Northeast and its ceaseless struggle with human trafficking

KISHALAYA BHATACHARJEE IN THE TEHELKA

In the last two months more than 25 lakh people have been displaced and affected by flood and political violence in Assam. With one of the largest internally displaced people in the country it makes for the favourite hunting ground for human traffickers. There is already information that they are on the prowl in various relief camps across the state from Lakhimpur in Upper Assam to Kokrajhar in Lower Assam. A special report on the modus operandi of human trafficking in India’s North East by Kishalay Bhattacharjee

The biggest urban crisis in cities like Delhi is about working couples stressing over domestic helps.

Over the last five years, placement agencies have been competing along with property dealers all over the national capital to supply help at home. There are over 2000 of them, providing help not just to Delhi but neighbouring Gurgaon and Noida as well. Majority of these agencies are unregulated and become an end point for exploitation of girls who are brought from other states to Delhi, with the promise of a good income and a better life.

‘Babita Enterpize’ was one such agency in Delhi. This is where a 16-year-old girl from Assam found herself staying in May 2011 after being lured by a promise of a marriage by Ismail Ahmed. He took her to Delhi by train and kept her at some Babita’s place in Delhi’s Shakarpur area. She was allegedly confined, raped and sold. For 15 days she was physically tortured and traumatised.

After two weeks of taking her around to meet various customers to as far as Kanpur he finally settled to sell her for Rs 1, 50, 000. But the customer was a police decoy and Ahmed was arrested. She was rescued and the racket was busted but the prime accused, Parveen, has been absconding since.

In a rare case, just days before her board examination this year the girl travelled back to Delhi to appear in a case. Her father is a coal miner in Meghalaya. Her family though in great financial difficulty has been supporting her fight for justice. The victim says, “I will fight this case because I don’t want other girls to be cheated like me.”

The case was heard in the court of Additional Session Judge in New Delhi Dr Kamini Lau. The next hearing will be on 5 November 2012. Eight more children were rescued along with her but the Judge has now observed that while the NGOs have rescued and handed the children to the Child Welfare Committee, the committee’s negligence has pushed them back into the hand of the placement agencies. The judgment reads, “The entire purpose of the rescue and rehabilitation as contemplated under the act appears to be defeated.”

According to data provided by the Indian Ministry of Home Affairs, 3500 adults and children disappeared from Assam in the last year alone—probable victims of the human trafficking trade. Data and documentation on trafficking is abysmally poor and the only statistics available are with the National Crime Record Bureau (NCRB).

Assam for that matter the entire Northeastern region is one of the established source points for trafficking of women and children. But why Assam? One of the known causes which make an area vulnerable to trafficking is conflict.

Assam has been witness to armed conflict since the early Eighties. At the last count there were 12 armed groups operating only in Assam and twice that number using Assam as transit and safe haven. Conflict leads to displacement and even as this report is being written close to 3 lakh people are huddled in Lower Assam’s relief camps.

The state records one of the highest internally displaced people in the country. There is no mechanism used to maintain any record of how many people actually go missing or return when rehabilitated. In 2009 I had recorded a regular flow of children from Bru refugee camps in Tripura to a mission in West Bengal. Several children have gone missing from Arunachal Pradesh, reportedly to monasteries in Nepal. The guardians were told that for 11 years they will not be able to get in touch with the kids.

The last relief camp I visited in this round of violence was in Purani Bijni in the district of Chirang. Around 2500 people were occupying five rundown rooms of a primary school. The men would sleep on the field and everyone would defecate in the backyard.

Dal and rice with rationed amount would be served as food. Most of these people have land but after they return there is no guarantee that the land would not be occupied (Read: grabbed).

A vague message arrives in my inbox. Some middlemen are snooping around this relief camp but I have no means of substantiating the information. In March this year eight girls from the same district were rescued in Delhi where the accused Home Singh Pandey had employed them through his placement agency N K Enterprise in Shakurpur. He would purchase them from source traffickers for Rs.5000 and employ them for a security deposit of Rs. 20000 and receive a monthly salary of Rs. 1500 to Rs.2000 on behalf of the girls.

I recall a visit in 2006 to a relief camp again in the same district. Then it was within Kokrajhar. A young girl in a bright pink salwar kameez was peeping from her makeshift home in the refugee colony. She had escaped a few days back from a home in Delhi where she was locked up for months, sexually exploited and made to work at home. The camp secretary had told me about a few other girls who have been sent to Delhi to work as domestic help. After a few weeks there was no more communication possible with them. I visited the camp the following year to record more such tales. By then hopes of any rehabilitation had receded and people were no longer worried about the fate of their daughters gone missing.

Bloodied for decades since 1995 the districts in Lower Assam, which saw Bodo-Adivasi and Bodo-Bengali-speaking Muslim clashes have become a catchment area for human trafficking. Guardians find it convenient to send the children off to cities against some payment. Generally it is the local unemployed young men who act as the first point of the deal. (It is exactly the same modus operandi in wild life trafficking where the guides for the sharp shooters are sourced from fringe villages around sanctuaries).

Politics of ethno exclusivism has dotted the region with militias gaining territorial control amongst other gains. In 2008 the Dimasas in Assam’s North Cachar Hills clashed with the Zeme Nagas in which armed outfits like NSCN(IM), NSCN(K) and DHD(J) were involved. The images of conflict are the same everywhere. Smoke from fire simmering in fodder or rice grains stored in homes. Entire villages razed down. Belongings scattered around. In some cases even livestock killed by a spray of bullets. Overnight the population moves to safer locations and for months they stay as refugees. Schools shut down because the refugees and the security forces must be accommodated in shelters and schools or colleges are the only ones available in villages. Food security is not even accounted for. These hills have gone through waves of armed and ethnic bloodshed.

In each wave it is the children and the women who are the worst hit. In January 2010 close to 200 children mostly boys were rescued from Kanyakumari in Chennai. They were from North Cachar Hills and neighbouring Karbianglong, another disturbed area. A few were from Manipur. The girls accompanying them had already been trafficked after they reached Bangalore. There is still no trace of them. The children were sent off by parents in promise of free education. The middleman in this case was a pastor.

Based on such reports provided by National Commission of Protection of Child Rights, the Supreme Court on 1 September 2010 directed that the Central government must immediately vacate all schools occupied by the army or the paramilitary forces. It also directed that children below 12 years in the Northeastern states should not be allowed to pursue education outside.

But children don’t have to go outside the state to get trafficked. Over the last few years hundreds and the number could even go to thousands have moved out of Chintong Block in Karbianglong district of Assam. Neighbouring Amri and Umswai have also contributed to this exodus but Chintong is highlighted due to it backwardness. It doesn’t even have a road or a functional school. Five students have passed out in 12 years from the only school virtually without teachers. So where do they go to? Down the hill to the plains of Nagaon, Morigaon, Nellie and Jagi Road. The deal is universal. They will work as a domestic help in exchange of school education. There is documented evidence of children mistreated and beaten here. The parents are not allowed to meet their children and often they are forced to drop out of school. Some children have gone missing. On 24 July 2012, 12-year-old Kendro Senar a student of class V, who came from Lumarchi village of Chintong, committed suicide by hanging himself in the house he worked and stayed at Amlapati, Nagaon. This is the second reported case of a child committing suicide in two years from the same place.

While mainstream media (even international media) probably under social media pressure has been sustaining the coverage of Assam ‘riots’, the reportage misses the ‘big picture’ (a favourite television jargon). The ‘riots’ (riots don’t go on for five weeks) was preceded by the decade’s worst wave of flood in Assam. Twenty four lakh people were affected and 126 persons died in flooding and landslides. Government data posted on 24 August showed 57,000 people are still affected. When I travelled through these flood affected districts, the apathy of authorities and the misery of the people was beyond a journalist’s ability to document. Highways were transformed into unending camps made by flimsy plastic sheets supplied by the government. For weeks it would rain every night with people and children under those sheets. Most people prefer living on roads than moving to designated relief camps where hygiene is of unacceptable standards. Moreover they can’t carry all their belongings, besides they can keep an eye on the submerged homes from the roads.

While the government was making an attempt at distributing relief, and journalists were narrating the stories of flood misery a group of people descended on Lakhimpur in Upper Assam in search of victims, a dozen girls have been taken away and are probably being sold as I write about them.

Conflict and natural disasters are the biggest causes of areas becoming supply points. The supply line is very well organised and the route is well marked. Several people are involved in this racket. Though there is an increasing awareness about trafficking, weak prosecution and almost no convictions are the biggest challenges before anti-human trafficking agencies. Situations like the one in Assam make it imperative for the government to monitor the camps and railway stations and anticipate that every wave of flood and conflict would lure traffickers to the state.

Two years ago, the Ministry of Home Affairs directed state governments to set up special anti-human trafficking units (AHTU) in every district. Each unit is supposed to have a minimum of five persons equipped with cameras, cell phones and a vehicle. After NHRC report of 2005- 2006, which reported that 45,000 children go missing every year from India, the MHA directed all state governments to implement the order. Assam has only one unit in Guwahati. West Bengal another huge source area has one functional unit in Kolkata.

Meanwhile trafficking continues unabated.

Possible Reasons for trafficking in Northeastern India

• Closure of several tea gardens and loss of livelihood
• Acute poverty and natural disaster
• Existence of fake placement agencies both in the source and destination
• Lack of awareness/ illiteracy
• Demand of girls for marriage in Haryana, Punjab and Rajasthan
• Demand of domestic helps in metros
• Poor implementation of policies—Right To Education Bill, Integrated Child Protection Schemes
• Poor policing by the Law Enforcement at the source states
• Inaction of police against the traffickers
• Social evils like dowry, down-grading of daughters and child marriages
• Lack of sustainable job opportunities
• Large family size

Global figures
Human Trafficking: The Facts

• 2.5 million people are in forced labour (including sexual exploitation) due to trafficking
• Of these 56% are in Asia and the Pacific
• 10% are in Latin America and the Caribbean
• 9.2% are in the Middle East and Northern Africa
• 5.2% are in sub-Saharan countries
• 10.8% are in industrialized countries
• 8% are in countries in transition

161 countries are reported to be affected by human trafficking by being a source, transit or destination country. Trafficked victims from 127 countries are reported to be exploited in 137 countries, which clearly convey that human trafficking affects most countries and every type of economy.

The writer is Resident Editor, NDTV (NE). His book Che in Paona Bazar: Tales of Exile and Belonging from India’s North East published by Pan Macmillan (Picador) will be out in December 2012.

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