Where is my daughter?
– Deepak Tiwari ,The Week September 10
SPECIAL REPORTNGO says 10,000 girls are missing in Madhya Pradesh and ChhattisgarhOne moment Nandlal Padwar is filled with hope, the next moment he is overwhelmed with grief. Three years ago, the Gond tribal of Gudli in Madhya Pradesh sent his daughter Manisha, 22, to work as a domestic help in Delhi for Rs 1,500 a month. The last time he phoned her on a number that the agent, Kamla, had given him was one and a half years ago. Thereafter, every time he asked Kamla about his daughter, she threatened to kill him. He sold everything he had-two oxen and his wife’s jewellery-to take policemen to Delhi in search of his daughter. Padwar has now turned to Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan for help.If parents of all missing girls were to write to Chauhan, his office would be flooded with thousands of letters. Naresh Biswas, who runs the NGO Nirman in rural Mandla, conducted a door-to-door survey in areas under three police stations in Mandla with the help of the police. What he found was shocking: nearly 500 girls had been sent to various metros from here ostensibly for a job or vocational training. Most girls had not returned to their native villages in two or three years. Initially, parents got some money and an occasional call, but now they have no clue about their whereabouts. The police have registered cases against Asish Ekka of Sahara Service Bureau in New Delhi under the child labour act, and for abduction and rape. Biswas estimated that 5,000 girls were missing from Dindori, Balaghat, Seoni and Mandla districts in Madhya Pradesh, and 5,000 from Kawardha, Bilaspur, Dantewada, Jaspur and Raigarh districts in Chhattisgarh.Last year, Mandla Superintendent of Police Niranjan Vayangankar and Biswas rescued 64 girls from Delhi. Yashoda, 14, was one of them. An agent promised her Rs 1,000 a month and free training in sewing. She got neither; instead Ekka sent her to three houses in Delhi in just a month. “The driver in the first house misbehaved with me. When I threw a fit, Ekka shifted me to a new house where I was physically abused,” she said. “I sneaked a call to my mother and they allowed me to return after she threatened to lodge a complaint with the police.” The parents of Manota Bai, 12, have no trace of her. “We have not been able to talk to her on phone,” said her father Sunhar Singh Dhurve. “Even when our son died recently we could not get her back.”Manota’s mother, Mangli Bai, said she regretted having fallen to greed when Ekka’s agents promised her Rs 1,000 a month. “I have got nothing so far,” she cried. “Now I have lost my daughter, too.” The family has not gone to the police as they know it is illegal to send a minor child for work.Activists say many girls land up in brothels. “Getting minor girls from remote areas to work as domestic help is the first stage of human trafficking,” said Rishikant, an activist of the NGO Shaktivahini, who rescued more than 100 such girls from Delhi last year. “Almost all the girls trapped in households are sexually abused. Later they meekly succumb to it. Once they lose contact with their families back home they are inducted into prostitution.”Vayangankar said there was an organised racket operating in the central Indian states and Uttaranchal, Jharkhand and Bihar targeting tribal girls who are vulnerable to the lures of a good life. In Mandla, Dindori, Balaghat and Seoni districts 49.2 per cent of the rural population is below poverty line; the state average is 37.06 per cent. Touts generally tempt children-and sometimes parents-with promises of free job training and lucrative salaries. Schools are the hunting grounds of these touts. “Even teachers work as agents,” said Vayangankar. “They tell children about the glitzy life in the metros.”In April last year, the police arrested Sugriv Ahirwar, a schoolteacher, for sending girl students to a placement agency in Delhi. He, apparently, got Rs 500 a girl. Sugriv and his brother Shriram allegedly abducted six girls of Bhapsa village who were returning from school. Pardeshi Sayyam, the father of one of the girls, went to the police on hearing about the abduction, and they arrested the brothers and rescued the girls.M.D. Mongre, a retired forest employee, said Chottibai, a woman in charge of mid-day meals for schoolchildren, acted as the agent in Manegaon village. Ramkali Marko, headmistress of Government Primary School in Bhada, said two girls, Saraswati and Rajkumari, were ‘abducted’ during exams. “My daughter was taken away when nobody was at home and I was working in the fields,” said Saraswati’s father, Dina Gond, who went to Delhi to track his daughter and met Ekka. “He gave me Rs 4,000 and said the police would arrest me if I did not leave immediately.” Most parents whom THE WEEK visited did not know the whereabouts of their children. All of them had a telephone number, usually a mobile number, which gave the stock reply, “Your daughter has left this place.”Sadabai is the sarpanch of Harrabhat village. Her granddaughter Yashodabai Uike has been missing for the past eight months. “Why would we send our child to Delhi for a job when we give employment to many people,” she said. But her husband, Dhulia Singh Marwari, said they were trying to get in touch with the agents in the village and in Delhi to get back the child. Sadabai has not complained to the police because she thought “the child might have gone with the consent of her parents”. Vayangankar said parents reported such missing cases only when the girls or agents stopped sending them money. “This is basically a social problem and we can only act if we get complaints. But people don’t come forward,” said Vayangankar. “We have now evolved a new beat system in a few villages where one havaldar keeps a watch on girls going out.” The police have also initiated sensitisation of their staff and villagers. In the past year, four training programmes were organised with the help of the state SC/ST and women police cell. Next on the agenda is the rehabilitation of girls rescued from Delhi. Vayangankar said young boys were also abducted. “Last year, we rescued 22 minor boys who were kept as bonded labour in a factory in Hyderabad,” he said. Tribal Welfare Minister Vijay Shah told THE WEEK that he was not aware of any such missing cases. He has asked the Mandla district collector to submit a report on it.But villagers can’t afford to feign ignorance. In Bhada, where 18 girls are missing, sarpanch Jamotin Bai Partei called a meeting that made it mandatory for all those leaving the village for over a month to inform the panchayat where they were going. Suspected agents are not allowed to enter the village and there were also plans, as Mongre said, “to ostracise those parents who send their minor children with agents to metros”. Seeds of changeIn his 20 years of work among tribals, nothing has given Naresh Biswas more satisfaction than his efforts to persuade the administration to rescue minor girls held hostage in Delhi. “I was shocked to know that agents had lured them with good jobs,” said Biswas who made a list of more than 450 missing girls in a single block after a door-to-door survey in Mandla. “The racket is so strong that the police are helpless.”Biswas and his wife, Muniya Marskole, a tribal, move from village to village spreading awareness about the evil designs of those who lure girls. He has asked several employers to send the girls back or face legal action. Many of them were not aware that the money did not reach the girls’ families. Biswas’s action helped some of them come back. According to him, the fact that tribal girls are lured with jobs shows how government employment schemes are ineffective. Illiteracy is another bane. Asish Ekka, the man accused of girl-running, operated under cover of an NGO named Seva Bharti. Biswas now plans to work for the rehabilitation of the girls who have come back. The NGO he runs, Nirman, is already involved in uplifting the vanishing Baiga tribe; he is the pillar of the Baiga Mahapanchayat, a body of Baigas spread in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh.Biswas has been able to revive the tribal tradition of Ramkothi to store grain for lean days. The group has also preserved certain seeds which grow even in scant rainfall.