As Rajeshwari recounts her tale of horror, the contours of a major crime network built on deceit, allurement and exploitation becomes clear. A man she knew offered to take her on a trip to the Balaji temple in Tirupati and even convinced other girls to come with her. For Rajeshwari, who had never travelled beyond Kanker, the idea of going on a train journey seemed exciting.
However, the trip turned into a nightmare when she was taken to Namakkal and sold to a factory. She found other girls in captivity there and heard of several dozen similar stories of Bastar girls held captive in sweatshops all over.
The districts of Narayanpur, Jagdalpur, Kanker, Kondagaon, Jashpur, Raigarh, Koriya, Sarguja, Durg and Bilaspur have emerged as trafficking dens. Girls from here are sold off in Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Delhi, Maharashtra, Haryana, Punjab and Jammu & Kashmir.
‘The guy promised to take me to the Balaji temple in Tirupati’
Rajeshwari Salam had never imagined that a brief visit to her sister-in-law’s house in the Naxal-hit Bade Jamhri village of Narayanpur district would turn into the darkest chapter of her life. While there, she met Tijuram Korram along with a few other village girls. Korram told her that he was taking the girls on a trip to the famous Balaji temple at Tirupati, and she could join too. She was persuaded by the other girls to seize the opportunity.
Korram and a dozen girls began their journey on 4 August 2013. From Bade Jamhri, they reached Korram’s house in Nayanar and stayed for the night. The next stop was Benur village, located between Narayanpur and Kondagaon, from where a van took them to Jagdalpur. Then started a long bus ride to Namakkal in Tamil Nadu. A Bolero ferried them to Gems Agro Exports, a local factory where they were turned into bonded labourers.
“When I asked what we were doing in a factory instead of going to the Balaji temple, he said the money was all spent and we would have to work,” recalls Rajeshwari.
She says there were nearly 100 girls at the factory. They were made to sleep in a single room and share a single toilet. Her chance of escape arrived one day when Korram brought a fresh batch of girls. She told Korram that she had got an allergy from working with chemicals at the vegetable processing factory and demanded that she be sent home. After much coaxing, he agreed to take her back to Bastar, but on the condition that she would arrange for at least 10 other girls. He promised to pay her Rs 500 for each girl.
When she returned home, Rajeshwari met the Women and Child Development department supervisor, Jagmati Kashyap, and recounted her tale. Before her return, Rajeshwari had chanced upon a factory manager’s visiting card while cleaning and kept it. With the help of the visiting card, the police tracked and rescued 60 other tribal girls from the factory.
Last November, 24 girls were rescued from another factory in Erode district.
A human trafficking racket of placement agencies and local agents is operating actively in the region. Initially, it was thought that poverty and a dearth of employment opportunities in the area had resulted in a rising trend of immigration, providing ground for placement agencies. But a probe by TEHELKA has blown the lid off a trafficking network that subsists on luring girls with promises of pilgrimages and even marriage to local youth, who are hand-in-glove with the traffickers.
With the help of Hari Singh Sidar, 70, a social and religious worker who has been active in Bastar for the past two decades, TEHELKA travelled to a dozen small hamlets in Narayanpur and Kanker districts to meet families who have lost their daughters, and some who have welcomed back their loved ones, recording stories of endless horror and shame. The tragedy continues as the rescued girls face an unfeeling, cold-blooded administration unable to protect them, but unashamed to steal from their rehabilitation fund. This is the first real documentation from Ground Zero of the plight of the tribal girls trafficked, abused and dumped.