NEW DELHI - Seven years ago on a warm October afternoon, nine-year-old Rizwan went off to play cricket with the neighbourhood boys. He promised his mother he would return before dark.
The little boy never came back, becoming a statistic in a macabre epidemic that sees some 60,000 children go officially missing every year in India.
For years, Rizwan's father, a mason, visited a police station in a New Delhi suburb in the hope of finding his son. Nothing came of it, and he died last year.
"As long as his father was alive, there was someone to follow up on our complaint," said Rizwan's mother Rabia Khatoon, who now survives as a construction worker. "Now, I have given up all hope of finding my son."
In India, a child goes missing every eight minutes on average, according to the national crime database, which shows about 40 per cent of the children who go officially missing are never found.
The real figure is believed to be far greater given that reporting of crimes is still low in India, child activists say. But the scourge has long been largely ignored in an overpopulated country with an inadequate policing system.
India has no law defining a "missing child". Some children run away to escape abuse or unhappy homes. Others are lost when poor families travel, and some are abandoned by families unable to take care of them.
Up to 10 times the number of officially missing children are trafficked - boys and girls, most from poor families, forced to beg or work on farms, in factories and in homes, or sold for sex and marriage, activists say.
"The boys are used for forced child labour, begging and drug peddling; the girls for begging, bonded work and prostitution," says Mr Rakesh Senger, head of rescue operations at Bachpan Bachao Andolan, a leading children's rights group.
"There are also cases of smaller children being sold for adoption."
Kidnapping is by far the highest reported crime against children in India. In 2011, 15,284 cases of kidnapping were reported - a 43 per cent increase from 2010.
Indian police admit stealing of children is an organised racket involving over 800 gangs across India. Every now and then, police raid factories and brothels employing young boys and girls, but the scale of the problem is too huge.
Rohit Kumar, 14, is among the lucky few. Last year, after almost four years away, he found his way home to New Delhi from a brick kiln in a village in neighbouring Uttar Pradesh state. One night, he found the door of the shack he shared with five other children open. Two boys escaped with him. They ran almost through the night, stopping only to ask directions to the nearest police station.
"I did not remember our house address, but I knew the name of our neighbourhood in Delhi. I told that to police and they brought me home," says Kumar, who does not leave home alone now.
Part of the reason India has so many missing children, experts say, is the police's treatment of such cases. Parents of missing children find it difficult to register first information reports (FIRs) because an overworked, underpaid police are reluctant to launch the formal, in-depth investigations that such complaints require. So, most complaints are consigned to a cursory list of missing persons kept at every police station.
Last year, when Mr Sankar Boudhgiri went to the police to report that his son, Mahesh, was missing, he was asked for a bribe.
"They demanded 20,000 rupees (S$460) before they would file an FIR," says labourer Mr Boudhgiri, who could not oblige.
No investigation has taken place, Mr Boudhgiri says. His son remains missing.