Siliguri: It usually starts with a missed call. When the call is returned, the person at the other end of the phone compliments the caller on, say, her voice. Unlike a normal relationship, these “phone relationships” in poor villages of North Bengal take quick leaps. Within a day or two, the person who had given the missed call proposes marriage to the teenager. He doesn’t want to wait. They must elope. There is a promise of love, faithfulness and always a better life in a big city. It’s a promise that is false. As many as 82,101 children went missing across India in 2013-14 (till February), of whom 48,688 were from West Bengal, according to government figures.
A 2004 report by the National Human Rights Commission on trafficking of women and children said that one-third of children reported missing every year in India remained untraced and that many of these were trafficked. Child labour, illegal adoption and prostitution are the main reasons why children go missing. According to National Crime Records Bureau data, 3,940 cases were registered in 2013 under different provisions of the law that come under the generic description of human trafficking. Many of those trafficked end up as domestic workers, working in slave-like conditions. Placement agencies illegally earn Rs.13,000-41,000 crore per year by exploiting an estimated 7-17 million domestic child labourers, according to a report, Economics Behind Forced Labour Trafficking, by Global March Against Child Labour, a non-governmental organization (NGO). “In the National Capital Region, the estimated number of registered and unregistered placement agencies is around 3,000. At least 30% of these engage child labour. Each agency is able to place 60-100 children as domestic workers every year. The agencies receive commissions of Rs.20,000-50,000 per child. They pay the child anywhere between Rs.1,500 and Rs.4,500 per month. This money, too, is often kept by the agency and does not reach the child,” the report states.
On 27 May, a 16-year-old and her family went to attend a wedding, just a few miles from her house in Buraganj village, 32km from Siliguri. Among the guests was Rani, a woman in her 30s, dressed in a gaudy sari encrusted with sparkling crystals, and in distinctive, bright make-up. All eyes were on her and everyone speculated on what she did for a living. Over the wedding meal, Rani started a conversation with the teenager. She asked for her phone number and a photograph. The teenager handed over her details along with a crumpled passport-size photograph she had somewhere in her bag. Two days later, the teenager received a missed call, and called back. The man at the other end introduced himself as Mahesh Mardi. He said a mutual friend had given him her number and photograph. He was already in love with her, he said. Never having received such compliments and flattery before, the teenager believed every word. The youngest of eight siblings, the teenager grew up pampered with hardly any housework to do. The family is not poor by the standards of their village. All the brothers work, some in their own fields, others in the tea gardens close by. The family has cattle, lives in houses built of mud, bamboo and tin, the children have bicycles and the women wear gold. Three days after their first conversation, Mahesh asked the teenager to come to Naxalbari, which is located towards the north of her village. She happily said yes. When she reached, four people including Mahesh and Rani were waiting. Alarmed at seeing so many people, the teenager faltered; she said she wanted to go back home. But Mahesh swore undying love; he would consume poison if she didn’t come with him, he swore. Even more panic-stricken, the teenager tried to run, but Rani held her hand and pulled her into a bus headed to New Jalpaiguri railway station, 32km from her village. At the station, they gave her some food to eat while they waited for a train to New Delhi. Since everyone else was eating, she didn’t suspect anything. The next thing she remembers is waking up at 3am the following day. They were in Delhi. From there it was a short auto ride to a placement agency. Placement agencies rely on sub-agents such as Rani who provide them with information and “recruits”. How much the sub-agent earns depends on the “quality” of the recruit, in terms of how good looking they are. Along with local muscle like Mahesh, the sub-agents take new recruits like the teenager to the nearest bus or railway station to take them to their destination or else hand them over to either a new sub-agent who completes the journey. Moving through several hands, the recruits then land up at the so-called placement agencies for “employment”, a euphemism for slave wages and working conditions, as domestic workers. In Delhi, the teenager was kept in the placement office for a day before she was assigned to an employer. “I said I wouldn’t work. But they didn’t listen to me,” she says. Boys and girls are taken from tea gardens or poor villages to places such as Delhi, Haryana, Punjab, Bangalore, Kerala, Kashmir, Bhutan and Sikkim with a promise of jobs or a better life. Nearly 3,600 children from poor families in the shut-down tea gardens of West Bengal migrated to Indian cities and West Asia, to work mostly as child labourers in 2010-11.
Of the total, 317 have gone missing, according to a study carried out jointly by the Unicef, Save the Children (an NGO) and Burdwan University, across 12 tea gardens in the state. The study was carried out between May and July 2011. When no one came to take her back, the 16-year-old told her employer that she had been forced by Rani to take up the job. Infuriated on hearing this, the owner called the placement agency, which decided to send Rani to work on the teenager’s behalf. But within a couple of days, Rani tricked the teenager into believing that she wouldn’t have to work for more than a week, and fled after the 16-year-old resumed her work. Left with no option, the teenager called her brother saying: “I have been sold.” According to the US department of state’s Trafficking in Persons Report 2013, in India, an increasing number of job placement agencies lure adults and children for sex trafficking or forced labour, including domestic servitude, under false promises of employment. “Activists estimate 20% of domestic workers who are rescued from Delhi homes complain of sexual abuse, either by the employer or those in job placement agencies,” the report said. Following the name of the placement agency that the teenager had given on the phone, her maternal uncle and brother filed a first information report (FIR) and headed to Delhi. “We kept calling. It was frustrating because we didn’t even know where to start from,” her maternal uncle, who is a tea garden manager, says. The girl was eventually rescued in a joint operation by NGO Shakti Vahini and West Bengal Police. Nearly a month after her rescue, Rani was arrested as well.
What happens in such cases, NGOs claim, is that only the destination trafficker is arrested and the entire chain of people involved or the racket isn’t busted—which means the investigating officers stop after arrests in the destination states. And because of gaps in investigation, acquittals take place. Furthermore, poor victim-witness protection generally discourages victims from testifying against their alleged trafficking offenders. “For every case of human trafficking, we should involve all the law enforcement agencies across the country and network with them so that all the traffickers from the source area till the destination area are booked,” says Shakti Vahini’s Ravi Kant, a Supreme Court lawyer. Even though a few states have victim compensation schemes, due to inadequate implementation, victims have to wait for several years to receive funds. “The criminal justice system in India is more focused on punishment for the perpetrator. Police efforts are towards punishing. There is no care and protection for the victim. The victim is left on her own to fight her battle. Even if a case reaches the trial level, summons from the place where she was arrested reach her, but not the money. She has to come on her own. In most cases, the state is not a facilitator in getting justice… All this discourages the victims. And if the victim doesn’t take interest, in several cases, it leads to acquittals,” says Kant.
The government has set up the Anti Trafficking Cell under the ministry of home affairs (MHA), launched a certificate course on anti-human trafficking under Indira Gandhi National Open University in partnership with the MHA, and implemented a comprehensive scheme for strengthening law enforcement response by establishing integrated anti-human trafficking units (AHTUs). The ministry released funds—Rs.8.72 crore and Rs.8.33 crore in 2010-11 and 2011-12, respectively, for the establishment of 225 AHTUs. The ministry of women and child development also runs shelter-based homes, such as short-stay homes, and Swadhar homes for women in difficult circumstances, including trafficked victims. The teenager has started going to school again. She says something happens in her spine whenever she tries to dredge up the memory of those 15 days. “I wouldn’t listen to anyone now. I will not let anyone befool me again,” she stammers. Her maternal uncle says that after this incident, even though she is safe and with her family now, she is traumatized. “She cannot complete even one sentence without stopping more than once or without forgetting while speaking,” he says. Over the last few years, many cases of exploitation of domestic help have been reported—almost all of them females—many of whom were abused, some brutally. Early this year, an 11-year-old domestic help from Uttar Pradesh was allegedly starved for days and tortured by her employers (in Thane), who inserted green chillies into her genitals to make her obey their orders. A civil engineer in Bangalore was booked in August for physically and mentally harassing an 18-year-old domestic help in his house. Even though the teenager is still traumatized, she was at least lucky to have escaped; not every story has a happy ending in such cases.