A train from Mumbai arrives at the Guwahati railway station. A large number of mediapersons and policemen are waiting on the platform. After the train comes to a halt, 40 children — 36 girls among them — disembark from a particular coach. The police quickly whisk them away.
Most of the children had been working for years in the fish-canning industry in Mumbai and the rest were engaged as domestic servants. They were rescued by a Mumbai-based NGO with the help of the Maharashtra Police, and a team of the Assam Police escorted them back to Guwahati.
Scenes like this — of rescued children being brought back from various parts of the country — have become quite commonplace at the Guwahati railway station, indicating that the menace of child trafficking has assumed gargantuan proportions in Assam.
As the children are huddled into a bus outside the railway station, one of them narrates her horrific story to TEHELKA. Zarifa (name changed) is a 15-year-old girl from a poor Muslim family living in a village in lower Assam. “I have three younger siblings. We were very poor and always had to worry about our next meal,” she says. “That is when someone came to our village who had earlier taken some girls to Mumbai, saying he would get them work there. My father sent me away with him. I think he actually sold me off. I was taken to Mumbai in a train and then handed over to a woman. She took me to a house in Navi Mumbai and told me that I would be working there as a domestic servant. I was often tortured in that house and not given food regularly. That is when some locals came to know about this and informed an NGO. I was rescued after that.”
Zarifa considers herself lucky that she could get out of that house, but is not sure of what awaits her now. “My parents never tried to contact me and I had no means to get in touch with them,” she says. “If I am handed over to them, they might send me back again.”
Indeed, there are numerous instances of poor parents in Assam sending their children away with traffickers, who make promises of providing them a better life. In the past five years, 4,219 children have gone missing from the state. Among them are 2,718 girls and 1,501 boys. In 2012, 797 girls and 357 boys went missing from various parts of the state. In the past three years, the maximum cases of missing children have been reported from Kamrup Metropolitan, Lakhimpur, Sonitpur and Kokrajhar districts.
According to state CID sources, 422 victims of human trafficking, mostly minors, have been rescued since 2011. Among those who were rescued from trafficking rackets between 2011 and 2013, 223 were below 18 years of age. The police have arrested 281 middlemen since 2011, but the conviction rate in human trafficking cases in Assam remains awfully low at only 2 percent. Protection homes run by the state government or by NGOs with government aid are overflowing with children rescued from trafficking rackets.
Child trafficking flourishes in the backdrop of massive internal displacement caused by floods and ethnic violence. Cases of trafficking have been reported from relief camps opened for flood- and violence-hit victims in Lakhimpur and Kokrajhar districts. In times of flood and conflict, the attention of the government and even the media is on the core issue and the traffickers manage to take advantage of the situation.
Most of the trafficked children end up in illegal placement agencies in Mumbai and New Delhi. Some of them get entangled in prostitution rackets and end up in brothels. The middlemen earn between Rs 50,000 and Rs 3 lakh per child.
“Most of the children that we have rescued were sent out of the state with the promise of a better life,” says a top official from the anti-trafficking cell of the Assam Police on the condition of anonymity. “The traffickers have formed a well-knit network in the tea gardens and areas affected by floods and ethnic violence. They mostly target poor families from marginalised communities, those whose lives have been devastated by floods or have lost their land to erosion. They also approach violence-hit families staying in relief camps. We have profiled those areas and know the modus operandi of the traffickers. But to tackle the menace, we need a targeted campaign with a multi-pronged approach.”
The official also reveals that Guwahati is not just a transit point for traffickers, but also a place from where at least two notorious trafficking networks source their victims. “We are on the lookout for the kingpins in order to demolish the network,” he says.
The situation has only gone from bad to worse over the years and Assam has turned into the trafficking capital of the country. Even the Supreme Court has come down heavily on the Tarun Gogoi government for its failure to trace the missing children. On 13 November, during the hearing of a PIL filed by Bachpan Bachao Andolan, the NGO led by Nobel laureate Kailash Satyarthi, on the fate of more than 12,500 children missing since 2011 across the country, the apex court issued a directive to all the affected states, including Assam, asking them to trace all the missing children by 11 December.
The Supreme Court directive has left the Assam Police in a tizzy. Sources say that Gogoi has asked DGP Khagen Sharma and Chief Secretary Jitesh Khosla to make sure that the directive is followed. As an immediate measure, the state police headquarters has ordered all the districts to submit daily updates on the status of cases related to child trafficking and missing children. An Additional DGP-level officer has been asked to monitor the process with the help of all the seven DIGs in the state.
But these measures have failed to satisfy child rights activists working at the grassroots in Assam. They feel that the government is only acting under pressure from the court, but lacks the political will needed to curb the menace. “It is only because of the strict deadline that the government seems to have suddenly woken up to the crisis,” says Guwahati-based child rights activist Miguel Das Queah. “Had it shown this sense of urgency earlier, many children could have been rescued. It is treating the issue like a school project, where everyone goes into an overdrive when the deadline approaches.”
Queah, who has been involved in rescuing many children in Guwahati, points out that the main problem lies in the absence of a preventive approach to the issue. “The number of personnel available to deal with the menace is also abysmally low,” he says. “There is very little community-based intervention and that is one reason why the state fails to protect its children. We have often found that children who are rescued once end up being trafficked again. It happens because there is limited institutional back-up and no social support.”
Unless the root causes that make children from poor and marginalised families vulnerable to trafficking are addressed, there is little chance of the menace being curbed. “Poor parents need to be given financial support and the children provided with free education so that they do not fall prey to traffickers,” says Runumi Gogoi, chairperson of the Assam State Commission for Protection of Child Rights.
While the Supreme Court directive is surely a wake-up call, it remains to be seen if the Gogoi government has the necessary political will to deliver.