With its tea gardens and paddy fields, Assamâs Lakhimpur district, located between the Brahmaputra and Subansiri rivers, is a picturesque place. But this pleasant picture hides a chilling reality. With around 40 girls going missing every month, this district with a population of 10 lakh has emerged as a hub of human trafficking. An investigation by TEHELKA has blown the lid off a multi-layered network of illegal placement agencies based in New Delhi and Mumbai, and their local agents who have been luring girls from the district into a quagmire of exploitation with promises of jobs, money, marriage, a life in the city or simply âa trip to Delhiâ.
Almost every village in Lakhimpur has its share of stories of girls who went to Delhi and never returned. TEHELKA went to 10 villages and talked to girls who had returned after being exploited for years, and to the families of those who had died or are still missing. While some were pushed into prostitution, others were raped by their employers or by the owners of placement agencies.
Serophena Barla, 45, from Dulhat Bagan village under the Laluk Police Station, says her 15-year-old daughter Sonali* went to Delhi with a local agent, Samuel Tarki, in March 2008. Serophenaâs husband used to work in a tea garden. âWe were miserable after the tea gardens closed down. Thatâs when Samuel took her to Delhi, saying she would earn money and return after a year,â she says. âItâs been four years since I last spoke to her on the phone. Samuel says he doesnât know where she is. It scares me to imagine what might have happened to her.â
At nearby Dolpa-Pathar village, Safeera Khatoon has been waiting for her daughter Shanu Begum since 2010. âShanu had just turned 16 when Haseena Begum, who used to live in our village, asked me to send her to Delhi with her. I refused as there were other girls here who had gone to Delhi and did not return,â she recalls. âBut one day, Haseenaâs sister took my daughter to her place and from there Haseena took her to Delhi.â
Safeera went to Haseenaâs house several times to ask about her daughter, but her family refused to say anything. âI went to the police but they refused to register a complaint. Haseena hasnât returned from Delhi either,â she says. With Shanuâs photo in her hand, she pleads, âPlease bring my daughter back!â
The endless wait of mothers like Serophena and Safeera is only half the tragedy. Many girls who have managed to return say they were raped and tortured while working as bonded labourers in Delhi, Mumbai, Ahmedabad and Chandigarh.
Rabia Khatoon of Lukumpur village, who returned from Delhi after four years, is facing a social boycott that has made life difficult for her. She was 15 in 2009 when Anita Beg, a local agent, took her to Delhi, where she found herself trapped in a web of sexual, mental and financial harassment. âMy mother had told me not to go. But one day when she wasnât home, Anita came and told me I could go with her for a trip to Delhi,â says Rabia. âThere were other girls with her who said they pay well in Delhi for very little work. I went along thinking I would be back soon.â
In Delhi, Rabia was taken to a placement agency in Shakurpur Basti run by Mahesh Gupta. âI was sent to work as a maid at a bungalow in Punjabi Bagh. Whenever I asked to go home, I was told that I couldnât go anywhere for one year. After a year, I was sent to Guptaâs office again. He didnât pay me anything and sent me to a bungalow in Ahmedabad,â she says. âWhen I told my new employer that Gupta didnât pay me and that I wanted to go home, he gave me Rs 11,000 and sent me back to Gupta. Of that, Gupta let me keep only Rs 2,000 and sent me to Guwahati.â
That was not the end of Rabiaâs ordeal. Though she returned home at the end of 2011, she was trapped once again by the traffickers. A man called Walson Godra tricked her into believing that he was friends with Gupta and could help her get her money back. âHe said it would take just one day,â she says. Godra took her to another agency in Delhi run by two men, Imran and Mithun. âWhen I called Walson, he said he had reached Assam and would come back soon. The next day, I was told that Walson had sold me off for Rs 10,000. I was forced to work at a bungalow in Rohini. I ran away after a month.â
Rabia went to the agencyâs office and asked to be sent home. âBut Imran called Mithun and three others and told them to take me away and do what they liked,â she recalls. âMithun threatened me that if I didnât agree to work, he would send me to a worse place. I had fever. On the pretext of taking me to a doctor, they took me to a brothel. When I refused to be left there, they took me to another place and sexually abused me for a week. Then they left me at the Old Delhi Railway Station. An auto driver helped me reach an ashram from where I was sent to Assam.â
âEverybody knows about it now. My mother has suffered a lot of humiliation. I wonât even get married now,â she says in a breaking voice. âI havenât recovered completely. My abdomen hurts all the time. Iâm afraid I will never be fine again.â
In 2009, Suman Nagasiya of Silonibadi village was taken to Delhi by a local agent, Stephen, when she was only 15. âSuman died two months ago, just a month after she returned,â says her father Mahanand Nagasiya, 50. Women from the neighbourhood told TEHELKA that Suman was sexually assaulted in Delhi.
âSuman was a student in a nearby school. Stephen, who has taken several girls to Delhi, wanted to take her there too. When I and her mother refused, he told Suman that other girls from the school were also going with them,â recalls Mahanand. âOne day she went on a picnic with her friends and Stephen took her to Delhi from there. Later we were told that she worked at a bungalow in Gurgaon.â
Suman was seriously ill when she returned home this year. âHer employer sent her back with Rs 15,000 when she fell ill. We spent it on her treatment but she didnât survive,â says her father. âThey had done something terrible to her in Delhi. She couldnât even stand on her feet.â
A boy from the neighbourhood told TEHELKA that Stephen had also taken his 11-year-old sister, Julia Khadiya, to Delhi four years ago. She hasnât returned home.
Another girl from the village, Lalin Horo, was 16 in 2010 when she was taken to Delhi. She returned after two years. âWe were in dire straits as there was little work in the tea gardens. Along with some other girls, I went with an agent Vijay Tirki to Delhi,â she says. âHe took us to Umesh Raiâs office in Shakurpur and I was sent to Shalimar Bagh to work as a maid for Rs 2,000 per month.â But she wasnât paid even after two years. âUmesh took all the money. They were not letting me leave and didnât even allow me to speak to my family,â she adds. Fortunately, Lalinâs father went to Delhi looking for her and managed to bring her back.
In 2011, Shivangi Khujoor and her sister Elema of Dulhat village, who were 16 and 17 then, were taken to Delhi by a relative, Kusma Tarki. âKusma took us to Sri Sai Enterprises run by Srinivas. Elema was given work at the office while I was sent to a house in Malviya Nagar, where I worked for four months,â says Shivangi. âMy sister left after Srinivas sexually abused her. I learnt of it later when they asked me to work for him. He made advances at me too. I went to the police, who sent me home but didnât arrest Srinivas.â
While Article 23 of the Constitution bans human trafficking and bonded labour and there are strict provisions against trafficking under the Immoral Traffic Prevention Act, 1986, it was only in March that a clear definition of the crime was written into the Indian Penal Code (IPC). Following the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, based on the Justice Verma Committeeâs recommendations, Section 370(A) of the IPC defines human trafficking as follows: âIf a person recruits, transports, harbours, transfers, or receives, a person or persons, by using threats, force, coercion, abduction, fraud, deception, abuse of power, or inducement for exploitation including prostitution, slavery, organ removal, etc., he will be committing the crime of human trafficking.â
The horror that girls like Sonali, Shanu, Rabia and Suman have faced is a reminder that we are still a long way from ending human trafficking. A confidential report released by the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) in response to an RTI filed in July last year backs the harrowing tales of these girls. It confirms that a large number of 10 to 15-year-old girls brought from the Northeast to Delhi and Mumbai are victims of trafficking.
According to the report, âMost of the girls are made to sign papers written in English, which they donât understand. Their pay ranges from 2,200-4,500, but the entire amount is kept by the placement agency. These agencies are not legally registered and function under the Partnership Act. These girls are not allowed to talk to their parents nor are they given permission to visit any of their relatives in Delhi. Many of these girls also become victims of rape and sexual violence. There is evidence that in most cases the local police are aware of these incidents of trafficking and the plight of these girls.â
Walter Fernandes, director of the Guwahati- based North-Eastern Social Research Centre, sees a connection between the closing down of many tea gardens in the Northeast between 2005 and 2010, and the rise of human trafficking from the region. âFamilies of the tea garden workers who lost their livelihood became easy prey for traffickers,â he explains. âPoverty compels them to look for work elsewhere and they trust anybody offering them an opportunity to earn money.â
According to the NHRC report, a growing network of agents in the region is the main reason for the rise in trafficking. Agrees Joseph Minj, a Lakhimpur-based lawyer who takes up cases of missing girls. âThere is an agent in every village,â he says. âThe lure of easy money makes many locals take up this illegal activity.â
Lakhimpur Superintendent of Police PK Bhuyan, however, denied there were any instances of trafficking in the district. âThis indifferent attitude of the police is also responsible for turning Lakhimpur into the capital of human trafficking,â says Kailash Satyarthi, founder of Delhi-based Bachpan Bachao Andolan (BBA).
In February, the BBA started a nationwide awareness march against the growing incidents of human trafficking in the Northeast. The BBA also petitioned the Supreme Court on missing children and in a landmark judgment in May, a Bench headed by the then Chief Justice of India Altamas Kabir directed the police to register all cases of missing children with the assumption that they could be victims of kidnapping or trafficking.
âThe Criminal Law (Amendment) Act and the Supreme Courtâs decision make it mandatory for the police not only to register cases of missing girls but also to probe the functioning of local agents and placement agencies under Sections 370 and 370 (A) of IPC,â says Satyarthi.
Replying to a question during this yearâs Budget Session in Parliament, Union Minister of State, Development of North Eastern Region, Paban Singh Ghatowar, agreed that an increasing number of children have gone missing from Lakhimpur. âBut the police have traced many of them,â he said. âWe have issued a notice that a complaint should be registered every time a child goes missing.â
But Satyarthi points out that traffickers are still shielded by politicians and the police. âNobody wants female trafficking to stop. They all profit from it,â he says.
Though the government and the local police donât have data on trafficking in Lakhimpur, TEHELKA talked to nine traffickers who revealed that as many as 40 girls go missing every month from the district. They confessed to having taken around 187 girls to Delhi since 2005.
A resident of Lakhimpurâs Tunijan village, Silvester took as many as 45 girls to Delhi between 2005 and 2010 as an agent for the Sai Placement Agency run by one Srinivas in New Delhiâs Shakurpur locality. âWhen I started this work, I was being paid a commission of Rs 3,000 per girl,â he admits. âBy 2010, the commission had increased to Rs 6,000. Today, the rate is Rs 10,000.â Silvester says there are hundreds of placement agencies in Delhi â more than 200 in Shakurpur itself.
Srinivas had told Silvester that they could make a lot of money if they sent the girls to foreign countries. âI think the girls are sent mostly to Arab countries as the demand there is high,â he says. âSrinivas got Rs 2 lakh for every girl sent abroad. I never did it myself, but I know that local agents get Rs 50,000 for it.â
Silvester quit working for the trafficking network in 2010. âSrinivas didnât pay the girls and their families came complaining to me. Then one also had to deal with the police,â he says. However, he admits that the number of local agents in Lakhimpur has gone up over the years.
2. Vijay Tirki
Vijay Tirki, 45, is one of the most active agents in Lakhimpur. Some of the girls he sent to Delhi are still in the clutches of placement agencies while others returned empty-handed after toiling hard for years. âI started trafficking girls three years ago. Many local agents were making a lot of money by taking girls to Delhi. One of them gave me Srinivasâ card and I contacted him,â he says. âSo far, I have taken a total of 13 girls to Delhi.â Three of the girls he took to Srinivasâ agency havenât returned yet. âSrinivas didnât pay anything to two girls and I canât contact the others. One of them was sent to Chandigarh. They are not letting her go either,â he says. Later, he worked as an agent for another placement agency in Shakurpur run by one Umesh Rai. âOne of the girls is still there,â he says.
Ajanta, 23, is the youngest of the traffickers who spoke to TEHELKA. âI went to work in Delhi for the first time when I only 15 or 16,â she reveals. âA local agent had taken me to Srinivas. He made me work for a year. I came back with Momin, an agent, and went to Delhi again with another agent Kusma. I worked there and made some money, so I started taking other girls along. Now I donât work. I donât like working. I only send the girls to one Sushant in Govindpuri. Some three months ago, I sent three girls aged between 15 and 22.â
4. Samuel Tarki
Samuel Tarki admits to having sent around 35 girls to placement agencies in Delhi between 2003 and 2012. He started trafficking girls after getting in touch with Srinivasâ placement agency in Delhi. According to him, there are agents in every village and at least 60 girls are trafficked every month from the district. He told TEHELKA that the number of agents has gone up since the closing down of tea gardens in the region in 2003. âFear of the police, though, has made their operations more secretive,â he says.
5-6. Kusma Tarki and Jewel Khujoor
The NHRC report mentioned in the story discloses that between 24 August 2008 and 19 April 2010, Kusma Tarki trafficked 53 children to Delhi by promising them jobs. A resident of Dulhat Bagan, she admits that she and her brother Jewel Khujoor did take these children to Delhi. âI used to work for Srinivas but left when my son fell ill. Srinivas paid me only 5,000 for a yearâs work, but told me that if I brought others from my village, he would pay me a commission,â she says.
Kusma reveals that besides local agents, girls already working with placement agencies are also asked to bring other children from their village in lieu of a commission. âThere are so many of them who havenât returned home. Srinivas used to talk to Jewel about sending girls out of the country. Iâm sure they do that. Perhaps thatâs what they did with my neighbour Sonali Barla who hasnât returned home,â says Kusma.
Three years ago, Stephen used to send boys to Sister Jocelyn and Mahendra Nayak of Munirka in Delhi to be hired as security guards. âThen I started sending girls to Babita Enterprises in Shakurpur run by one Pravin,â he confesses. âSo far, I have taken about 22 girls to Delhi.â (Stephen was later arrested from Sonepat, Haryana in a case of trafficking.)
8-9. Vishwajit and Anita
In 2010, Vishwajit had brought a 17-year-old Suhani Lohar from Dulhat Bagan to Umesh Raiâs agency in Delhi. Later, Suhani was among six girls who were rescued during a police raid at Raiâs office. Suhani told the police that Rai had sexually abused her. Vishwajit has spent three months behind bars. Anita admitted to having sent 10 girls from her village to Srinivasâ and Mahesh Guptaâs agencies in Delhi.
Translated from Hindi by Naushin Rehman
âThe asking rate for a girl is Rs 40,000âÂ
Pretending to be members of a middle-class family looking for a domestic help, TEHELKA spoke to several placement agencies in Delhi. A hidden camera recorded a conversation with Rakesh Kumar, who runs Uttara Placement Agency in Shakurpur.Â
Please suggest a place where there is no hassle in getting a girl and the matter is fixed at once.Â
Yes, absolutely, you will get a good response from Panna Lal. He returns the amount if the girl doesnât suit you. In Shakurpur, there are many who send the girl, take money and then help her flee. With Panna Lal, itâs not like that.
Ok. What is Panna Lalâs address?
There is a Shamshan Ghat to the left of Britannia Chowk. Take the turn next to it. Itâs right there in front of Barat Ghar. He always has girls.
Where does he get the girls from? Jharkhand?
He has girls from Jharkhand, Assam and Odisha. He buys girls from more than half the agencies.
How much is he going to charge? What about the girlâs pay? She will have to do everything.
His rate is a little high. He takes around Rs 35-40,000. If the girl is âsemi-trainedâ, it would be Rs 5,000 for her.
Is his rate the highest around here?
Yes. Heâs the kingpin here. More than half the agencies sell girls to him.
Earlier, we had brought a girl from Chirag Delhi. We paid 30,000 for her. But she ran away within three monthsâŚ
We are not like those who provide the girl, take the money and then help the girl fleeâŚ Shakurpur is full of such cheats. Subodh, Montu Misra, Aalam, Anil, Umesh Rai and Pravin are all like that.
The Chirag Delhi guy told us about Umesh Rai and Pravin. Can we get girls from them?
They are crooks. All of them in Shakurpur are crooks.
Where is their agency?
Umeshâs office was at M-680, right above my office. But he closed it down and went to some other place in the city. But Pravin still lives there. Let me tell you, if you come after the 20th of this month, you can take the girl from me. I will have girls after the 20th.
You are from Mathura, UP, isnât it? How did you get into this business?
I used to work as a scrap dealer in Himachal Pradesh. My uncle knew Panna Lal. Panna Lal often said that he wanted to open an office there. He asked me to work with him. So I joined.
So, he sends girls to Himachal as well?
They are sent everywhere; mostly Himachal and Srinagar. Shambhu is the one who sends them abroad. He prepares agreements of two years. Panna Lal operates within the country.
Tell me of someone who could send a girl abroad. My sister needs someone to take care of her kid.
The one I mentioned is good. Choose a girl and he will take care of all else. He has contacts. Otherwise you can wait. Before the 20th, you wonât find a girl anywhere else.
Where do they go?
Arre, itâs nothing. The agents bring them and the agencies place them somewhere. Then we lose track of them. No one knows where they go.