They left these villages for jobs, never to return

Ravik Bhattacharya,Indian Express, March 12,2007

KOLKATA, MARCH 11: Over the past five years, Sandeshkhali in South 24 Parganas has reported hundreds of missing boys and girls. With an inactive administration responding inadequately to the problem, the numbers only keep rising. Most affected families have not registered cases, as they feel the police will not be of much help. Many bank on the hope that their children will return someday and it’s better not to involve the police.

Shankar Sardar of Baro Asgara village hasn’t heard from his 14-year-old son Sambhu for the past 16 months. When his neighbour Kamala Kanta offered Sambhu a job at a monthly salary of Rs 1,500, he could hardly resist. With one less mouth to feed plus the additional income, the deal wasn’t bad for Shankar either.

But not a penny has reached Shankar till now. Neither does he know the whereabouts of his son. An agricultural labourer, Shankar neither had the courage nor the resources to visit the police station—15 km away with a couple of rivers to cross—to lodge a complaint. “Whenever I ask about my son, Kamala Kanta replies that he has escaped from the address where he was employed and is now untraceable,” says Shankar about his neighbour, who is now somewhere in UP’s Faizabad.

Every other household in the village has a similar tale to narrate. About 2 km from Shankar’s village is Bhatidaha, where Taccho Sheikh’s 16-year-old daughter Jabeda Khatun has been missing for over two years now. “Jabeda was fair and looked like a memsahib,” says the father. She was working in a brick-kiln till one fine morning two local youths told Taccho that she had been married off to a good family in Haryana. When Taccho and his wife Sabita Bibi insisted on Jabeda’s new address, the youths just said: “Good family, good house”. More pressure yielded a piece of paper with directions on how to reach her in-laws: “Husband: Ishak Sheikh, Witness: Nasiruddin Jakir. Get down at New Delhi, board bus No 77 to New Bazar and get an auto from there to Kaligaon at Rs 5.”

Instead of trying out the address in an unknown land, Taccho made it to Sandeshkhali police station and fell at the feet of the officer-in-charge. After several visits and desperate pleas, the OC agreed to make a diary entry and promised to book the youths. However, no police action followed. The youths have meanwhile left following pressure from the villagers.

On the other hand, there are scores of households where children have returned. Many narrate how they were tortured and sexually exploited in brothels and households.

In Malancha Rajbari, a 15-year-old girl managed to return after a year in a Delhi brothel. The teenager used to work at a brick-kiln in Basirhat, about 70 km from Kolkata, before she was lured with the promise of a good marriage.

“Once in Delhi, they put me in a brothel where I was tortured and sexually abused. It continued for about a year before I ran away one morning.”

The walls of the one-room office of Save the Children—an NGO which has started work in the area recently—is cluttered with charts and maps, all pointing to the magnitude of the problem here. One such statistics shows that between April 2004 and June 2006, as many as 540 missing children have returned to their homes in 18 villages.

But figures at the local police station show just a fraction of the problem. Its database reveals that between 2003 and 2006 at least 218 male children have been recorded as missing, of which 14 were traced. The number of missing girls during this period is 455, of whom 29 have returned, says the police. “We are so busy with crimes like murder, rioting and dacoity that we hardly have any time for missing children,” says the duty officer.

However, Sandeshkhali is only symbolic of a growing tide of missing children in West Bengal. Districts like Murshidabad, Malda, Nadia, North and South Jalpaiguri as well as Uttar and Dakshin Dinajpur too have similar stories to tell. There is no singular pattern of missing children in West Bengal, though trafficking is inalienable in most such cases.

But there are often common features associated with missing children in certain districts.

For instance in different villages of North 24 Parganas, groups of young boys and girls are employed in Nautanki groups that visit rural Bihar, Andhra Pradesh and Orissa. Many of them never return home. For instance, at least seven children from Diyaldaha in Bagda of North 24 parganas, who went to Bihar for a performance, have been missing since. The police here however are reluctant to book such cases as the incident pertains to another state.

Supriyo Chowdhury, an NGO consultant and project worker for Action Research on Trafficking in Women and Children, a study published by NHRC, says “young girls and effeminate boys are chosen to perform lewd dances in Bihar. Most of these children are sexually abused after being abducted”.

“Many cases are never reported. Most of these children are trafficked to Mumbai, Delhi, Allahabad and even West Asia. Girls are sexually exploited, boys made to beg or work in West Asian countries. Parents report the cases as missing, but in reality they are trafficked out of the country,” says Chowdhury.

Many boys from Murshidabad are sent to the Middle East to be trained as camel jockeys. Many of them are killed or maimed for life. Others are trafficked to Gulf countries for begging.

The Dubai Police has often deported children working for begging rackets in the emirate. In fact, the study details specific case studies of victims and traffickers operating for begging rackets in the Gulf as well as the metroes.

(To be continued tomorrow)

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