so many times," says Anita, “why don’t you speak to my sons’ friends, maybe they know something that they are scared to tell us but will tell you because you are in uniform. Maybe they went together to the canal and my boys got taken by the current, and the other boys are not telling?"

In March last year, the body of a child was found in a field at Samaypur Badli. When the news reached Urmila, she had a feeling it was her son and she rushed there. It was not. It was an eight-year-old girl who had been raped and strangled.

“Once every week, I go walking along the canal to see if my sons’ bodies will float up," says Anita. “I’ve seen so many bodies, and each time, I was relieved that these were not the bodies of boys but men."

No one is immune

“Living in Shahbad Dairy is not easy," says Santlal, who is the founder of Saksham, the NGO where Maya works. “I’ve read about people living in war zones, and sometimes this place feels just like it."

Certainly, no one is immune from the pervasive violence.

On 26 December last year, a 16-year-old boy called Sachin Rathi was lynched outside his home, next to the main market, by five men, including the leader of the gang that controls most of the alcohol trade in Shahbad Dairy.

In March this year, a man who lives a few houses from Urmila’s was beaten to death by his own relative over the playing of loud music on Holi.

On 10 August last year, a police constable tried to stop two robbers from fleeing with a woman’s bag near the market and was shot dead—both assailants were arrested in a sophisticated operation that involved hundreds of policemen, in stark contrast to the way cases of missing children are handled.

In 2015, a serial child murderer and rapist called Ravinder Kumar was arrested. Police believe he has raped and killed at least 20 children, most under four years old, in Aman Vihar, Narela, Bawana, Shahbad Dairy and Alipur, all areas in outer Delhi, starting with the rape and murder of a labourer’s child from Samaypur Badli when the Metro station there was being constructed in 2008.

Then there are other, more niggling indignities. Like the open drains choked and overflowing with thick black sludge. Like the piles of garbage everywhere that’s never removed. Like the lack of a central sewage system which means that even homes that can afford it are unable to build toilets. Till last year, most residents used the “jungle" behind G’s house; till so many children were abducted or assaulted there that the government finally began to build some toilet complexes inside the JJ colony, and then razed the trees in the jungle. But since most of the toilet complexes are under construction, the people are still using the jungle. “But now we don’t even have tree cover," says G’s mother. “Everyone can see everyone."

For parents whose children are not found, life acquires a curious rhythm dictated by the loss. Wherever they go, they carry a photo of the lost child, or children. They show the photos to every new person they meet... they visit children’s homes, railway stations and police stations. They do it for years.

Like the lack of water supply, which means every morning all the residents are rushing around with big blue plastic jerry cans to the designated spots where the water tankers come.

Like the lack of schools—the single senior secondary school in Shahbad Dairy was in a building where parts of the roof kept falling off, and then last year a boy was electrocuted while in class and the school was declared unsafe and shut down. There were roughly 8,000 boys and girls in the school, who were then shifted to the already overcrowded school in Pul Prahaladpur, more than 3km down the highway. Many students dropped out because they, or their parents, were too scared to let them make the trip, which is necessarily done on foot because the public buses don’t allow the children on board since they assume they will not pay the fare. The children sometimes wave at the conductor with the fare money in their hand, but are still not allowed in.

There is a single government-clinic in the colony, set up in 2016.

The residents of Shahbad Dairy see the building of new toilets and the government clinic as progress, and hope that things are finally heading in the right direction. They have more money than they’ve ever had, they have land, and they have a house.

R’s mother, who has lived here for 20 years, says she and her husband started by making a house with straw, salvaged wood and plastic, and “whatever else we found". Now it’s a two-storey brick house with a small covered area for a kitchen just outside the main door.

“We have a TV, a fridge and furniture, everything that people who live in flats have," she says. “All my five children were born in this house. Let’s not call it a bad place, this is our home, and it’s a nice home, we are doing well. All we need is a toilet, and CCTV."

*Only the initials of the names of minor victims of sexual assault and their families have been used to protect their identity.

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