Poverty and lack of awareness make scores of children across Bihar fall victim to the vicious cycle of trafficking and exploitation every year

With tiny uncertain hands, little Ramesh would pick up shiny studs and stick them gingerly on colourful bangles which would make their way to the cheerful, glittering bazaars of Hyderabad and in places far beyond. The adhesive — a chemical he is unable to name. When he erred, a menacing baton would rise and land on his body. Or a belt would crack, teaching him lessons vastly different from the ones he could have learnt at school. Provided he had had the chance to go to one.

About three-and-a-half feet tall, Ramesh does not even know how old he is. His friends of similar height take guesses with their ages, placing them between 10 and 12 years. Like many children, Ramesh and his friends were taken from their village Dariyapur in Bodh Gaya to work in the bangle factories of Hyderabad on the promise of a few thousand rupees.

“Around 10 children worked with us in a factory near the Charminar. We were taken there last rainy season. We woke up at 8 a.m. and worked till midnight. We were given roti to eat and when we made a mistake malik dande se marta tha [owner would beat us with a baton]. We did not like working there,” said Sikandar.

This went on for a year. So when large boils started to sprout on his friend and co-worker Raja’s face, it came as a blessing in disguise.

The skin eruptions spooked the factory owner. Around the same time, local activists from a voluntary outfit Lakshya were spreading awareness and rallying with the Gaya district administration to bring their village children back. To avoid a likely crackdown on their child trafficking ring, a middleman bundled up the children and put them on a train to Gaya. This August they returned home.

“We petitioned to the District Magistrate and the Superintendent of Police to help bring the children back. The message of our campaign spread in the local market. It also reached Hyderabad. They sensed that the noose was tightening around them,” said Naushad Alam, a Lakshya team member.    

“The owner called and told me to take Raja away,” said his father Vinod Manjhi. “I had sent Raja with the contractor because he promised me Rs. 2,000 a month. I am disabled and not able to earn.” 

The children said they were enticed by a middleman, Sunil Manjhi. He worked at a local coal factory where they often played. Sunil’s friendly manners drew them to him and they followed this Pied Piper to sweat shops miles away from home.

“He said he would give us chicken to eat daily,” said Ramesh.

Ramesh, Sikander, Raja, Sintu and Mohan were the lucky five to have been recovered from the bangle factories. They vow never to go back. But scores of children have not been that fortunate.

It’s been years since Karu Manjhi from Dariyapur village has heard of his son Surendra. “Sunil, the dalal [contractor], took him to Hyderabad a few years ago on the promise of giving him a job. I don’t know in what condition my son is. When I went to the contractor’s place to make inquiries, I learnt the address he had given was of his in-laws’ place. There is no news from Sunil,” Karu has stated in a written petition.

“According to our pilot findings,” said Manoj Kumar, director of Lakshya, “sixteen children have been trafficked from the various panchayats of Bodh Gaya, namely Dhanawa, Padhariya, Bakraur, Ilra and Nagar panchyat. Most of them are taken by local middlemen to Manali, Hyderabad and places not known. In general, the middlemen are locals, whom the locals call Bhotia.”

According to the official data of Bihar government, up to 500 child labourers have been rescued by the police and Labour Resources Department. In 2013, 114 child labourers were rescued till August. The number of male and female traffickers arrested from January 2011 to August 2013 is 695.

“Bihar has formed anti-human trafficking units in its districts,” said Arvind Pandey, Inspector General, Weaker Sections. “We are running sensitisation and training programmes for the police, communities, as well as NGOs. Our rescue operations are on. After the implementation of MGNREGA, migration and human trafficking have been greatly controlled. We are also focussing on convictions.”

After their rescue from the bangle factories, the five children have returned to their life of poverty and illiteracy. None of them go to school.

Raja takes a grim view of the trafficking cycle. “We have come back, but some other children must have replaced us.”

(This is the first piece of a two-part series based on a media workshop conducted by Lakshya)