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Tea Gardens Of North Bengal: A Hotbed Of Human Trafficking

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Tea gardens that once brewed the world-famous Darjeeling tea have now become a hotbed for trafficking, owing to the undermining of labour rights and rising deprivation.

The Dooars region of West Bengal is known for its alluvial soil and cool climatic conditions, making it a fertile ground for tea gardens. But as tea gardens shut owing to financial and operational constraints, they have in turn become a fertile ground for human trafficking. As production declines, exploitation and deprivation rise.

Pooja was trafficked from Chuapara Tea Estate, Alipurduar, in 2013, when she was 13 years old. She was taken to Srinagar, Jammu & Kashmir, and sold to a ‘placement agency’ called City Service. Two more girls and two boys were also sold to the agency at the same time. Muskan Khatun, the main accused, insisted that she was actually 16 when she was trafficked and that she went with the agents despite Khatun warning her against it. Community Correspondent Harihar Nagbansi, reporting on the case, accessed her birth certificate which proved that she was 13 at the time she was trafficked.  Regardless of whether she was 13 or 16, she a minor who was illegally taken away and sold for domestic labour, quite possibly in highly exploitative conditions. For four years, the family could do nothing but wait.

Pooja was brought back home in April 2018, thanks to the local police that tagged team with the Jammu & Kashmir police. It was Harihar’s video, along with the efforts of NGOs like Kripa and Bachpan Bachao Andolan, that got the police to act with urgency. Harihar also credits Chandmuni, Pooja’s mother, for her determination. But the story does not end here, because what happened with Pooja was not an isolated case and not a problem unique to Chuapara alone.

Trafficking is an organised crime, across domestic and international borders. The numbers from the latest National Crime Records Bureau data, speak for themselves. 8,057 persons were reported to be trafficked in 2016. 44% of the cases were reported from West Bengal, of these, the largest proportion was of minor girls. And these are only the on-record figures. Police apathy, lack of awareness and stigma are known to be some of the reasons human trafficking is underreported.

While Pooja was fortunate to be brought back, the other children who were taken with her are still in Srinagar. On an average, 174 children go missing in India every day. Unlike Chandmuni, many parents do not even have a lead. Moreover, trafficked persons are often sold many times over, making it all the more difficult to trace them. In the worst cases, they are killed by those who keep them as bonded slaves.

Underlying causes

Poor economic conditions, lack of educational opportunities, social exclusion and isolation, make people vulnerable to trafficking. At the other end of this deal is rapid urbanisation and the want for cheap labour in other parts of the country. Placement agencies that supply cheap labour to middle and upper-class households in metropolitan cities, to development projects, to brothels, and to villages in Punjab and Haryana as brides.

Minors are particularly vulnerable to trafficking. Presented with the prospects of a glamorous city life, many children might choose to escape from their present living conditions. Khatun also said the same thing about Pooja, that she consented to go despite warnings. But the crucial difference here is that children, and even adults, might give consent but not informed consent. To a 13-year-old living in harsh poverty, the prospect of living in a city and having access to facilities, even at the cost of some labour, might sound appealing. In fact, sometimes, children who are brought back often get tricked into being trafficked once again.

Why tea gardens?

The tea industry is touted as the country’s second largest employer, but also an industry that undermines labour rights and deprives workers and their families deprived of the most basic needs. There’s widespread poverty and malnutrition, obvious factors underscoring the desire for a better life. The availability of basic facilities like healthcare and education is also poor. Wages are as low as 132 rupees a day, says Harihar, especially in Dooars. And sometimes, even this wage is not paid on time, never mind the bonus.

As the tea shrubs age, production declines and many tea gardens and tea factories shut down temporarily or permanently without rehabilitating their workers. Political instability in the Darjeeling hills, which has spread to the foothills, has also taken a toll, especially on already-sick tea gardens. Of the 60 tea gardens in Alipurduar, 28 are sick or stressed and six entirely shut. To make ends meet, some take up stone-crushing and others continue to work in the tea gardens but for independent contractors; both jobs pay even lower.

In the Dooars region, a majority of the workers are Adivasis whose families migrated to the foothills generations ago, mostly from what is present-day Jharkhand. In a state and an industry dominated by upper-caste and upper-class Bengalis and business communities, Adivasi lives are already valued less, isolating them socially and culturally. In such a situation, both migration and trafficking abound.

Dooars is also contiguous with the ‘chicken-neck’ area on the map of India, a narrow region neighbouring Nepal, Bangladesh and Bhutan, all porous borders. Women and children are often trafficked from both sides of these borders, for manual and sexual labour.

What is being done to combat it?

When Harihar asks Chandmuni what she will do to ensure that her daughter is not taken away again, she says that she will engage her in some work and even educate her if she wants to study. The lack of rehabilitation facilities for those rescued coupled with stigma, especially for girls who are trafficked, make it difficult for children to adjust to life in their homes once again.

However, education, like Chandmuni points out, is an important step, as is community-based rehabilitation. Binay Narjenary, a representative of Kripa, says that awareness is crucial. “People must be made aware of the problems girls and women face, and then take steps to ensure their safety”, he says.

NGOs seem to be at the forefront of tackling the problem, as of now. But local NGOs have limitations in curbing a country-wide crime with networks and nodes that cannot be traced. They can provide support in individual cases, but putting an end to trafficking requires active participation of the state.

To this end, the government introduced the Anti-Trafficking Bill which has recently been passed by the Lok Sabha. But the Bill, unfortunately, does more injustice than justice. To begin with, the Bill provides the victim immunity only for “serious crimes”, whereas in reality survivors of trafficking are penalised for “minor offences” like working without authorisation in case of domestic labour or soliciting in case of sexual labour or travelling without a passport in case the victim is a foreigner.

The concern that the Bill might conflate trafficking with voluntary sex work is raised by sex-workers themselves, who have also alleged that they were not consulted in the drafting of the law. Another argument against the Bill is that it “does not require “knowledge” to be established for the offence of aiding in trafficking”, which puts people who may have aided the process without intent at the risk of being booked. Moreover, it runs into the danger of conflating migration and trafficking; both phenomena might have similar underlying causes but the former is voluntary and cannot be penalised.

While the Bill recognises the “Right to Rehabilitation”, which is necessary, it recommends rehabilitation measures like state-run shelter homes, which have been rejected by Special Rapporteurs of the UN Human Rights Council. The Bill, however, does make provisions for an adult victim to appeal to a magistrate to reject rehabilitation. Nevertheless, the bill has drawn the ire of those working in the field for following a raid, rescue, rehabilitate model.

If passed, the Bill will be an insensitive piece of legislation and not the comprehensive legislation it was touted to be.  While on the ground, no legislation is enough to change attitudes and break the silence and stigma around trafficking, combined efforts by local communities, NGOs, individuals and state officials, like in Pooja’s case, are a beginning. Long-term solutions, however, will come from sustained awareness programmes, sensitive laws, efficient implementation and equitable socio-economic development and sustainable livelihoods.

Video by Community Correspondent Harihar Nagbansi

Article by Alankrita Anand, a member of the VV Editorial Team

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