Ever since her son vanished two years ago at the age of eight, Jamela Atullah has kept a photograph of the boy under the torn, rolled-up cotton sari that serves as a pillow in the shack she calls home. She lives in Bawana, an ugly, dusty, industrial township on the outskirts of New Delhi. Little Tohidallum wandered away from their home - a makeshift covering of plastic sheeting held up by bamboo sticks and topped with corrugated plastic, in the J.J. Colony slum - on April 16, 2007, to play with friends. 'When he didn't return by seven, I began to search for him,' Mrs Atullah, 48, said. 'My neighbours looked around the entire area, but there was no trace of him. I have looked everywhere for him, I have gone all over Delhi, but I haven't found my son.' She was feeling particularly disconsolate as she spoke, having just visited yet another home for destitute children at the other end of the city after hearing a 'rumour' that a boy resembling her son was there. 'But it wasn't him,' she said, kissing his photo as her daughters, Ruksana and Rizvana, tried to comfort her. 'I've only got this photograph to kiss. But I won't give up hope. No mother or father ever gives up hope about their child.' Tohidallum is just one of the 16 children reported missing in New Delhi every day according to a report by two volunteer groups, the Youth India Society (NBS) and Bigul Workers' Group (BMD), which has surveyed poor families and checked police records. Their research revealed that almost 8,000 children went missing between January 2007 and June last year. The victims were aged between two and 15. NBS co-ordinator Tapish Maindola said that while some of the children might have run away because of family quarrels, he believed the vast majority had been kidnapped by organised gangs and sold to middlemen. And the real figure of missing children was probably much higher. 'The children end up working as domestic servants or in tea shops and factories. Or they are forced into prostitution or used for internet pornography,' said Mr Maindola. 'The police usually don't even bother filing a missing person's complaint because the parents are poor and helpless.' Mrs Atullah and her husband, Mamaidullah, who makes a living transporting building materials on his bicycle cart, have searched for their son in hospitals, orphanages and homes. They had to visit the nearest police station several times before the constable on duty agreed to register their complaint. His reluctance stemmed from the fact that once a complaint has been registered, the police are legally bound to act on it. Even the information supplied by the police to NBS and BMD showed that 90 per cent of cases were 'noted' but not formally registered. This is not unusual. The poor in India, even when they are in extreme distress, are treated with contempt and scorn by most people in authority. Few pay them any attention. Even fewer empathise. In contrast, when a rich family's child goes missing, the police deploy every possible resource and gadget, launching massive manhunts. In a case that exposed an appalling level of police indifference to poor Indians, an affluent businessman and his domestic helper were recently sentenced to death after being found guilty of the rape and murder of 19 children and young women in Nithari, just outside New Delhi. The police found victims' remains - skulls and bones stuffed inside bags - in a drain next to the businessman's house. All the children were from poor families who lived in nearby slums. Over the years, these families had sought police help on numerous occasions. Each time, they were rebuffed. Mr Atullah experienced the same disregard. 'Whenever we go to ask if they have any information on my son, they swear at me and tell me to get out. One policeman told me to stop bothering about my son because I have three other children. Another told me to go and have another child,' he said A short distance away, across more narrow alleyways running with open sewers and clogged with rotting rubbish, Kailash Ram, 45, pines for his son, Prithviraj, who is seven now and disappeared a year ago. Mr Ram is one among the thousands of migrant workers who flock to the capital every year. He left his home in the impoverished state of Bihar to live in the J.J. Colony slum, where he works as a day labourer. When the police refused to follow the normal procedures - making inquiries at Prithviraj's school, talking to neighbours and passers-by to search for information - Mr Ram borrowed money from relatives. He had his son's picture blown up and put on posters. He paid someone to go around sticking them on trees and lamp posts in the hope that someone, somewhere, would know something. 'A poor man's child isn't important. They think we are animals, not human beings. If a rich man loses his driving licence, the police run around to help him. When we lose a child, they shout abuse at us,' said Mr Ram. As goats, chickens and children scurried around him in the narrow alleyway where he lives in a tiny shack with his wife and two daughters, Mr Ram held up the Spiderman T-shirt that Prithviraj used to love wearing. Mr Ram was lucky to have a photograph of his son, taken during a family wedding. Many parents of missing children are so poor they do not even have a photo to give police. The New Delhi police dispute claims that gangs have abducted most of the city's missing children and sold them, often for small amounts. They say poor children run away from home because of poor living conditions, disputes with parents, juvenile love affairs or a reluctance to study. They have a point. If you ask street children why they have fled their homes in rural India to come to New Delhi, they often say they wanted to escape alcoholic and violent fathers or stepfathers or cruel stepmothers, or that there was simply not enough food for everyone. But sociologists say police are wrong to discount the role of human trafficking and organised gangs. Elsewhere in India, too, children's groups report the existence of human trafficking. In Bihar, ravaged by unprecedented floods last year, evidence is emerging that the children of families who still live in tents and camps are being abducted by gangs. Save Childhood Campaign, a child-rights organisation, has rescued youngsters who were whisked from Bihar to the state of Punjab by traffickers who lured them with cakes, sweets and talk of 'big money' in the big cities. The Oscar-winning film Slumdog Millionaire showed how easily young children can be persuaded to go along with any adult who offers food or shows a spark of kindness. In one scene, the offer of a cold Pepsi on a hot day is enough for the children to go off with a man they think is going to help them become singers, but who, in fact, runs a gang that maims children and makes them beg. Once sold, the children from Bihar are at the mercy of their employers. 'The children we rescued had been made to work in the fields for 14 hours by the farmers who bought them. If they said they wanted to go home, they were branded with the same hot irons used for cattle,' said Abhilesh Matao, of Save Childhood Campaign. But Zaved Rahman, co-ordinator for street children with the charity Butterflies in New Delhi, disagrees with child groups that blame almost all missing children cases on criminal gangs. Mr Rahman said that while some trafficking did occur, the root cause of children vanishing was abject poverty - they disappeared because they were looking for a job to help support their parents and siblings. 'If anyone offers them a job, they wander off and sometimes can't find their way home if it's a long way away in a big city. Or a distant relative promises to get them a job. The parents agree and the boy goes off, the job doesn't materialise and the child drifts away and never comes back,' he said. The NBS has filed a petition in the Supreme Court demanding that it become mandatory for the police to register and investigate every missing child case. Media coverage of the NBS report also prompted the National Human Rights Commission to order the New Delhi police commissioner to refer to 'this serious violation of the human rights of children and of their poor parents'. 'For a poor man, his child is the most cherished thing in his life,' said NBS activist Jai Pushp. 'If we lose a child, we will not stop hunting. We will go on and on. But they are so poor they have to go back to work, otherwise their other children will starve.' In many New Delhi slums, similar stories emerge of children who disappear, never to return. In Janakpuri, in the western part of the city, cycle rickshaw driver Prayag Singh prays every night that his missing 13-year-old daughter, Nita, has not fallen prey to people like the Nithari serial killers. He has told his other two children - sons aged nine and 11 - to keep sand in their pockets whenever they go outside so they can throw it in the face of any would-be abductor. 'Every night, I lie awake wondering where my first-born is. I can't bear to think that she might think we aren't trying hard enough to find her,' said Mr Singh.