About 50 km south of Ranchi, in Khunti district, a narrow dirt road leads to Ganloya village.
Makeshift shops selling tobacco and mobile recharge cards are interspersed with thatched huts and tamarind trees in the hamlet of Panna Lal Mahto, allegedly one of India’s biggest human traffickers.
Despite the scorching heat, girls play barefoot in a clearing by a rice field. Nearby, a group of men sitting on a charpoy drink hadiya or rice beer. Of late, the village has been nicknamed Chora Ganloya — village of thieves — because of the growing number of young men turning to crime, primarily the trafficking of girls to ‘placement agencies’ in Delhi and the National Capital Region.
Khunti is one of five districts that form the Jharkhand belt — the others are Gumla, Simdega, Lohardaga and Latehar. The Jharkhand belt supplies domestic help to thousands of homes in Delhi and satellite towns such as Noida, Gurgaon and Faridabad.
Unlike the state’s industrially developed districts, think Ranchi, Dhanbad or Bokaro, endemic poverty marks these districts, with more than 35% of the tribal population living below the poverty line. These pockets are also the Maoist war zones of Jharkhand.
These factors make it prime hunting ground for traffickers such as 42-year-old Mahto, who had amassed assets worth over Rs 65 crore in Delhi and Jharkhand, having allegedly trafficked about 3,000 girls and women by the time of his arrest last October, the result of a joint operation by the Delhi police Crime Branch and the Jharkhand Anti-Human Trafficking Unit (AHTU).
“Most of these placement agencies are organised crime syndicates and they regularly indulge in trafficking of women and children. The business of placement agencies has been fuelled by huge demand of maids from eastern tribal states in the National Capital Region of Delhi,” noted the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) India Country Assessment Report, 2013.
About 4,000 children have gone missing in Jharkhand over the past 10 years. Of these, 1,000 are yet to be traced, according to the CID. Approximately 42,000 girls have been trafficked from Jharkhand to metropolitan cities, as per the NGO coalition Action against Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation of Children (ATSEC), making it a major hub of human trafficking in India.
Anubhuti Nag*, a tribal girl who will turn 18 next month, was among the first few girls in Patsera, a Naxal-affected village of about 100 families in Gumla district, to make the trip to Delhi.
Within two weeks of her arriving in the city, a man named Mukesh Kumar, a Jharkhand native in his late 40s running a placement agency, hired her for Rs 5,000 per month. Anubhuti’s job was to receive potential recruits at the railway station, bring them to the office of the agency, keep a check on about 50 girls placed across the city by the agency, and accompany the new recruits on their maiden visits to the homes of their employers.
Gradually, Mukesh spotted a potential trafficker in Anubhuti and offered her Rs 10,000 for each girl she could get from her village to Delhi. One afternoon, Anubhuti discovered that the bag containing all her ID documents was missing. She confronted Mukesh.
“Don’t pay me, but please return my documents. I want to go home,” she reportedly said. When he wouldn’t listen, she became angry and slapped him. Enraged, Mukesh and two aides raped her, she says. The following week, Anubhuti was rescued in a joint operation by the Jharkhand and Delhi police, but the rape was not recorded or investigated, on her request.
Back in their villages, girls like Anubhuti find themselves out of place as the government does not run any programmes for their rehabilitation. Wearing branded jeans and a T-shirt, with a smartphone in her hand, she looks starkly different from the rest of Patsera’s inhabitants. She is more confident, speaks fluent Hindi with a smattering of English words such as ‘park’, ‘society’, ‘hello’ and ‘bye’.
The villagers call them ‘Dilli return’ girls. There are few prospects for them here. Anubhuti supports her family of five on her savings of Rs 25,000. She hasn’t thought about what she, or they, will do once that is exhausted.
Alakh Singh, member of the district child welfare committee, a quasi-judicial body, says that in addition to the financial insecurity, Anubhuti and others like her find it difficult to readjust to village life. This makes them vulnerable to re-trafficking, he adds.
The signs of distress are visible in the numerous child care institutions that have mushroomed across the state. And in the fact that many families do not come to claim daughters that have been rescued. Anjali Munda*, 15, a tribal from a village in Khunti and a trafficking survivor, has lost hope of ever being reunited with her parents. They were contacted by the police three months ago, but have stayed away.
At her Sahyog Village (Sahyog is Hindi for assistance) facility alone, there are more than a dozen survivors in the same predicament. “Some parents are not willing to take them back. Others don’t have the resources to support them,” says Altaf Khan of Sahyog Village.
As with most survivors, for Anjali too, the first point of contact in her ‘life-changing’ journey was an acquaintance based in the Capital — a friend’s cousin who worked in a jeans-manufacturing unit in Delhi. “He asked me if I wanted to see the city. One day I left with him without telling anyone. I think this is why my parents are angry with me and do not come to get me,” she says.
Weekly markets and village fairs, local buses, and crossroads in Ranchi city where villagers gather in search of work are points of contact for traffickers and potential victims.
“These chowks are also now becoming recruitment centres for agents who lure women and girls to Delhi for work,” noted a report on human trafficking in Jharkhand prepared by Shakti Vahini (Vehicle of Strength), an NGO working against organised crime.
While some leave without telling their families, there are parents who send their children off with ‘agents’ in the hope that they will find employment in a big city.
Even those that are placed in jobs as promised end up isolated and dependent, forced to work as domestic help in slave-like conditions. Most are never paid.
ATSEC found that only 25% of the women who leave the Jharkhand belt with agents remain in contact with their families. “Usually, parents stop hearing from their children and the agents stop taking their calls,” says Rishi Kant of Shakti Vahini.
Approaching police is a taboo in Naxalaffected villages, so many cases remain unreported. The women just disappear, and there is no one equipped to look for them.
In Gumla’s villages, the writing is literally on the wall. Messages warning people about human trafficking are scribbled on the exterior walls of houses and read, “Saavdhan. Kahin aapke bacche maanav vyaapar ka shikaar toh nahin (Beware. May your child not fall prey to those who trade in humans).”
Although the state government has taken some initiative to combat trafficking, establishing district child protection forces and special juvenile police units, implementation and enforcement are poor.
The result is that the trade continues unabated, even as Panna Lal Mahto and 75 others are lodged in Khunti prison, facing charges of trafficking.
“It’s like a flood. You stop the flow from one side, and it finds another way,” said Aradhna Singh, sub-inspector with the AHTU in Khunti, one of 225 such units set up across the country by the union home ministry in 2011-12. “According to our information, Mahto’s aides remain very active.”
Earlier this month, Mahto’s nephew, Manan*, a minor, was arrested at Ranchi railway station with three girls. None of the arrests seems to have deterred the rest of the trafficking network. The crackdown has just prompted them to modify their operations.
“Recruiting minor traffickers is a new trend,” Singh says. “It is difficult to prove their criminality in such cases. Even if it is proved, they will be tried under the Juvenile Justice Act and not the Indian Penal Code.”
Many traffickers now opt for Ranchi-Delhi Rajdhani train to evade the task forces that now watch the Jharkhand Sampark Kranti Express, dubbed the Slavery Express. “On the Rajdhani, you don’t raise suspicion. Who would expect a trafficker to travel in the second class coach of an air-conditioned superfast train?” says Baidnath Kumar, program officer at Diya Seva Sansthan, a grassroot organisation in Ranchi.
The market has changed too. “Some of the victims are sent to Haryana where there is a demand of brides… Jharkhand women and children have been also in high demand to work as bonded labour in Haryana and Punjab,” according to the UNODC report.
Will Jharkhand ever tackle its trafficking menace? Mahto offered a worrying perspective during his arrest. “I have given jobs to far more people than the state government has,” he reportedly said.