More than 1.3 million women and girls went missing in India in the three years from 2019 to 2021, government data has shown.
The Home Ministry has told parliament that more than one million females (1,060,000) above the age of 18 and more than 250,000 below that age went missing over the three years.
The data, compiled by the National Crime Records Bureau, which reports to the ministry, was presented in parliament by junior home minister Ajay Kumar Mishra.
In 2021 alone, 375,000 women over-18s and 90,113 girls under that age were reported missing, the ministry said.
“It is the responsibility of respective state governments to maintain law and order, including investigation and prosecution of crimes against women,” a ministry statement said.
The highest number of disappearances was in Madhya Pradesh state, with nearly 198,000 women and girls reported missing in the three years. West Bengal followed with nearly 193,000 cases, while Maharashtra reported 191,000 cases, the NCRB data showed.
India's capital New Delhi recorded 90,000 cases.
While the NCRB data did not include cases resolved, police in Gujarat in May said they had found 39,500 of the 41,000 women and girls reported missing in the western state over the three-year period.
State police said they used public announcements, social media and the help of volunteers to trace the missing people and reunite them with their families.
The NCRB said the reasons for the women going missing included "mental illness, miscommunication, misadventure, domestic violence and being a victim of a crime".
Other common causes were trafficking for forced marriage, domestic work, sexual exploitation and child labour, the agency said.
“Some young people run away from home due to unbearable conditions of abuse and maltreatment,” the NCRB noted in its 2019 report Missing Women and Children in India.
"They become vulnerable to trafficking, violence, drug addiction, prostitution and other risks of exploitation and involvement in crime.
“Many missing persons have met with a tragic end such as homicide, suicide or accident. Many missing persons end up getting trafficked.”
'Measures not enough'
The government told parliament it had taken a number of steps to ensure the safety of women, such as passing laws carrying heavy punishments for sexual offences, including the death penalty for the rape of girls under 12.
The Emergency Response Support System, launched after the gang rape and murder of a medical student in Delhi in 2012, allows women across the country to seek assistance through a single emergency number.
The Home Ministry also launched a national database of sexual offenders in 2018 to help law enforcement agencies investigate such crimes and track the perpetrators.
However, women rights activists say these measures are not enough.
“The government measures do not address the large-scale network of trafficking,” Kavita Krishnan, a women rights activist, told The National.
"These ideas can serve only individuals who are in a position to make a complaint.
“It is a chronic problem. There has never been a policy on the issue of disappearances," she added. "There could be many reasons for the large number but the point is it is a chronic issue.
"What should be the response of the government to that? What are the reasons for regions where there are large-scale disappearances?"