The Nowhere Children

PUBLISHED IN THE TEHELKA

Human trafficking is the third largest illicit industry after arms and drugs. Neha Dixit went undercover to meet the traffickers and the young victims sold by their own families to pimps and placement agents

Every Sunday, 17-year-old Rita was forced into sex with at least 50 men.
Vijay was still in the womb when his mother fixed the price he was sold at.
Seven-year-old Parul’s meals were thrown into a toilet bowl. She had no choice but to eat.
Priyanka was nine when she was shot in the thigh for eating too much.
Preeti has not been allowed outdoors since she was eight. It’s been 15 years.
Two months into their marriage, 14- year-old Puja’s husband began pimping her to his friends.

EVEN THOUGH India’s poverty rate has dropped from 60 to 42 percent according to the World Bank, the number of Indians scraping by on less than Rs 60 a day is at an astronomical 467 million. That hunger has almost half the Indian population in its grip is not all that this figure implies. Among huge swathes of India’s poor, life is little more than a bare, often brutalised attempt at staying alive, a struggle in many cases hijacked by human trafficking, deemed by the United Nations the world’s third-largest illicit industry, after arms and drugs. Extreme poverty and the low premium traditionally placed on female lives sees thousands of girls, most of them more children than women, sold into unmitigated hell by family members and acquaintances. As TEHELKA witnessed at close range during a three-month investigation, the grievous trade in human lives is plied not only in the country’s brothels, but in urban domestic placement agencies and rural bride markets as well.

BEHIND CLOSED DOORS: TORTURE AND DOMESTIC SERVITUDE

PM Nair’s Trafficking in Women and Children in India indicates that nearly 75 percent of the victims of trafficking are tricked into it by the promise of a lucrative job.

With the nuclear family fast becoming the norm among the urban middle-toupper classes, the demand for the live-in maid servant (euphemism: ‘domestic help’) has exponentially risen. In response, domestic placement agencies have mushroomed across the country’s metros. Posing as the mother of a three-year-old, we visited several such agencies in Delhi and saw at first hand how easily minor girls are brought from villages in West Bengal, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh to live under extreme exploitation, first at the placement agency’s ‘transit area’, and then at the employer’s house.

Husband and wife Kiranjeet and Julie, known only by their first names, are traffickers from Alipore Dwar, West Bengal. In trade jargon, they are known as ‘johns’: they supply placement agencies with girls from the villages at commissions ranging from Rs 500 to Rs 10,000 per girl. TEHELKA got Kiranjeet talking about his profession.

Tehelka: How do you bring the girls to Delhi?
Kiranjeet: By the Mahananda train…not the Northeast Express because it comes via Guwahati and there is a lot of checking there. The Mahananda train comes to the station directly, which is why we use it.

Tehelka: What do you tell the girls?

Kiranjeet: I tell them there are a lot of employment opportunities in Delhi and good money also…I don’t give them too many details…The placement agent here in Delhi gives me Rs 2,500 for each girl I get… In the train, the police come on their rounds at night. If they find a number of girls being taken, they ask for money.

Tehelka: They take money for bringing girls?

Kiranjeet: Yes. They take Rs 200 per girl.

ONCE IN the city, the girls are kept in so-called hostels until the placement agent finds them an employer. The ‘hostel’, as we found on visits to many such establishments, is no more than a single room where several girls, all in the 8 to16 age group, are claustrophobically packed together in conditions unhygienic in the extreme. When we asked these girls who they were and where they were from, their unvarying answer was that they were the placement agents’ relatives — the reply they are told to give on arrival, to avoid attracting the attention of the police. The transit period involves doing the placement agent’s household work and, frequently, submitting to sexual molestation and assault.

Smita, now 16, was one of four girls brought in June 2005 from their village in Jharkhand by an acquaintance of her father to a placement agency in Punjabi Bagh, New Delhi. There, while no employment came her way, she found the placement agent continually harassing her for massages. She refused. Three months later, the agent punished her with rape. “I ran away that very day, and stayed on the streets for the next two days. I had no money and I didn’t know any Hindi.” An NGO, Domestic Workers’ Forum, Chetnalaya, finally came to her aid, but her parents refused to take her back because she had been raped, leaving her nowhere to turn but the rescue home where she still lives. A case was registered last year against the placement agent; he, however, is absconding.

WHEN WE went looking for a babysitter to Phoolchand Placement Agency in South Delhi’s Lajpat Nagar, six or seven girls between the ages of 10 and 14 were displayed before us like mannequins in a shop window. The placement agent told us he would charge a commission both from us and the girl, depending on whether she was untrained (a firsttimer), semi-trained (had worked before) or fully trained. The fee, accordingly, ranges from Rs 6,500 to Rs 10,000.

Tehelka:I had a talk on the phone about a small girl for babysitting.

Agent:Will be done. Call the girls. (A few girls enter.)

Tehelka: I want this one. What is your name?

Girl: Shilpi.

Tehelka: How old are you?

Shilpi: Twelve.

Tehelka: Have you worked before?

Shilpi: Yes. In Noida. For two years.

Tehelka: Okay. I’ll take this one.

Agent: Her mother will come in sometime. Talk to her.

The girl’s monthly wage is fixed at Rs 3,000. The agent tells us there will be an 11-month contract and the girl will get two off-days a month. But, when we protest that we cannot allow leave, we are told she’ll work with no offs for an extra month’s salary. After a while, Shilpi’s mother, Jharna arrives.

Tehelka: Is this your daughter?

Jharna: Yes.

Tehelka: What do you do?


Jharna: I get girls from the village and supply them to placement agents in Delhi.

Tehelka: Where is your village?

Jharna: Between Siliguri and Kishangarh. It’s called Darkula.

Tehelka:My sister also needs a small girl like her. Can you get me one?

Jharna: See, there’s a problem in bringing minor girls because of the police check here. There’s no problem sending one’s own daughter. Then nobody can ask me anything.

While one remains unsure whether Jharna is Shilpi’s actual mother, the interaction reveals one of the key techniques johns use when trafficking minor girls.

The placement agent also insisted that Shilpi’s wages be paid by cheque into the agent’s bank account. A façade that promises security but means exactly the opposite.

Latika Das from Alipore Dwaar arrived in Delhi in January 2005. Illiterate, a complete stranger to city life and without a soul she knew, it was no surprise that the 14-year-old could not manage to open a bank account. She turned to Praveen, her placement agency owner, who said she could deposit her money into his account. A year of hard labour in domestic service netted her Rs 12,000, collected in Praveen’s name. Says Latika, “When I asked him to give me my money and send me home, he refused. When I insisted, he raped me and told me that if I complained, he would get me arrested.” Fearing the legal repercussions Praveen could cause her to incur, Latika agreed to work at two different places for the next two years, during which she had no contact with her parents. Befriended by NGO Prayaas, Latika registered a case this May against Praveen, who now owes her Rs 36,000. He, however, is absconding. Speaking from a rescue home, she tells us, “I can’t go back to my parents till I get my money. How will I tell them about what I went through here?”

FORCED LABOUR, exploitation, fraud and sexual assault — Latika and Smita faced all these at the hands of the men who were supposed to get them work. Once work is found, however, life can descend into nightmare. Geeta, Priyanka and Parul were 12, 9 and 7 respectively when they were sent to work at the house of Manish and Ritu Gupta in Faridabad, Haryana, in January 2006. Priyanka and Parul would wash the clothes and manage the household cleaning (which included scrubbing the washrooms barehanded with acid), and Geeta would do the kitchen work. By the girls’ account, punishment in the Gupta household for slip-ups at work was nothing if not sadistic. Being locked into a wet bathroom on winter nights was perhaps the mildest. Beatings with dumbbells and cricket bats were common; the children would be gagged so their screams would not be heard. “When we did not finish our work on time,” says Parul, “Madam (Ritu Gupta) would throw our food into the commode from where we picked it up to eat.” During the two years the children worked for the Guptas, they neither got any money nor were they allowed to visit their homes. Says Geeta, “I was desperate to call my parents, and I once became adamant about it. She (Ritu Gupta) snatched the paper on which I had the number, put chillies in my eyes and tied me naked to the kitchen door. She did not give me food for the next five or six days.” Geeta says Manish Gupta attempted to rape her several times. He also shot Priyanka in the thigh with an airgun, apparently because he thought she ate too much. “They did not even call a doctor after that,” Priyanka says. Manish Gupta is an architect; his wife is what is commonly referred to as an ‘educated’ woman.

The three girls were rescued in December 2007, when a neighbour informed a local NGO, Shakti Vahini. Manish Gupta and his wife managed bail the same day; they evaded TEHELKA’S attempts to contact them. The three children they brutalised wait in a rescue home in Sonipat in Haryana for their case to close so they can return home. Says Priyanka, “More than these people, I am angry at my brother who brought me from Chhattisgarh and dumped me here.” Gita’s response is impassioned. The Bengali girl speaks in the Haryanavi accent she has acquired during her stay in the rescue home. “I want to kill them both, I want them to suffer exactly what they did to us.” Parul, the youngest and the most traumatised, has only one reply to all questions: “I want to go home to my parents and my brother, then I will tell you everything.”

Gita, Priyanka and Parul did at least find a way out of the hell they had been left in. Not Preeti, 23, who has worked at the house of KC Dutt — a resident of the Railway Colony off the capital’s Lodhi Road — since she was eight. Brought from West Bengal by her uncle and sold to a placement agency, Preeti has not left the Dutts’ house once in the 15 years she has been here. Her years in the house have not only silenced her, but have left her with a pervasive inability to trust anyone she meets. This includes her sister, who found her here after years of searching. When we visited the Dutts, they refused to let her out. The only contact she was allowed with us was through a small window. All the while, as we tried to coax her to talk, not once did she lift her head to look us in the eye. All she said was “I don’t want to go back,” the same response her sister says she gave two years ago when told her father had died of the trauma of not being able to locate her for 13 years. She has always been spotted in the same clothes with injury marks all over her face and body. How she got them, she never tells.

TERROR OF the employer and the placement agent and of the social and financial consequences of returning home keep hundreds of thousands of girls and women silent about the torture and humiliation they daily suffer. The National Commission for Women (NCW) receives at least eight cases every day from across the country of the murder of housemaids, says NCW member Manju Snehlata Hembrom. “When the girls become pregnant after they are raped, the employers kill them and claim they committed suicide,” she says.

Sister Leona, co-ordinator, Domestic Workers Forum, Chetnalaya, points out the chief hurdle in tracking the abuse of domestic servants. “There is absolutely no record of the number of girls that are brought from the villages to these agencies, nor is there any record of the number of agencies in the country.” Even the registration certificates that the placement agents show employers, under the Indian Partnership Act, are false because the practice is altogether illegal.

The Domestic Labour Bill has been sent to Parliament and, according to Hembrom, will take at least eight months to pass. Till it becomes law, it will remain next to impossible to assess the magnitude of this kind of trafficking or to formulate a domestic workers’ database, not just for policy makers and social workers but for parents trying to track children they once sent out to earn and who are now lost forever.

THE SEX TRADE: NO EXITS ON GB ROAD

A report by the United Nations Centre for Development and Population Activities indicates that approximately 200 girls and women in India enter sex work every day. More than 160 are coerced into it.

For ages, the commercial sex trade has been the chief destination for trafficked girls. According to a report by the Ministry for Women and Child Development, India has nearly 2.5 million prostitutes in nearly 300,000 brothels in 1,100 red-light areas across the country.

RITA KAMBDE was kidnapped from her home in Latur, Maharashtra, in 1997 and sold for Rs 3,000 to a brothel on GB Road, Delhi’s red-light locality. She was then 17. When she refused to sleep with customers, she was thrown into a tiny room where, she says, there were at least a 100 other girls. Locked up for 20 days, they were neither given food nor even allowed to leave to defecate. Periodically, the brothel bahadurs — the term used for the husbands of the madams, the women heading the brothel — would pick off a girl to rape before the rest to terrorise them. At other times, Rita says, chilli powder would be applied to the girls’ vaginas to torture them into consent.

When Rita finally agreed, she was made to sleep with 20 to 30 customers a day and with 50 customers on Sundays. When she mustered the courage to say she wanted out, the brothel madam told her to repay the sum she was bought for. Says Rita, “How could I have paid her anything? I was never given any money, just food and clothes.” Nine years later, Rita contracted tuberculosis and managed to escape when she was taken to hospital for treatment. She now works as a children’s helpline co-ordinator. Her case has been in court for two years. She has AIDS and just two or three years to live.

Posing as a research scholar, the TEHELKA reporter visited GB Road and met Abdul, a pimp.

Tehelka: Since when have you been here?

Abdul: 1956.

Tehelka: You must know a lot about the area. How much were girls sold for then?

Abdul: At that time, for anywhere between Rs 20,000 to 50,000.

Tehelka: What about now?

Abdul: Now it’s much higher.

Tehelka: Who brings these girls here?

Abdul: Parents, brothers…

Tehelka: And the police must also ask for a commission?

Abdul: Is it possible without their commission?

Tehelka: They must know that parents bring the girls?

Abdul: Yes. In fact, the police themselves facilitate a sale every 10 to 15 days.

Situated across from New Delhi Railway Station, the brothels of GB Road occupy the upper floors of Asia’s largest spare parts

market. A maze of narrow, dark passageways and staircases, filled with paan stains and cigarette smoke and guarded by bahadurs at every exit, lead to the brothels. It is a labyrinth impossible to navigate for anyone attempting to escape.

We first go to brothel no. 64, which we are told is the best in the area. When we step into the display room, we find faircomplexioned minor girls from Nepal and the Northeast, dressed in Western outfits and accompanied by middleaged, well-to-do men drooling over them as they await a ‘room’. These socalled rooms are little more than wall cupboards, not even three feet deep, their shelves replaced by a single plank. Makeshift arrangements to accommodate the maximum customers at any given time, each ‘room’ has a mattress but no fan, ventilation or light. Rarely cleaned, these cramped quarters are, naturally, the automatic breeding ground for infection.

The popularity of brothel 64 indicates that a large number of minor girls are available here, especially virgins. Since sections of our culture still subscribe to the myth that intercourse with a virgin cures sexual dysfunction, the demand for virgins is high, the younger the better. The looks and complexion of the girls also play a great part in deciding the rates they are sold at.

AS WE leave, we meet Rani, nearing 40, a prisoner of the trade for over three decades. Rani was eight when she was kidnapped from a village in Siliguri, West Bengal, and sold to a brothel in Delhi. Twenty-five years later, her abused body was no longer attractive to customers; her dark complexion also impeded her graduating to the status of madam, a trajectory sex workers commonly follow. One day, she says, she came down with an unspecified illness; it took the brothel owners no time to throw her out. In the 25 years she had lived in the brothel, Rani had never once been paid. “I was completely stranded,” she says. “I didn’t have a single penny.” She saw hope only in her village; she managed somehow to put the money together for the return. “My mother wept the moment she saw me. She was so happy I had come home. But when my father saw me, he kicked me out on the spot. He said I would bring him a bad name if people found out where I’d been all these years. I was forced to return. Sometimes, I wonder if he’d have done the same if I’d come back with money. Was it my fault I was kidnapped?”

When she returned, Rani was fortunate in being able to find a job with Shakti Vahini, an NGO that helps rescue trafficked victims. The money she earns provides her enough to raise her two daughters. That is not the usual fate of most of the flesh industry’s castoffs, many of whom end their days begging in the dark staircases that lead to the brothels.

IN 2007, 15-year-old Puja Singh’s father married her to Pratap, 20, in Begu Sarai, Bihar. After the wedding, her husband brought her to a village near Bahadurgarh in Haryana and, two months later, began inviting his friends in to sleep with her. When Puja resisted, he told her she was his property, for her father had sold her to him for Rs 3,000. Shocked, Puja plotted her escape and was able to run away. She lives now in Nari Sadan, a rescue home in Rohtak, Haryana. Determined not to go home, she has no idea what she is to do now. Tears and anger burst from her as she speaks. “My father sold me, my husband turned me into a prostitute, I am not even educated, you tell me what to do.”

Back at GB Road, at brothel no. 70, we meet Sonia, the ‘deputy madam’, who confirms the view that the most common sources of girls for the brothels are their own relatives.

Tehelka: Where do the girls come from?

Sonia: See, earlier the pimps would get them but now the mothers themselves bring them here. Girls from Calcutta, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh…After selling them, they come back every two or three months to collect their share of their daughter’s earnings.

Tehelka: The pimps used to get the girls?

Sonia: Yes. Pimps made a lot of money earlier. But now their method has changed. They pretend to fall in love with the girls, promise them marriage and convince them to elope. Then they sell them here. When traffickers come here, they come disguised as customers and ask to take them out. Once they do so, they sell them at some other brothel.

Tehelka: How many times is a girl sold?

Sonia: Don’t ask. There this girl in brothel no. 71 who married her pimp. He promised to take her out, but he now forces her to sleep with customers and lives on that money.

Tehelka: Do the police know?

Sonia:What will the police do? They get their commission every month.

When we speak to Bala Sharma, SHO of the Kamla Market police station under which GB Road falls, all she tells us is, “To the best of my knowledge, there are no minor girls in the area and no girls have been sold here since I took charge.”

Rescue does not always guarantee release, for traffickers and brothel owners keep close tabs on the girls. Says Bharti Sharma, chairperson, Nirmal Chhaya, a rescue home for girls in Tihar Jail, “Traffickers often disguise themselves as relatives of the rescued girls. That is why we don’t allow the girls to go with anyone but their parents. We ask for pictures and other details before we hand the girls over.”

But even these precautionary measures are not always adequate to the purpose. Jaswanti, who runs the Rohtak rescue home, Nari Sadan, tells of how a couple once came with photographs, birth certificate and other such documents and claimed that one of the girls at the home was their daughter. They said the girl, then 16, had been trafficked when she was five; now that she had been rescued, they wanted to take her home, they said. All formalities completed, the girl was allowed to leave. Two days later, Jaswanti got to know that the parents were in a nearby locality, forcibly marrying their new-found daughter to a 50- year-old man. “I rushed to the place with the police and rescued her,” says Jaswanti.

SAAT PHERE: SEVEN CIRCLES OF HELL

Despite the Pre-Natal Diagnostics Test Act, which has banned foetal sex determination since 1994, nine lakh unborn girl children are aborted in India each year, as per official statistics.

The desperation for a son has left states like Haryana and Punjab with some of the worst sex ratios in the country: 861 women per 1,000 men for Haryana and 876 women per 1,000 men in Punjab. Depleted of their women, states like these resort to procuring girls sold as sexual brides from villages in Orissa, Jharkhand, Bihar, Assam and West Bengal.

Life was never easy for Sita, a 16-year-old from Punjab’s Murinda village. The combined incomes of her father, a truck driver, and her mother, a domestic help, were insufficient to support their family of five. Sita followed her mother into domestic service for a few months when she was 14, but it was still not enough and she was soon handed over to a ‘dera’ in Fatiabad. A police raid shortly thereafter got her out, but left her in the custody of the Nari Niketan, Karnal, a dismally corrupt institution that did not always take the trouble to provide its inmates food and water. Sita fled in less than a year. At a bus stop in Panipat, another Haryana small town, she fell into the clutches of Jasbir, a motorcycle mechanic, who raped her, then promised her marriage and finally left her last year at the town’s Bal Bhawan Ashram. In April, Amarjeet, the Ashram co-ordinator, not only raped her but also got a false birth certificate made in her name, changing her year of birth from 1993 to 1990, to show her as being of the age of consent. He later sold her into marriage with 25-year-old Sanjay Verma, a glass factory worker in Gurgaon, Haryana, for Rs 36,000.

Kept as a household drudge, Sita was driven out by Sanjay’s extended family and sent packing in a month. Now in the care of the BBD Balashram, an NGO-run rescue home in Karnal, Sita is a shattered human being, wrecked even before she left her teens. Says Balashram founder PR Nath, “In one week alone, she tried to hang herself twice, attacked other girls with a kitchen knife and tried to set the ashram on fire. There is no counsellor locally we can take her to.” A case has been filed against Sanjay, Amarjeet and Jasbir, but that will take its own lengthy course. Sita is currently in hospital, recuperating with no psychological help at hand. When we asked her if she wanted to go back to her parents, she could only reply, “If I go back now, my father will kill me.”

This is the inflexible code that binds the lives of innumerable girls in shelter homes across the country — once a social taboo is broken, there is no going back, no matter that it is no fault of the girl at all. A trafficker told us that when girls from the brothels go back to their villages, they are called ‘Delhi-returned’ and are considered impure. As with Rani, parents succumb to societal pressure and reject them.

THE STORY of 14-year-old Jyoti, from Durgapur in West Bengal, is a little different. One of a family of five daughters, Jyoti did not find getting sold into marriage to 40-year-old BD Singh a surprise — her father was no more, her mother could find no work and the

marriage brought the family Rs 15,000. What followed, however, was a shock. Married in Aligarh in Uttar Pradesh last October — “just before Durga Puja,” Jyoti says — the girl soon discovered her newly-wed husband was not only already married, but also had four daughters from his first wife. “She used to beat me and make me do all the housework. She would say she’d see to it I’d never give birth to a boy.” That, she finally understood, was why Singh, a brick kiln worker, had married her: the quest for a male heir. In March, Jyoti ran away; the police caught up with her and lodged her in the Karnal Nari Niketan, which was then plagued with a contagious skin disease. The ordeal ended when she was transferred to another rescue home. “I don’t want to see my mother’s face,” Jyoti now says. “Don’t send me home. I want to become a teacher and take care of myself.”

Twelve-year-old Savita from Koochbihar in Assam has perhaps not got off so relatively lightly. With both her father and brother mentally retarded, her mother sent her away three months ago with Rana Suraj Mal, a man from her village who worked as a tailor in Bahadurgarh, Haryana. Says Mal’s neighbour Asha, “Savita would come running to us, crying. He would rape her, make her do all the work at home.” Suraj Mal has been arrested and has confessed to selling Savita into marriage for a sum he did not disclose. Savita, however, is missing; the search for her is still on.

Says Sunil Singh, co-ordinator, Rahi Foundation, a Lucknow-based NGO that works for women’s empowerment, “These girls get no social acceptability all their lives. Treated as commodities, they are reduced to sexual brides, exploited in the most heinous manner.” Most times, the girls do not even understand the language their husbands speak. Despised by the community they are forced to live in, they have nowhere to turn, for the magnitude of their tragedy is well-hidden behind the sacrosanct matrimonial guise.

ADVANCE BOOKING: SELLING THE UNBORN

It is not girls alone who are trafficked; the Indian hunger for a male child will do deals in boys as well. This is the story of 35-year-old Kamlesh, from Asandh, Haryana. On July 28 this year, Kamlesh sold her fifth child, Vijay, the day he was born. Three months before that, her husband had raped their daughter and thrown her onto the railway tracks near their home, after her slitting her throat numerous times. He is in jail now; Kamlesh says she has told the police to hang him. “I am thinking of giving away my other children too,” she says.

Kamlesh: The only money I get is on the days when I get work as a daily wage labourer. The rest of the time, I have to beg my neighbours for food. My children are dying of hunger. That is why I sold my son.

Tehelka: How much did they pay you?

Kamlesh: Rs 3,000. Posing as adoption agency officials, we met Savitri and Ramdev, the couple from Madhubani, Bihar, who bought Vikas. What they told us was astounding.

Tehelka: How did you come to know about Vijay?

Ramdev: Inderdev, my elder brother, negotiated it all. He fixed it up a year ago.

Tehelka: As in, when Kamlesh was still pregnant?

Ramdev: Yes. Inderdev told us she wanted to sell the child.

Tehelka: Did you give her anything when she was pregnant?

Ramdev: No money, just some groceries.

Tehelka: She told us she spent the money you paid her on treatment for her daughter.

Ramdev: Yes. We paid her Rs 5,000- 6,000. We talked with her when she was pregnant and it was decided that if she had a boy, I would take him. When this boy was born, a lot of people came to take him. From places like Ambala and Panipat. They were offering sums as high as Rs 30,000 for him. Then we told her she should give him to us, since she had promised us beforehand.

Tehelka: So she gave him to you because you had booked him when she was pregnant?

Ramdev: Yes. Otherwise that man from Ambala would surely have taken this boy away.

OUTLASTING TRAUMA: WHITHER REHABILITATION?

According to a recent report by the National Human Rights Commission, an average of 22,480 women and 44,476 children are reported missing in India each year. Of these, a yearly average of 5,452 women and 11,008 children are never traced. Another report, Action Research on Trafficking in Women and Children in India, 2002-2003, indicates that many of the missing are not really missing but are instead trafficked.

IF THEIR parents do not farm them out, extreme poverty and large families often compel girls to leave home on their own and come to the cities, looking for work. To take the case of West Bengal, the maximum number of trafficking victims from the state are girls from the tea gardens. A hundred tea gardens have closed down over the last five years, leaving at least 17,000 tea garden workers jobless; Bengal employs three-fourths of those in the tea industry. Says Vasudev Banerjee, chairman, Tea Board of India, “Most of the plantation workers had migrated from Chota Nagpur to Bengal, over a hundred years ago. They have no land in Bengal and no skills apart from plucking leaves. With the closure, they are left with no options and nowhere to go.” Moreover, according to official figures, at least 54 percent of the tea plantation workers are women. With the West Bengal government’s monthly Rs 750 stipend to the laid-off being nowhere near adequate, these women migrate looking for jobs and many end up as victims of human trafficking.

Digambar, a co-ordinator with Nedan, an NGO that works on human trafficking in the Northeast, adds a different spin to the predicament. Describing the state of affairs in Assam, he says, “Due to the ethnic violence between the Bodos and the tribals, hundreds of people took shelter in refugee camps. Many still live there and, with no access to their traditional livelihoods, are more than willing to send their children to work. These children fall prey to trafficking.”

Girls from Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh’s deeply impoverished tribal areas are also easy targets. Says Manju Hembrom, “For years, the tribals have been caught in the web of the money lenders, and when they can’t repay their debts, parents send daughters to the cities to earn money, not realising they may never come back.” Similar stories from among farmers in Maharashtra’s suicide country, Vidharbha, have also been reported over the last few years.

DELHI-BASED SOCIAL activist Rishikant, 32, has rescued more than a thousand girls over the last ten years. A sex worker once told him his phone number was scribbled on an AIDS awareness poster on GB Road, from where he gets the most calls for rescue. “I never switch off my phone,” he says. “I can’t morally afford to.” In the course of the week, Rishikant receives dozens of text messages, faxes and post cards, each a stark vignette of desperation, violence and sorrow. When rescued, the girls often do not even know the name of the place they belong to. “I once brought in an eight-year-old who had no idea of where her home was,” Rishi says. “I tracked down her village by the dialect of a song she would often sing. But I have now slowed down the process of rescuing because over the years I have realised I only end up saving them from one hell and putting them into other.”

Rishikant is referring to the rescue homes that are the only places girls from the brothels can go to. Nirmal Chhaya’s Bharti Sharma admits that the girls brought to the homes — almost all of them illiterate and many of them teenagers or younger — do not receive any counselling or medical attention, despite the relentless trauma they have been through. With their psyches shattered, no skills to fall back on and their parents refusing to let them back home, many girls end up locked into the rescue homes’ section for the mentally disturbed, whether they qualify for being there or not.

Even though the Ministry of Women and Child Development launched the Ujjawala Scheme in December 2007 for the rehabilitation of trafficking victims, it has found takers in only a few states and even fewer NGOs have got permission to pitch in. It is this indifference, bland and merciless, that, Rishikant says, has made him vow to never shake hands with any bureaucrat or minister.

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