Pooja was trafficked from Chuapara Tea Estate, Alipurduar, in 2013, when she was 13 years old. She was taken to Srinagar, Jammu and 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’s 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 was still 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 and 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.
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.
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, the 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.
However, education, like Chandmuni points out, is an important step. 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 the 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, it continues to criminalise victims of trafficking by trying them for working without authorisation in case of domestic labour or soliciting in case of sexual labour. 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. The Bill also recommends rehabilitation measures like state-run shelter homes, which have been rejected by bodies like the UN.
If passed, the Bill will be an insensitive piece of legislation, even on paper. While on the ground, no legislation is enough to change attitudes towards trafficking or to break the silence around it. Combined efforts by local communities, NGOs, individuals and state officials, like in Pooja’s case, are a beginning, but long-term solutions will come from regular awareness, sensitive laws, efficient implementation and socio-economic development and sustainable livelihoods.