DEEPAK KUMAR¬†was on his way back from a playground near the Tughlaqabad railway station in Delhi when he was abducted. It was the evening of 8 March 2011. He was 15 then.
‚ÄúIt was already dark. I was feeling cold and realised I should go back home. Just then I saw four people coming towards my direction on a bike. Before I could understand anything, they forced me on the pillion, sandwiching me between them. They covered my mouth with a thick cloth when I started crying. All I can remember is that I was on the bike. When I woke up, it was morning. The men took me to a Ram Kumar‚Äôs house in Khindaria village, Muzaffarnagar district,‚ÄĚ Deepak recounts.
The next morning, Deepak was briefed about his job at Ram Kumar‚Äôs place. He was to look after the buffaloes, clean their sheds, and peel and clean sugarcane. Meanwhile, back home in Badarpur, his parents had frantically started looking for him. His father Bhajan Sahu went to the nearest police station in Sarga Khwaja to register an FIR. ‚ÄúThey refused to file a case saying that my son was a drug addict. Finally, after a lot of requests a case was registered but they did nothing,‚ÄĚ says Sahu.
‚ÄúRam Kumar was a rich sugarcane farmer in the village. He put me under the watch of his caretaker, Ranjeet. It was Ranjeet who told me that there are many children like me who are brought from Delhi and Bihar and are sold by agents to these farmers for Rs 3,000-4,000. Two children used to work in the house next to Pandit Ram Kumar‚Äôs, but they would never talk to us. Whenever I tried to speak to them I was scolded,‚ÄĚ Deepak says.
Deepak was one of the 5,111 children who went missing from the capital in 2011. Data released by the Ministry of Home Affairs suggest that an average of 14 children go missing from the capital every day, the highest in the country. Besides being forced into prostitution, begging and used for organ trade, there is a new trafficking racket that is making its way; children between the age of 14-17 are being trafficked to the agricultural fields of neighbouring states to meet labour shortage. Trafficking is more rampant in the sugar bowl of India ‚Äď the districts of Muzaffarnagar, Saharanpur, Baghpath and Meerut, in western Uttar Pradesh.
The following year, for Deepak, was filled with despair and backbreaking work in the fields. ‚ÄúI used to wake up at four in the morning and clean the buffalo shed. Then I had to go work in the fields,‚ÄĚ he says. He lost the middle finger on his left hand while cutting sugarcane. ‚ÄúThey were dangerous people,‚ÄĚ he says, ‚ÄúI sliced my finger but I was still forced to work. They scolded me whenever I asked them to let me go home.‚ÄĚ
Deepak had nearly given up on his fate. He had tried calling his parents using Ranjeet‚Äôs phone, but in vain. Then one day his owner asked him to drop Ranjeet to the railway station. After dropping Ranjeet, Deepak took the next bus to Muzaffarnagar. And then he called home, finally. ‚ÄúHe called us from Muzaffarnagar, and told us that he was coming. After he came back, I went to the police station and requested them to investigate the matter. My son was abducted and was sold as a bonded labourer. He lost his finger too. The police hasn‚Äôt done anything until now,‚ÄĚ Deepak‚Äôs father Bhajan Sahu says. Deepak reached home a year after he was abducted, on 26 February 2012.
Hijacked childhood¬†(left) Deepak Kumar with his father Bhajan Sahu; (centre) Mahendra Singh with his father Ram Ratan; (right) Pawan Kumar with his family in his Badarpur home
Photos: Priyanka Dubey
A story that started as an enquiry into the reasons behind Delhi‚Äôs notoriety as the abduction capital of the country crisscrossed its way to the sugarcane fields of Uttar Pradesh. TEHELKA visited the fields of Muzafarnagar and nearby villages, and documented the trafficking of children in the region. The conversations and the investigations that followed exposed a scattered but well networked ring of child-trafficking agents, who abduct children from poor settlements in Delhi and sell them off to sugarcane farmers in western UP and Punjab. While narrating their stories, every documented child mentions the name of their owners and villages where they were held.
Unlike Deepak, Mahendra Singh of Jahangirpuri spent three-and-a-half-years in captivity before he gathered the courage to run from his tormentors. Mahendra was fourteen when he was abducted from near his house, on 7 August 2008. He woke up as usual, at seven in the morning, and went to the nearby open ground to perform his morning ablutions.
‚ÄúWhile I was walking towards the ground, I saw five boys approaching me. They were sniffing correction fluid. They forced me to smell some and soon I was dizzy. I remember waking up at the Old Delhi railway station,‚ÄĚ Mahendra says.
MAHENDRA WAS¬†taken to Karnal, in Punjab, by a Sikh man. ‚ÄúFrom Karnal we were taken to Sandgaon, where he lived. At Sandgaon, he took us first to his sugarcane fields, and then later to the buffalo shed and told me that I have to wake up at four in the morning, clean the shed and prepare fodder for the buffaloes before sunrise. I was then supposed to work in the fields all day,‚ÄĚ he recounts.
‚ÄúIt was only after the morning chores that I was given the morning chai and two rotis for the day. I then had to work in the fields.‚ÄĚ Mahendra worked in the fields with Shehnewaz, another abducted boy. ‚ÄúHe was the one who told me that the sardar had bought me for Rs 4,000 from a local agent.‚ÄĚ
When pressed for the sardar‚Äôs name, Mahendra mumbles, ‚ÄúHis name was Gijja Singh, and his sister was called Preeti. His son‚Äôs name was Dilbagh Singh. They have a big house in Sandgaon surrounded by high walls on all sides, so I could never run away. They abused and beat me whenever I talked about going home. We weren‚Äôt even given enough food to eat. The sardar used to say that food would make us lazy.‚ÄĚ
In the meantime, Mahendra‚Äôs parents left no stone unturned in their efforts to trace their son. They travelled from Delhi to Haridwar pasting ‚Äėmissing child‚Äô posters in every nook and corner along the way, as the police in Delhi refused to register and FIR. ‚ÄúI ran to Jahangirpuri police station the same day my son was abducted. But the lady-in-charge asked me for mithai in return for registering the FIR. I gave her the Rs 200 I had in my pocket then, but she only made a diary entry. I was asked to look for my child myself. After making numerous rounds of the station, an FIR was finally registered, but I wasn‚Äôt given a copy,‚ÄĚ says Ram Ratan, Mahendra‚Äôs father, who works as a daily wage labourer in a tobacco factory.