How a Chennai-based team is helping families unite with long-lost loved ones


Mahfoosa Khatoon (second from right) with her husband Akbar Ali Sarkar (extreme right), Inspector A.S Thahira and social worker Ratheesh K Ram at The Banyan on October 21st. Pic: Laasya Shekhar

It was a teary-eyed reunion for 50-year-old Mahfoosa Khatoon who had gone missing from her home in Jalpaiguri district of West Bengal a decade ago. The Tamil Nadu State Crime Records Bureau (SCRB)’s initiative reuniting missing people ensured that she would be going home with her husband and brother for the first time since 2007.

Mahfoosa, who also showed signs of Psychosis, was rescued from Muthukadu in Chennai by The Banyan, a not-for-profit organization, about a year ago. Recollecting the episode, Ratheesh K.Ram, a social worker from The Banyan said that she had been found in a semi-nude state at the Muthukadu bus stop.

“She was in a confused state, with poor self care. We provided rehabilitation in our organization in Kovalam,” Ratheesh said. Mahfoosa, who was living as a destitute before rehabilitation, has no memory of how or when she came to Chennai.

After providing medication for her mental illness, the organization could gather bits and pieces of information about her origins. “It was not an easy task. She was not consistent about the details. Language was a major barrier as she could converse only in Bengali and responded very little in Hindi,” he added.

However, during her stay in the organization, Mahfoosa started socializing with the other inmates and staff. She was also trained in vocational and occupational therapies, which helped her to earn a meagre income of around Rs 1,300 per month.

It was then that the organization approached the State Crime Records Bureau to trace Mahfoosa’s family. The department contacted the police stations in Jalpaiguri district and located a missing complaint in her name.

Inspector A.S. Thahira of SCRB said, “There was a complaint lodged in Haldi Bari Police station dated April 23 2009, almost two years after she went missing. We contacted the family, who were overwhelmed to have finally located her.”

Mahfoosa’s eyes welled up at the sight of her husband, Akbar Ali Sarkar and younger brother, Arjanul Alam, who reached the organization on October 21st. Her heartfelt laugh was a scene witnessed for the first time by the inmates of the organization.

But Mahfoosa is not the only one. Thanks to an initiative started by the State Crime Records Bureau, headquartered in Chennai, over a hundred homeless, destitute individuals, often with mental health issues, have been reunited with their families in the past year and a half. A majority of them had made public places in the city their home.

Cops say that they have rehabilitated many from the Central Railway Station, Koyambedu bus stop and the areas in front of the shopping malls.

How was the initiative started?

The initiative was started last year by Additional Director General of Police Seema Agarwal, who is the director of the State Crime Records Bureau. Since then the SCRB has helped 105 missing people from across the country get back to their families.

According to Additional Superintendent of Police, B Sridevi, the reunion of a Tamil girl in Uttarakhand had sown the seeds of the initiative. “A Vellore native, Hamsaveni was found in Uttarakhand, after more than 12 years. We then came up with the idea to focus on reuniting the many who are living as destitutes in Tamil Nadu,” Sridevi said.

The department had sensitized around 113 licensed NGOs with the Institute of Mental Health and the State Commission for the Disabled about the initiative, of which 40 have been consistently providing information about missing people. Information obtained from NGOs is also updated on their website for the guidance and benefit of family members.

In case of those with mental illness, the post-reunion integration and care is also important. “We rescue at least six people from the city every month. As part of the after care programme, we check up with the patients through regular phone calls, besides sending them free medication. It is important for the family members to be sensitive with the mentally ill patients, so that the illness would not relapse,” says Nisha Vinayak, Assistant Director, Rural Mental Health Programme at The Banyan.

Interestingly, among the 105 cases so far, there were two in which the inmates showed no willingness to reunite with their families. “During the enquiry, if they show no interest to meet their abandoned family, we don’t force them,” noted Inspector Thahira.

Statistics from the SCRB says that around 24 people from the state were found in different parts of the country in the past three years. The bureau has also matched more than 443 missing people with unidentified dead bodies in Tamil Nadu, thus bringing a sense of closure for the families concerned.

How can you help?

Citizens have a significant role, too, to play in the success of the SCRB initiative. If you spot people in places who are mentally ill, or appear to be lost, take them to the nearby police station. If they are temperamental, you can call the nearby police station or an organization for help. The cops from the station would give a memo or a Community Service Register (CSR)copy, after which they would send the person to the nearby NGOs. The latter in turn would get in touch with the Bureau initiative, thus setting the process in motion.

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About Laasya Shekhar 287 Articles
Laasya Shekhar is an independent journalist based in Chennai with previous stints in Newslaundry, Citizen Matters and Deccan Chronicle. Laasya holds a Masters degree in Journalism from Bharathiar University and has written extensively on environmental issues, women and child rights, and other critical social and civic issues. She tweets at @plaasya.