Rajeshwari Salam smiles almost as a reflex action. It does not reach her damp, vacant eyes. Slightly built with common tribal features, the 29-year-old seems more a victim than a liberator who broke the biggest trafficking network of tribals in the country to rescue 60 girls from a slave factory in Namakkal, Tamil Nadu. Sucked into the racket by another tribal, Tijuram Korram, she was sold to a vegetable processing unit where she slaved for 18 hours a day until she developed severe skin disease and acid burns. She escaped from the factory one day but returned determinedly to rescue the other inmates last November.
To meet Rajeshwari, one has to travel to Janakpur on foot for the better part of the day from the headquarters of Kanker district in Bastar region, deep inside Maoist territory. The winter sun is too weak to penetrate through the trees. The slightest rustle of dried leaves can be heard yards away. But human greed knows no bounds as girls are being lured away from this idyllic region to be sold to far-off factories and brothels.
It’s almost always someone the girl trusts who gives the final push. The domino effect that follows is also self-willed to the extent that the simpleton might construct it to be an escape from her misery in Bastar, a region synonymous with exploitation, either by the Maoists or by the state administration (or the lack of it).
In the past 10 years, tribal girls have been vanishing from Chhattisgarh at an alarming rate. Official records show that 9,000 girls have gone missing. In reality, the figure could be closer to 90,000, warn local social activists.
Some end up as slaves at factories in Tamil Nadu, working for as little as Rs 100 a month, a bar of soap and a bottle of oil. Others end up at houses in Delhi, Haryana and Punjab through a complex network of agents. The green forests, blue skies and warmth of a hearth lost forever in the acid drums and household chores. The girls are sold for anything from Rs 5,000 to Rs 50,000.