Why An Assam Teen Left Her Home In Secret, On A Cross-Country Journey To Clean Fish In An Unknown City

SANSKRITA BHARADWAJ
 
16 Sep 2021 12 min read  Share

With India’s highest maternal mortality, fifth-lowest per capita income and poverty ridden communities, Assam is a national hub for trafficking. As the pandemic increases desperation, seven minor girls, rescued in June en route to traffickers, narrate the circumstances that prompted them—like hundreds of others—to leave home.

Trafficking survivors at a community centre in Kumarikata Baksa district of Assam/SANSKRITA BHARADWAJ

Kumarikata, Baksa (Assam): When 17-year-old school dropout Purnima* and 30 other teens, children and adults boarded a bus heading southwest for Gujarat, a journey of more than 2,600 km, they hoped to find jobs at a fish-packing factory.


None of them knew their city of destination. When Article 14 spoke to them 40 days after police intercepted the bus, they kept repeating that they were headed for “Gujarat”.


About an hour after the bus left the village of Kumarikata in the western Assam district of Baksa in the Bodoland Territorial Region near the India-Bhutan border, about 100 km north of state capital Guwahati, police, acting on alerts from sources, stopped it and asked Purnima, a petite, soft-spoken teen, to get off the vehicle. 


Her father—whom Purnima described as “very old”, of “failing health” and unable to even get a daily wage job—never knew his daughter had left home until the police stepped in. 


She left, Purnima said, because her father often got angry with her, shouted and even allegedly hit her. 


There were days, said Purnima, when there was no food at home. She heard other teens and younger children were leaving, so she decided to join them. When the police returned her to her father, Purima was scared but soon relieved that he did not shout at her.


“But then he told me that I could have been sold in Gujarat,” said Purnima. “That made me very sad.”


Purnima was one of seven minor girls of the 31 rescued in June. “The victims were told that they would be paid Rs 9,500 per month,” said inspector Nilov Jyoti Nath of the Kumarikata police and head of the local station.  That amount is 11 times more than the monthly rural poverty line in Assam.


“Among all the trafficking cases I have handled, I have noticed that it has always been minor girls, who have been trafficked or were on the verge of getting trafficked,” said Dolly Rajbongshi, a reintegration caseworker with World Vision India (WVI), a nonprofit.  


Rajbongshi, who primarily works in the districts of Baksa and Dhubri. has come across cases where minor girls are taken to Gujarat and Rajasthan ostensibly for jobs or marriage, never to return. “Their families don’t receive any information about them after that,” she said.


Ever since the pandemic began in March 2020, there have been several cases of child trafficking reported from Assam. Some examples:

In July, the police rescued three teenagers from the same Kumarikata area in Baksa district.


In July, with Sikkim’s help, Assam police rescued 40 trafficked children from the West Bengal and Sikkim border.


In August, 13 women and children illegally engaged in domestic work in Sikkim, were rescued by the police.


In September 2020, 12 children were trafficked from several flood-hit villages in Barpeta district in western Assam to a village in the East Kameng district of Arunachal Pradesh. 


Assam: Number One In Child Trafficking

After these cases came to light, Assam chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma had said that his Bharatiya Janata Party government would focus on ending human trafficking in the state.   


In recent years, Assam has emerged as a hub for child trafficking. In 2019, the Assam State Commission for Protection of Child Rights (ASCPCR) said cases of child trafficking had increased at least 55% in 2019 over 2018. ASCPCR said they registered 17 cases of child trafficking in 2019 compared to 11 in 2018. 


More children are trafficked in Assam—ranked 15 by population in India—than any other state: 1,317 in 2015, according to National Crime Record Bureau (NCRB) 2015 data. NCRB’s latest 2020 report, on overall human trafficking figures in India, places Assam (151) second after Maharashtra (372). The data also revealed 38 cases of child trafficking from Assam in 2020, which is the seventh highest in the country. 


Experts pointed out that Assam is both a source and transit for trafficking rackets due to the state’s location as the gateway to northeast India, and its geographical proximity to neighbouring Bhutan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Myanmar. 


According to a 2021 report by the ministry of statistics and programme implementation, Assam is India’s fifth-poorest state by per capita income, and that is one of the prime driving factors for child trafficking, said experts


Raju Narzary, executive director at Northeast Research and Social Work Network (NERSWN), a nonprofit, said besides economic vulnerability, recurring floods and ethnic conflict were common causes of child trafficking. 


Trafficked children are often used, illegally, as domestic help at homes or work as labourers, with many forced into sexual exploitation and begging. 


‘There Was Never Enough For Us To Eat’

The seven minor girls who survived the Kumarikata trafficking attempt said that they had gone to school at some point in their lives but dropped out because their parents put them to work, cooking, cleaning and washing clothes. 


“I think I studied till class 5,” said 14-year-old Rupohi* a thin, short girl, dressed in a black and yellow frock with a floral headband. “I enjoyed going to school but I stopped because there was a lot of work at home.” 


Rupohi* said she left home because her home was “broken”, there was never enough to eat for everyone in a family of four and she “never had good clothes to wear”. 


Clad in a plain white saree and her hair tied in a bun, Rupohi’s mother Bimala said she was not aware that her daughter was planning to leave. 


“She is friends with some of these girls and probably wanted to leave along with them,” she said, adding that her husband, an alcoholic, had left the village for work and had not sent  money home over the last two or three months. 


“I get daily wage work sometimes,” she said, “But it’s never enough for me and my three children.”


The key areas for traffickers are Assam’s border towns, such as Silchar, flood-affected regions, such as Dhubri, South Salmara, Barpeta, Dhemaji and Lakhimpur, conflict-ridden areas like the Bodoland Territorial Region, marginalised Muslim communities and the tea tribes—tea garden workers and their families spread across several tea plantations of Assam. 


This year several cases were reported (here and here) from Baksa. The region is inhabited by the Bodos, Assam’s largest ethno-linguistic minority community. Baksa also has other indigenous communities, such as the Rajbongshis, a small Adivasi tea tribe and Bengalis. 


Why Assam Finds It Hard To Take Care Of Children

Bound by a 90-km long border with Bhutan to its north, most of Baksa’s rural population deals with issues like poverty, illiteracy and economic underdevelopment. 


The literacy rate is 69.25%, three percentage points below Assam’s average and about five percent below India’s. Assam is one of India’s most underdeveloped states, and within it all the four districts of the semi-autonomous Bodoland Territorial Region—Baksa, Chirang, Kokrajhar and Udalguri—are among its poorest districts, with their literacy rates among the state’s lowest. 


The BTR region’s dampened economic growth is often linked to its long history of insurgencies, activists and experts said. 


Assam has India’s second-highest  infant mortality rate (IMR) and its highest maternal mortality rate (MMR), according to 2016-2018 government data, the latest available. For every 100,000 live births, 113 Indian women die from pregnancy-related complications. Assam’s MMR at 215 is nearly double the Indian average. 


When interrogated, the seven accused from the June incident, now in judicial custody at the district jail of Nalbari, 54 km south of Baksa, in their statement to the police said that they were “not aware of anything and take only those people who are interested in leaving with them”. 


According to inspector Nath of the Kumarikata police, the bus driver and his wife were from Gujarat. The rest of the accused were from local communities in villages around Baksa. 


People who live in the villages near the border are poor and when “so-called agents” lure them with prospects of job, money and a better life, they are “easily influenced”, said inspector Nath.  


Cheated Once In Gujarat, Sent Child Back

A couple of survivors told Article 14 that they were going to leave because their parents had asked them to. 


Madhuri*, a 15-year-old, dark haired, plump girl, dressed in a blue salwar kameez said she was leaving because her mother asked her to earn some money. 


“There is nothing at home,” said Madhuri. “What would I do here?”  


Madhuri’s mother Juba, a gregarious woman in a red saree, said she was a landless migrant, from within Assam, for as long as she could remember. The family came to Kumarikata “a few years ago”, and built a bamboo hut on a cousin’s land. 


Unable to find work, the family of four accepted an offer in 2018 from a man from the village who offered them a job in Gujarat. When they got there, the man had disappeared. 


“Then we were in touch with another man who barely paid us while we slogged at a fish company,” said Juba, who described working “days on end” without holidays. Most of their work involved scaling and packing fish into cans. She earned between Rs 7,000 and Rs 8,000 for the first two to three months. When they stopped receiving money entirely, the family escaped and caught a train home. 


“We stay on someone else’s land now and our daughters sometimes have no food to eat,” said Juba. 


Why then did Juba try to send her daughter again? 


“She has nothing left for her here,” she said.  


After The Pandemic

All the mothers of trafficking survivors that Article 14 spoke to said that the Covid-19 pandemic had made life even more difficult. Most said they collected stone and wood to sell as construction raw material.  


They complained how none of them had received ration cards despite applying more than once. A ration card would have helped them to a certain extent. The National Food Security Act, 2013, entitles poor families to buy 5 kg of grain per person per month at a subsidised rate, provided the family has a ration card. 


Without ration cards, families like Bimala’s and Juba’s could not access government assistance programmes, such as an additional free 5 kg of foodgrains during the pandemic under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana (PM-GKAY) or the Prime Minister’s Foodgrain Programme for the Poor.


As the scale of India’s unemployment and poverty crisis became apparent after the pandemic broke, the Supreme Court on 29 June 2021 set a month’s deadline to implement a one-nation-one-ration-card system, so that about 690 million registered for food subsidies can get such food anywhere in the country. 


But that still left out more than 100 million who need subsidised food but do not have the ration cards required to get it, Article 14 reported in July 2021.


Why The Police Struggle To Address Trafficking

Recently, when Assam police tracked and rescued 40 children and two adults of Chirang district of the Bodo Territorial Region from Sikkim, Surendra Kumar, inspector general of police (crime against women, children and human trafficking), said the victims were from villages bordering Bhutan. 


People from these areas entered Bhutan for work, but they could not any longer because of Bhutanese restrictions imposed after the pandemic. “Traffickers exploit the situation and lure them with jobs in other states,” said Kumar. 


The roots of human trafficking, according to Kumar, included poverty, unemployment, broken families, domestic violence and gender discrimination. 


“Natural disasters like floods and now the pandemic have exacerbated the existing problems, and the police do not have much role in addressing these issues, as these are to be handled by the development initiatives and through implementation of various schemes,” said Kumar, who added that the primary role of the police was to detect the crime, register and investigate such cases. 


Kumar said police investigators had to address the issues that arose from the inter-state movement of traffickers: coordination with other state police forces and even basic language differences. 


A case of human trafficking usually involves various “players” involved at different stages of the crime, including recruitment, transportation from source to destination and scouting for customers, said Kumar. 


The Trouble With Rehabilitation

Support and compensation for the victims of child trafficking is a challenge because of inadequate funding, a lack of counsellors and ways to deliver compensation, experts said.  


According to the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015, victims must be produced before a child welfare committee (CWC) within 24 hours of being rescued. Legally, the CWC is responsible for deciding whether children should be placed in institutional care or returned to parents. 


CWCs have the power to decide which is the best place for the child to survive. “Sometimes they send them back to their guardians and many children come from abusive families that they were trying to run away from,” Chaturjya Prasad Talukdar, Kamrup (metro) district’s legal services authority (DLSA) secretary told Article 14 in Guwahati. 


The CWCs are also supposed to send the case study of the victim to the DLSA, so they can deliver relief and compensation. But case studies, most often, do not reach DLSA, who cannot release funds immediately. 


“The concept of economic rehabilitation is poor, and the victims are at the risk of getting re-trafficked,” said Talukdar. 


There are also district child protection units (DCPU) that provide support and assistance to the CWC. “CWC is for immediate response and DCPU involves prevention,” Narzary of the NERSWN said. It is also the DCPU’s job to form village child protection committees and link them to the State’s social welfare department.


“The problem is we don’t have block and village level child protection committees that are important in order to create a safety network within the village,” Chaolao Brahma, protection officer of the Baksa DCPU told Article 14 when we met him at his office in Mushalpur, a town in Baksa district. 


Brahma said there weren’t enough personnel and resources to address the rise of child trafficking. Cases of missing children need to be reported immediately, but there were no designated committees to do so in interior areas. Many districts, he said, did not report missing children.


Narzary said compensation schemes were not enough unless the families cared for rescued children. “The problem is there are districts in Assam even today where you will find denial: people will say there is no trafficking at all,” he said.


That is why, said Nazary, prevention was the best bet against trafficking. 


“Families don’t have ration cards in the Kumarikata area, and there is a huge shortage of safe drinking water, healthcare facilities are absent, government schools are in poor condition,” said Nazary. “These issues need to be dealt with.”


With NGO and police intervention, all the minor survivors Article 14 met at Kumarikata in Baksa are back home. The mothers we spoke to said they would never send their daughters out again. 


But little has changed at home—there is no guarantee they will not again fall victim to traffickers. 


(Sanskrita Bharadwaj is an independent journalist based in Assam. This story was reported with support from World Vision India’s Media Fellowship.)


*Names of all minors have been changed


Previously on Article-14:

Why The Pandemic Is A Child Rights Crisis