Anti-trafficking camps set up at India’s Kumbh Mela festival

CHENNAI, INDIA Camps to protect children from human traffickers have been set up for the first time at the world's biggest religious festival, the Kumbh Mela in India's Uttar Pradesh state.

As many as 150 million people are expected to visit the city of Prayagraj to bathe at the confluence of the Ganges, the Yamuna and a mythical third river, the Saraswati, from Jan 15 to March 31.

Said Mr Subedar Singh, a campaigner with anti-trafficking charity Pragati Gramodyog Evam Samaj Kalyan Sansthan: "Thousands of children, particularly girls from 12 to 15, are left behind by their families to take care of the elderly... These girls are always at risk."

With temporary identity cards and pamphlets, Mr Singh and volunteers have helped set up seven camps to keep track of children.

Religious congregations are becoming dangerous places for children and thousands are reported missing each year, child rights campaigners said.

"We have consistently seen that during these events, there is a noticeable spike in the number of children reported missing," said Ms Smita Dharmamer of Aangan Trust, a charity that works on child protection. "The fact is, there are organised groups at work and the children are trafficked."

Many families believe that because they are in a place of faith, God will protect them, so they often ignore safety checklists, campaigners added.

At the seven booths, a database of all children visiting the event will be maintained.

Each child will also be given a detailed identification card that includes the exact ashram where their family are staying.

The Kumbh Mela has always had lost and found booths to help reunite lost children and the elderly. But often, children cannot remember the name of the ashram where they are staying or their parent's phone number, said police officer Neeraj Pandey, who is in-charge of security at the Kumbh Mela.

The police have also for the first time set up a fully computerised network to track children, with 14 booths spread across the enormous venue.

"It seems like a small intervention, but the impact is big," said Mr Shitla Prasad Pandey, a priest at the Kumbh Mela.

"So many sacred activities go on at this event, but what can be more sacred than ensuring the safety of children?"