Kidnapping plague hits India's well-off

YANKED loose from the bottom of a West Delhi sewage canal by the monsoon torrents, the sack containing the tiny corpse of nine- year-old Rashi Kukreja ghosted to the surface.

The girl usually rode home from school in a rickshaw. But on 13 July, Rashi was abducted outside her school in Punjabi Bagh by an unknown man. Police suspect that the girl was murdered within hours by her abductors who were afraid to risk holding a scared, noisy girl captive. It was only after her body was weighted with stones in a sack and tossed into the canal that her kidnappers sent a ransom note to her father, the prosperous owner of a cable factory.

Kidnapping is a plague common to Indian cities, and Delhi is no exception. Since 1992, over 2,200 abduction cases have been registered in the Indian capital, but few Delhites troubled themselves; the missing children were usually from the city's slums. The girls were drugged and locked up in brothels, while the boys were forced into labour in factories or private homes as virtual slaves. The strangest case was of a dozen Delhi boys last year who were abducted to jockey camels in the Gulf, a dangerous sport.

But lately, a wave of kidnapping for ransom has jolted Delhi's middle classes. A day after Rashi's decomposing remains were pulled from the canal on 23 July, the body of another kidnap victim was found, four-year-old Ajay Gupta from the affluent suburb of Noida. Five children were grabbed last month, usually during the chaos after the school day ends and students stream through the gates.

'It's caused by the disparity between the haves and the have- nots,' said the police deputy commissioner, Maxwell Pereira. 'The gap is growing larger every day.' India's recent economic boom has enriched the educated middle classes, who can now afford to buy imported foreign cars and live in rococo mansions of marble. They hold jobs in computers, sell shares or run factories for exporting clothes. But a third of Delhi's nine million inhabitants are crammed into slums and have faint hope of catching India's wave of economic growth. They are often the potential kidnappers, and it makes Delhi's bourgeoisie very jumpy.

'Many of these kidnappers are raw newcomers without criminal records,' said Mr Pereira. Delhi parents are verging on hysteria. Soldiers now ride on school buses for protection, and in the better suburbs of Vasant Vihar and Greater Kailash, some parents no longer trust their chauffeurs or nannies enough to let them collect the children. Young children at one school in Jantar Nagar held a demonstration against the kidnappings, carrying placards that said 'leave us alone'. The usually level-headed Times of India ran one article recently which advocated bringing back the hangman.

Another disturbing trend to the kidnappings is the exorbitant ransom demand. 'Before, the abductors would ask for only a couple of thousand rupees. Now they're demanding 50 million ( pounds 1.1m) or 100 million rupees,' Mr Pereira said. The more the Indian press exaggerates the menace of a kidnapping frenzy, said the police officer, the more likely it is to happen. The huge sums that parents are willing to pay makes the risk of execution or life imprisonment seem tempting. When news was leaked last April that India's most famous potato-crisp maker, Naresh Bajaj, had paid 200 million rupees ( pounds 4.4m) for the release of his four-year-old grandson, it touched off a spate of other kidnappings.

Delhi's police have had success in capturing many of these new urban kidnappers. In the 17 kidnappings this year in which ransoms have been demanded, police have managed to free the captives and catch the abductors in all but three cases. So far, most of the abductions have been carried out by the victim's crooked domestic servants or factory employees, but police are worried that the quick profits in kidnapping may lure in underworld gangs from the nearby state of Uttar Pradesh and from Bombay.

The deputy commissioner, however, insists that aside from kidnappings, Delhi is remarkably crime-free. 'In London or New York hardly a minute goes by when there isn't a mugging. But if a mugging happens here in Delhi, it gets a sensational headline in the papers,' he said.

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