With its tea gardens and paddy fields, Assam’s 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 “a trip to Delhi”.
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. Serophena’s husband used to work in a tea garden. “We were miserable after the tea gardens closed down. That’s when Samuel took her to Delhi, saying she would earn money and return after a year,” she says. “It’s been four years since I last spoke to her on the phone. Samuel says he doesn’t know where she is. It scares me to imagine what might have happened to her.”
At nearby Dolpa-Pathar village, Safeera Khatoon has been waiting for her daughter Shanu Begum since 2010. “Shanu 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,” she recalls. “But one day, Haseena’s sister took my daughter to her place and from there Haseena took her to Delhi.”
Safeera went to Haseena’s house several times to ask about her daughter, but her family refused to say anything. “I went to the police but they refused to register a complaint. Haseena hasn’t returned from Delhi either,” she says. With Shanu’s photo in her hand, she pleads, “Please bring my daughter back!”
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. “My mother had told me not to go. But one day when she wasn’t home, Anita came and told me I could go with her for a trip to Delhi,” says Rabia. “There 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.”
In Delhi, Rabia was taken to a placement agency in Shakurpur Basti run by Mahesh Gupta. “I was sent to work as a maid at a bungalow in Punjabi Bagh. Whenever I asked to go home, I was told that I couldn’t go anywhere for one year. After a year, I was sent to Gupta’s office again. He didn’t pay me anything and sent me to a bungalow in Ahmedabad,” she says. “When I told my new employer that Gupta didn’t 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.”
That was not the end of Rabia’s 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. “He said it would take just one day,” she says. Godra took her to another agency in Delhi run by two men, Imran and Mithun. “When 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.”
Rabia went to the agency’s office and asked to be sent home. “But Imran called Mithun and three others and told them to take me away and do what they liked,” she recalls. “Mithun threatened me that if I didn’t 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.”
“Everybody knows about it now. My mother has suffered a lot of humiliation. I won’t even get married now,” she says in a breaking voice. “I haven’t recovered completely. My abdomen hurts all the time. I’m afraid I will never be fine again.”
In 2009, Suman Nagasiya of Silonibadi village was taken to Delhi by a local agent, Stephen, when she was only 15. “Suman died two months ago, just a month after she returned,” says her father Mahanand Nagasiya, 50. Women from the neighbourhood told TEHELKA that Suman was sexually assaulted in Delhi.
“Suman 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,” recalls Mahanand. “One 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.”
Suman was seriously ill when she returned home this year. “Her employer sent her back with Rs 15,000 when she fell ill. We spent it on her treatment but she didn’t survive,” says her father. “They had done something terrible to her in Delhi. She couldn’t even stand on her feet.”
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 hasn’t returned home.
Another girl from the village, Lalin Horo, was 16 in 2010 when she was taken to Delhi. She returned after two years. “We 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,” she says. “He took us to Umesh Rai’s office in Shakurpur and I was sent to Shalimar Bagh to work as a maid for Rs 2,000 per month.” But she wasn’t paid even after two years. “Umesh took all the money. They were not letting me leave and didn’t even allow me to speak to my family,” she adds. Fortunately, Lalin’s 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. “Kusma 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,” says Shivangi. “My 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 didn’t arrest Srinivas.”
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 Committee’s recommendations, Section 370(A) of the IPC defines human trafficking as follows: “If 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.”
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, “Most of the girls are made to sign papers written in English, which they don’t 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.”
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. “Families of the tea garden workers who lost their livelihood became easy prey for traffickers,” he explains. “Poverty compels them to look for work elsewhere and they trust anybody offering them an opportunity to earn money.”
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. “There is an agent in every village,” he says. “The lure of easy money makes many locals take up this illegal activity.”
Lakhimpur Superintendent of Police PK Bhuyan, however, denied there were any instances of trafficking in the district. “This indifferent attitude of the police is also responsible for turning Lakhimpur into the capital of human trafficking,” 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.
“The Criminal Law (Amendment) Act and the Supreme Court’s 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,” says Satyarthi.
Replying to a question during this year’s 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. “But the police have traced many of them,” he said. “We have issued a notice that a complaint should be registered every time a child goes missing.”
But Satyarthi points out that traffickers are still shielded by politicians and the police. “Nobody wants female trafficking to stop. They all profit from it,” he says.
Though the government and the local police don’t 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 Lakhimpur’s 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 Delhi’s Shakurpur locality. “When I started this work, I was being paid a commission of Rs 3,000 per girl,” he admits. “By 2010, the commission had increased to Rs 6,000. Today, the rate is Rs 10,000.” Silvester says there are hundreds of placement agencies in Delhi — 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. “I think the girls are sent mostly to Arab countries as the demand there is high,” he says. “Srinivas 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.”
Silvester quit working for the trafficking network in 2010. “Srinivas didn’t pay the girls and their families came complaining to me. Then one also had to deal with the police,” 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. “I 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 Srinivas’ card and I contacted him,” he says. “So far, I have taken a total of 13 girls to Delhi.” Three of the girls he took to Srinivas’ agency haven’t returned yet. “Srinivas didn’t pay anything to two girls and I can’t contact the others. One of them was sent to Chandigarh. They are not letting her go either,” he says. Later, he worked as an agent for another placement agency in Shakurpur run by one Umesh Rai. “One of the girls is still there,” he says.
Ajanta, 23, is the youngest of the traffickers who spoke to TEHELKA. “I went to work in Delhi for the first time when I only 15 or 16,” she reveals. “A 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 don’t work. I don’t 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.”
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 Srinivas’ 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. “Fear of the police, though, has made their operations more secretive,” 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. “I used to work for Srinivas but left when my son fell ill. Srinivas paid me only 5,000 for a year’s work, but told me that if I brought others from my village, he would pay me a commission,” 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. “There are so many of them who haven’t returned home. Srinivas used to talk to Jewel about sending girls out of the country. I’m sure they do that. Perhaps that’s what they did with my neighbour Sonali Barla who hasn’t returned home,” 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. “Then I started sending girls to Babita Enterprises in Shakurpur run by one Pravin,” he confesses. “So far, I have taken about 22 girls to Delhi.” (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 Rai’s agency in Delhi. Later, Suhani was among six girls who were rescued during a police raid at Rai’s 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 Srinivas’ and Mahesh Gupta’s agencies in Delhi.
Translated from Hindi by Naushin Rehman
‘The asking rate for a girl is Rs 40,000’
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.
Please suggest a place where there is no hassle in getting a girl and the matter is fixed at once.
Yes, absolutely, you will get a good response from Panna Lal. He returns the amount if the girl doesn’t suit you. In Shakurpur, there are many who send the girl, take money and then help her flee. With Panna Lal, it’s not like that.
Ok. What is Panna Lal’s address?
There is a Shamshan Ghat to the left of Britannia Chowk. Take the turn next to it. It’s 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 girl’s pay? She will have to do everything.
His rate is a little high. He takes around Rs 35-40,000. If the girl is ‘semi-trained’, it would be Rs 5,000 for her.
Is his rate the highest around here?
Yes. He’s 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 months…
We are not like those who provide the girl, take the money and then help the girl flee… 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?
Umesh’s 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, isn’t 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 won’t find a girl anywhere else.
There is police from Jharkhand, Bihar and Assam here. Around 5,000 girls the agents brought have gone missing. They haven’t returned home yet.
Where do they go?
Arre, it’s nothing. The agents bring them and the agencies place them somewhere. Then we lose track of them. No one knows where they go.