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Taking liberties

Lured by the promise of a decent wage and a better life, girls from India's Assam state are being sold into a life of slavery and abuse in the nation's capital. Words and pictures by Gethin Chamberlain

 

Rabina Khatun could have had no idea that her great adventure would end in rape.

She was a trusting girl, so when a trafficker came to her and promised her riches beyond her wildest dreams, she was inclined to believe her. All she had to do, the older woman told her, was go to work in the Indian capital, Delhi, for a year as a maid. So Rabina, all of 14, left her village in the Lakhimpur district of northeast Assam and got on a train.

What she did not, and could not, know, was that the trafficker had sold her to an agent in Delhi who would sell her on again. Rabina had become a modern-day slave.

It is a vast and growing trade. Thousands of girls from India's remote northeast have been lured to Delhi with promises of riches, only to be sold into slavery. Many are the daughters of low-paid tea pickers who cannot afford to keep them. They are trafficked by agents who can earn anything from 4,000 rupees (HK$520) to 10,000 rupees for each girl they bring in. Often, the traffickers live in the same villages as the girls.

At least 100,000 girls like Rabina are believed to be kept locked up behind closed doors in Delhi alone. Nationwide, Indian government figures show 126,321 trafficked children were rescued from domestic service in 2011-12, up nearly 27 per cent year on year.

The US State Department's latest report on trafficking estimates that up to 65 million people in India are engaged in forced labour. It says there is an increasing number of job placement agencies luring children into "forced labour, including domestic servitude, under false promises of employment". And it notes that 20 per cent of domestic workers report that they have suffered sexual abuse by employers or agencies.

The demand for these workers is being driven by the rapid expansion of India's middle class, a small but growing proportion of the country's population who have money to burn. These are the people who can afford to pay as much as 60,000 rupees to a placement agency to acquire a live-in maid - and who often regard the possession of a number of domestic servants as a status symbol.

The parents of the trafficked girls can only dream of such riches. Wages on the tea estates are low, even by Indian standards. The average pay for a tea picker is 90 rupees a day. Only by placing a cash value on statutory benefits due to the workers under Indian law can the tea companies claim that they pay the legal minimum wage. Rights groups dismiss this as a sham.

Most of the major tea companies source from Assam, a fertile tea-growing region with more than 850 estates; and many of the workers are descendants of central Indian tribal groups originally trafficked to Assam as slave labour during British rule.

Rabina, now 18, sits in the semi-darkness of the small house she shares with her mother, brother and four sisters. The trafficker said she could earn 3,000 rupees a month in Delhi, she says. Her father was dead: they needed the money. When she arrived in the capital, however, she was handed over to a placement agency, which sold her on to new owners. She worked for two years as an unpaid servant from 7am until midnight, cooking and cleaning.

"I was not aware of why they were not giving me money. They said I would get my money when I went back to the village," she says.

But there was no money waiting when she was eventually set free. She was so furious that she agreed to return to Delhi with another trafficker who said he could help her get her money back.

Instead, he sold her for 10,000 rupees to a placement agent who ran a dangerous sideline.

"He was selling girls to other men to do what they wanted with them," Rabina says. "I was taken to a house and they locked me in. Then they raped me. Afterwards they took me to Old Delhi station and left me there with no money.

"There was a man there who saw me crying and talked to me and took me to the police station."

She came back to the village in January.

"I am never going to Delhi again. I am very angry. I want to kill them, I want to beat those people."

The only consolation for her mother is that she at least has her daughter back. Many other parents wait in vain for news of their missing children.

 

ARJUN AND MUKTI TATI perch on low wooden stools in the courtyard of one of the larger houses of a tea garden in another Lakhimpur village. Arjun pulls out a passport-sized picture of Binita, their daughter. She would be 17 now, he says. She was just 14 when a trafficker took her away. He had persuaded the Tatis to let her go to Delhi with the usual promises of money and a better life.

"He said to me, 'You are not well and you have no money. She will get 1,500 rupees a month in Delhi and support you.' So I was happy that she would go," says Arjun. But after a few months, when there was still no sign of any money, the Tatis began to worry. "I realised all was not well. We were both praying to God to send our daughter back to us," he says.

A year passed, then another, and no word came. Mukti sits silently by her husband's side, tears rolling down her cheeks. They went to plead with the trafficker to help them find her, but he refused.

"She was a very gentle girl, always playing, very happy," Mukti says. "We went to him 100 times but he always said he had no information."

 

SAPHIRA KHATUN IS CRYING, too. She carefully places the picture of her daughter, Minu Begum, on the table in front of her. Outside the darkened hut the monsoon rain hammers down. Her two other daughters, Nadira, 17, and Munu, 20, sit beside her.

Minu was 12 and had been doing well in school, says Munu, visibly distressed. But a trafficker convinced her to go.

"She had big dreams," says Munu. "Any 12-year-old wants to go to the big city; it is more exciting than the village."

Minu had been to the trafficker's house a few times. One evening, she failed to return. The family has not seen her since the day she disappeared, four years ago.

"We love our sister," says Munu, between huge sobs. "She loved to study, she knew the importance of education. After school she wanted to join the police."

"She loved me so much," says Saphira, almost to herself.

Shobaha Tirki listens to Minu's story, saying nothing. For years he worked on a tea plantation, doing odd jobs, picking up a few rupees here and there. One day he met Sreenivas, a trafficker, who was visiting the village. Sreenivas told him he would pay good money if Tirki could supply girls from the village. He agreed.

"The first time we took seven or eight girls from here and they came back safely. That developed goodwill in the community," he says.

Tirki is 50, with a shock of jet black hair and a well-filled stomach. He sits in a plastic chair as he describes how he became a trafficker. He has sold maybe 20 girls, for 10,000 rupees a time. It is not hard to convince them to go with him, he says.

"First I meet the parents and convince them to send their daughter. I tell them there are good wages, good facilities. I tell them they will get 3,000 to 5,000 rupees a month and come back in a year." It is the fault of the placement agency if they don't get paid, he says, with a shrug. But he would never send his own daughters. He seems irritated, annoyed. It isn't easy being known as the local trafficker, he says.

"I'm under a lot of pressure from the local community and the police when parents complain," he grumbles.

Kusma Takri knows how he feels. She used to work in a tea garden, earning 40 rupees a day. After her neighbours, sisters Elaina and Shivani Kujar, left for Delhi, she began to wonder whether she should go, too.

Sreenivas sent her to work for an American couple. They were nice, she says, but Sreenivas pocketed all the money. She called him, asking for her money. "Send five or six girls to Delhi and I will pay you commission," he said. So Takri gathered together some girls and started her career as a trafficker. He promised her 4,000 rupees a girl and over the next two years she sent him 52.

She knew the girls were not being properly paid, she says, but Sreenivas was always promising more if she supplied more girls.

"He says, 'The next time I will pay everything', but he never does," says Takri.

Now she is trapped. She needs to keep sending girls to make a living herself, she says.

"Here there is no money, no work, my babies are small and my husband gets only 500 rupees a month," she says. "This is my job. I know the Delhi placement agencies are bad but I am caught between the placement agencies and poverty. What can I do?"

Not everyone is prepared to admit defeat, though. A group of children's rights activists have taken the Lakhimpur village to their hearts. Bachpan Bachao Andolan - "Save the Childhood Movement" - has been rescuing children from slavery for more than 30 years, putting pressure on authorities and pursuing the traffickers. Rama Shankar Chaurasia, chairman of the BBA, says the scale of the problem is immense.

"One-hundred-thousand maid servants are kept behind closed doors, behind bars," he says. "They are kept as slaves, they cannot talk to their parents, their wages are withheld and taken by their placement agency or supplier, their employers are told not to pay them directly because if they do the girls will run away. For years they work this way."

According to the BBA, there are at least 2,300 illegal placement agencies in Delhi and 356 registered agencies. The going price for a maid can be as much as 60,000 rupees, says Chaurasia. "The person who pays that feels they have purchased the girl."

In an attempt to get to grips with the problem, the Indian government hopes to have 335 anti-trafficking units set up in police stations across the country by the end of this year. But police work alone will never be enough, says sub-inspector Nirmal Biswas, the newly arrived officer in charge of a Lakhimpur village police station.

The faces of missing girls peer from the noticeboard at the police station. On the wall is a crime chart listing 24 kidnappings in 2012, along with 10 rapes and 13 other crimes against women.

They are trying to make progress, Biswas says, flicking through a large file on missing girls. In the past month they have registered four cases of trafficking and recovered one girl and her trafficker. A placement agency in Delhi has been raided and the owners brought to Assam for questioning. He unclips their mugshots and flips them across the desk, then flicks through sheet after sheet of pictures of women on the agency's books.

It is progress, he says. But it will not stop the trade.

"It is the poverty here," he says. "If any trafficker offers 1,000 rupees they will get girls. Their parents are poor and if the trafficker offers them money they will believe them. It will be defeated only with employment and development and the eradication of poverty.

"We try to make arrests but all the development by the government is not coming to the villages."

Until that happens, girls such as Elaina will continue to follow the well-trodden path to Delhi, bewitched by promises of more money than they ever imagined and the excitement of life in the big city.

"He said it would change our lives, and my parents believed him. The tea garden was closed and they were not working, so we had no money. So they agreed I would go with him," says Elaina, recalling the day the trafficker came calling.

She was 14, doing well in school and wanted to be a nurse, but her parents were won over. It cost her four years of her life. In that time, she would be held prisoner, forced to work for no pay and finally raped.

Now 20, she sits on a low chair inside the family hut, playing with her long dark hair. Rain is starting to fall on the tin roof and against the bamboo strip walls, which are rendered with mud. There is a pink inflatable giraffe on a shelf next to her, some Christian religious pictures and a church calendar bearing the slogan "The Lord is Good to All".

"He was offering good wages and a good life and he said he would change our lives," Elaina says of the trafficker from Delhi who took her and Shivani away.

Elaina was taken to Delhi, where the trafficker set her to work in his own home in the Malviya Nagar area. She had been there three months when she first asked him about money.

"He laughed and said I'd get 1,500 rupees, but he didn't give me anything," she says. "I spent two years working in his house with no money.

"I had to look after his child. I would start at 4am and work through until midnight. He was always leering at me."

The man made sure there was no chance of Elaina getting away. He prevented her from talking to her sister, who was working at another house in Delhi, on the phone, and would not let her return to the village.

One night she was sitting on the sofa in the living room where she slept on the floor, waiting for him to leave so she could go to bed.

"He sat down next to me and he was watching a blue film on his computer. He took some tea and closed the computer. He asked if I saw the film and if I thought the film was good. He had a dirty expression on his face.

"Two days later he asked me for a body massage. Then he raped me," she says, in a matter-of-fact way, offering no more details.

"His wife was suspicious about what was happening. I told her he had raped me but he denied it and told me to shut my mouth.

"I told him I would not stay any more. After that, I was always crying, but he kept me locked in the house. How could I get back to Assam? I was afraid. I had no money and he threatened that I would end up in a brothel.

"I wanted to go back but I was also afraid that if I came back I would have to say what happened and would have to go through a police case."

Salvation came in the form of a new owner. When he heard her story, he sent her home. Now she works in a creche on a plantation, looking after the young daughters of the tea pickers, wondering whether anything will change, whether anything will save them from becoming the next generation of child slaves.

 

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