They had been lost, or worse, presumed dead, for weeks, months or years. For these thousands of children who have gone missing from the streets, alleys and slums of India, there is a glimmer of hope: thanks to a new experimental facial recognition trial by the New Delhi police, in just a few days, missing children have been identified. Using a photographic database of about 60,000 missing children and comparing it with about 45,000 images of unidentified orphans in the city's care institutions, 2,930 children were recognized by the pilot programme's facial recognition software (FRS).
En a virtual wink - four days, to be exact, nearly 3,000 lives were lucky enough to be put back on track. This is an astonishing result, highlighting how this emerging technology can help to cure a vast and devastating social problem endemic to India, which seems insurmountable without the help of of the FRS algorithms.
"India currently has nearly 200,000 missing children and approximately 90,000 children in various child protection institutions, explained à The Better India the activist Bhuwan Ribhu of the group Bachpan Bachao Andolan - who contributed to the development of the trial. "It's almost impossible for anyone to manually search simple photos to match children. »
Ribhu's organization began the project to sift through the vast amount of records kept in TrackChild, India's National Missing Children's Database.
Realizing that facial recognition could help speed things up, Bachpan Bachao Andolan intervened, obtaining an order from the Delhi High Court to make the TrackChild database available to the police, who used his FRS system to analyze thousands of images.
"If this type of software helps find missing children and reunite them with their families, nothing could be better than that, said the Chairman of India's National Commission for the Protection of the Rights of the Child, Yashwant Jain, to the Press Trust of India.
Following the success of the New Delhi trial, the TrackChild may be made available other state police forces trying to find missing children. While these developments are encouraging, they will not immediately address all cases of disappearance in India because for the thousands of children who go missing every year, the reasons for their disappearances remain very complex, and often violent.
Some children are abducted from the streets to be sold into prostitution or child labour. Others run away voluntarily because of abuse by their parents.
Some families are said to sell their children or intentionally misplace unwanted girls in overcrowded places so that they are never found.
Of course, some children simply get lost the old-fashioned way, due to circumstances and bad luck - like Saroo Brierley, whose dramatic story has become the subject of of the film Leo released in 2016.
When he was a very young boy, Brierley lost his older brother in a train station. He fell asleep on a train, and could not escape the car until it carried him almost 1,500 kilometres (930 miles) across India. He was so young that he didn't know the name of his hometown, so he could never find his way home.
It took about 25 years before he was finally reunited with his mother: a disturbing and common story among young people in India.
Header photo Parents holding portraits of their missing children at a silent demonstration in the western Indian city of Ahmedabad in March 2012.