Muskan (name changed) went missing two years ago from a small village of Duldula block in Jashpur, Chhattisgarh. It turned out that she was trafficked to work as domestic help by a local ‘placement agent’ and ended up as a sex slave in a rich household in Delhi.
“The lady of the house used to tie my hands and legs every night and then call her husband to molest me. I was forced to watch dirty films (porn). I was tortured and beaten. The woman was a devil,” the 15-year-old tribal girl told Youth Ki Awaaz.
Geeta (name changed), who was abducted from Jashpur and taken to Delhi in 2005, was held captive with 20 other girls. She returned to her home after eight years. Their abductors moved them from one location to another, multiple times, fearing police raids.
But one morning, Geeta escaped her captors after breaking a window and slithering down a rope. She walked along the banks of the Yamuna and met an elderly man to whom she told her story. He informed the Delhi police, which enabled her to return home.
Geeta’s return was the talk of the district in 2013. But in the eight years she remained missing, presumed dead, there was no let-up in abductions of children from Jashpur.
16-year-old Anamika (name changed) is another girl who ‘returned’. She is still hesitant to talk of her horrifying experience and finds it hard to communicate with strangers. She was rescued from Delhi a few months ago, after being trafficked and held captive by her own relatives.
These are but a handful of examples from the many, in fact, close to 1500 cases of children who, as per a UNICEF survey, were trafficked from only five blocks in Chhattisgarh’s Jashpur district alone, from 2012 to 2014.
The ‘State of 36 forts’ (hence the name in Hindi) is densely populated and has the highest poverty rate in the country. According to government data released in 2014, 47.9% of the people in Chhattisgarh are below the poverty line.
Jashpur district in Chattisgarh has 765 villages. It doesn’t help that Jashpur’s population of 7,43,160 is nearly 72% SC-ST. These marginal communities survive by cultivating small pieces of land, working as casual labour or eking out a living, selling forest products.
According to the UNICEF, which conducted the survey in the state in collaboration with local self-help groups, a large number of the minor girls were trafficked from the Raigarh-Sarguja-Jashpur corridor between the years 2012-14.
Apart from Chhattisgarh, the children are also trafficked from Andhra Pradesh via national highways to West Bengal, Chennai, Mumbai and Delhi.
Although the exact number of children who have been trafficked is difficult to ascertain, the growth of irregular placement agencies that lure girls, vulnerable due to limited opportunities in the state, is a pointer to the scale.
The call to migrate to towns and cities and strike it rich, relatively speaking that is, is a yearning in many a young girl and boy. They are the ones most vulnerable to lures of placement agencies and their touts who seduce them with false promises of employment in big cities.
Most of these touts also happen to be close relatives of trafficked children. These touts enjoy a certain degree of credibility because they are from the local community and not total strangers.
There’s a clear demand and supply chain that thrives primarily on the strong collusion between the local agents/touts and the placement agencies, which have offices in the big cities where most trafficked children, the majority of them girls, end up, says the UNICEF survey report. And while many of the trafficked children begin their displaced lives as domestic help, a significant number end up as sex slaves, the report adds.
Tracing the girls, once they are taken out of the district, becomes very difficult as the placement agencies change their agency names and mobile numbers frequently.
In contradiction to UNICEF’s numbers, as per P.N. Tiwari, officer on special duty to CID, Chhattisgarh police, between 2011 and 2016, a total of only 265 cases of human trafficking have been reported, of which 192 cases related to child trafficking and that the police have been able to nab 536 traffickers (agents and owners of placement agencies) in the last five years across the state.
At the national level in 2014, India witnessed a 38.7% rise in human trafficking over the previous year 2013, according to a National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) report. Total cases registered across the country rose from 3,940 in 2013 to 5,466 in 2014. Clearly, the state apparatus throughout the country was/is failing in tackling human trafficking.
The whereabouts of Muskan, the 15-year-old tribal girl, were traced by a special anti-human trafficking squad of activists after her parents hesitantly handed to them details, including the phone number, Muskan had last used to talk to them.
The team lodged an FIR after it traced Muskan’s location to a house in a suburban locality of Delhi. The head of the household denied any knowledge of Muskan but under persistent pressure from the Delhi police, he produced her before them.
Muskan was relatively easy to trace because her parents had a telephone number to give to the special squad. Such vital information is not available in every case.
That said, parents seem to be more comfortable in confiding with self-help groups than with the police. They often are more open with getting ‘outside’ help from ‘special squads’ affiliated with local self-help groups.
Like from 25-year-old Durga (name changed), an active member of a rescue squad. Durga and her group of saviours have been successful in rescuing 38 trafficked Jashpur children from Delhi, Mumbai and Haryana so far. Many members of the team are, themselves, victims of human trafficking.
“We visit villages in groups and arrange meetings to explain to people the dangers of child trafficking. We talk to the families and get exact information of when, how and where the child was abducted/trafficked from. Then we work on the possibilities to rescue them,” Durga said.
“First step is to get the family to lodge an FIR. In many places, relatives and friends accompany the family to the police station which helps the case and gives confidence to the family,” said Durga. “There is a risk factor in everything that we do in our daily lives. But that doesn’t stop us from doing those things. So, when success knocks after all the efforts, it is kind of soothing.”
There have been several cases of children rescued from captivity in recent years. State authorities have been able to rescue a total of 919 victims across Chhattisgarh with the help of such groups during the last five years.
Some girls, after being rescued, are now housewives leading normal lives. Others have been trained in various professions to earn a livelihood. A few have been admitted to various schools so that they may get an education.
Studying these cases reveals that a majority of trafficking cases are registered under the ‘missing’ complaints head.
However, the police attitude to this, changed only three years back. “Since 2013, we have taken strict action as per the directions of the Supreme Court. There are many national highways that facilitate easy transportation of trafficked children to neighboring states like Jharkhand and Orissa,” Jashpur SP G.S. Jaiswal said.
“Placement agencies, with the help of local contacts, zero in on vulnerable families in the area and entice them to part with their children with money and promises of employment. We’ve been doing our best to intervene and stop this,” he said.
Jaiswal said, police action now included enforcing stricter regulations. “We have assigned a constable to each village to understand and study the situation in the village. We have also asked village headmen to monitor and maintain a proper record of residents and people who travel to and from their villages. We are also touring and patrolling villages and rural zones with mobile police offices.”
“The police are working closely with social groups to bridge the information gap,” he said.
In 2013, Chhattisgarh became the first state to pass the Chhattisgarh Private Placement Agencies (Regulation Act), 2013 to handle the human trafficking problem.
As per the Act, no private placement agency shall employ, or engage a woman if she is below 18 years of age. While that clause is frequently flouted, it’s also a matter of concern that women above the age of 18 are also being trafficked and held against their will by illegal placement agencies.
Until now, regulations on placement agencies were non-existent due to which placement agencies got away with violations.
According to UNICEF’s communication officer, Sam Sudheer Bandi, there is a thin line between migration and trafficking. Most of the time, cases of trafficking are labelled as migration and treated accordingly. He said people, particularly in Jashpur, are economically backward tribals, unaware of the consequences, and oblivious to procedures.
“An Act alone therefore is not sufficient to deal with all types of trafficking prevalent in the state as it only prohibits the domestic servitude form of human trafficking. This could also be because the Act was enacted by the Home department instead of labor,” said Tiwari.
The Act lacks provisions for prevention, rescue and rehabilitation unlike the Trafficking of Persons (Prevention, Protection and Rehabilitation) Bill, 2016, proposed by the central government. “We also need a dedicated team of officers with logistic support to speed up investigations and rescue operations in a speedy manner,” Tiwari said.
Jashpur authorities are planning to start a rehabilitation programme called ‘Beti Zindabad’ to impart skill development to trafficking survivors. “We are in the process of identifying areas for its implementation,” Dr. Priyanka Shukla, Collector of Jashpur, told YKA.
The state also plans to spread awareness on human trafficking in school children, and to maintain a panchayat register to keep track of children.
The bottom-line, however, is that for every Muskan, Avanti, Geeta and Anamika rescued, there are hundred others who still remain trapped, and thousands more who live under the constant threat of vicious and heartless human traffickers. Clearly a lot remains to be done to curb human trafficking, forget about putting a halt to it.
Nadeem Ahmed is a Bangalore based independent journalist and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots journalists. Shyam Kumar is Raipur based writer and a senior member of 101Reporters.com.