Located deep in the Eastern Ghats, Anantagiri, home to the Valmiki tribe, is one among the 11 mandals of the Visakhapatnam agency. Not far from it is a famed tourist spot, the Araku Valley mandal. This time of the year, the landscape is awash in green with Deodar trees towering over coffee and pepper plantations. But the scenic beauty conceals an ugly reality that the authorities are still struggling to address: the trafficking of Adivasi women and girls.
Sitting on the steps of her thatched mud house in a village in Anantagiri mandal, Rajini looks downcast. She was 15 years old when she was tricked into a prostitution ring and rescued in June last by Nature, an NGO that works on rehabilitating trafficked women. She is 27 now.
Rajini recalls her childhood. She would run free in the ‘ pasupu ’ (turmeric) fields during the day, tend to the paddy field with her grandfather and help him cut the jackfruits that grow in abundance in the region. She would also play hide-and-seek with her grandmother in the mustard plantations. But the carefree days came to an abrupt end when she turned 15. The villagers looked at her differently, and some treated her with contempt. She was too young to understand why.
Two developments in 2005 changed her life forever: she attained puberty and she lost her mother. “My mother became very ill. The ailment was a mystery to us,” Rajini says. She would later discover that her mother had contracted AIDS.
Life was harsh for the young girl and her grandparents. It seemed as though money had dried up following her mother’s death. Rajini and her grandparents did not have enough to eat. In the winter months, with no winter clothing, she would lie in the kitchen to keep herself warm. Then, one day, she was approached by a woman from the plains who promised to get her a job in Hyderabad. “I never had any formal education and I knew nothing about Hyderabad,” she says. “I had never set foot beyond the hills. Getting picked up in a car from my village was a dream for me.”
Descent into hell
Once in Hyderabad, Rajini was lodged in a cage-like building that her handlers referred to as hostel. They got her registered to work in the packaging unit of a food processing company. But that was only a cover. Within a week, Rajini was pushed into sex work. “I was raped by at least 15 different men in four days,” she says. “I realised then that I had been tricked. It was there that I met another, slightly older Adivasi girl from a neighbouring village. She told me that there were more than 300 Adivasi girls from different mandals of the Visakhapatnam agency in hellholes across the country.”
From 2005 to 2010, Rajini was moved from one place to another, including New Delhi, Aurangabad and Mumbai. “We were kept on a diet of rice, starch and one curry, three meals a day. We were given a monthly ration of cosmetics, beaten if we did not oblige customers who did not want to use a condom, and taken to a doctor when we fell ill with venereal disease. During this period I came in contact with an older girl from my village who had also been trafficked. She told me that my mother was a commercial sex worker who had died of HIV/AIDS, and that was why I was not accepted in my village,” says Rajini.
In 2010, when Rajini was kept in a brothel in Hyderabad, she eloped with a driver with the help of another trafficked Adivasi girl and landed in V.Madugula, a suburb of Visakhapatnam. Her travails did not end with the elopement. The driver was already married, and he forced her back into prostitution. In 2012, she gave birth to a child who is now five. The driver abandoned her in 2015 when she was six months pregnant with her second child.
“There was no food for me and my child. As I was pregnant, I could not even go back to the profession that I hated the most. With great difficulty I gave birth to a second child. But in 2016, I was forced to sell the infant for ₹25,000. A hospital nurse helped me do it. I wanted to see him grow up, but I was not even given the address of the buyer,” she recalls.
The promise of employment
According to the 12 police stations spread across the 11 mandals, about 220 cases of missing girls have been recorded in the last five years. But other estimates, as per the records of the State Commission for Protection of Child Rights (SCPCR) and NGOs such as Nature, suggest that 1,500 women may have gone missing in the past 10 years. In 2017, the police recorded 18 cases of missing girls.
The Superintendent of Police of Visakhapatnam (Rural), Rahul Dev Sharma, says that the number could be more as many of these cases go unreported. “The girls and women come from various parts of the agency areas such as Paderu, GK Veedhi, Chintapalli, G. Madugula, Anantagiri, Koyyuru, and Araku mandals in Visakhapatnam district, Gummalaxmipuram in Vizianagaram district, Seethammapeta in Srikakulam, and Rampachodavaram in East Godavari,” says S.B. Balaraju, former chairperson of the SCPCR and the founder of Nature.
Subbalakshmi from Araku mandal, Padma from Gummalaxmipuram, and Krishnaveni from Chodavaram have similar harrowing stories to recount. All of them were rescued last year and are being rehabilitated.
In 2014, Subbalakshmi was a Class 9 student when she eloped with a mason – a married man, who was 10 years older than her. Now she is back at home after having been forced to work as a sex worker in Bengaluru and Rajahmundry. She was abandoned when she got pregnant at 18. Due to her poor health, her twins were stillborn. She is now terminally ill with AIDS. Many cases such as Subbalakshmi’s go unreported due to social stigma.
There have been instances when the young girls have found their way back to their hamlets from brothels in Goa, New Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru and Kolkata. Many have contracted AIDS. According to Balaraju, about 500 such women have returned in the last 10 years and around 200 have tested HIV positive in the Visakhapatnam agency area alone.
From sex slavery to trafficking
According to P.D. Satyapal, head of the Department of Anthropology in Andhra Pradesh University who has done considerable research on the tribals of the Eastern Ghats, the trafficking of young girls from the region goes back all the way to the British era, when there was widespread sex slavery. After the British left, trafficking picked up as the Telugu film industry grew, based in what was then known as Madras. The picturesque landscape and cool climate provided an ideal setting for outdoor shoots, and in the early 1980s filmmakers flocked to the Araku Valley. This ended up bringing the industry in contact with the Adivasis.
The first such case of trafficking that came to light involved a young woman, Madhu, who in 1982 was offered a job in the film industry. Madhu returned after about three years and took 10 girls with her from the Araku mandal. Three of them later returned, infected with HIV, says Satyapal.
The movie merchants were followed by moneylenders from Nellore in the late 1980s. But the major blow came from gemstone miners. According to Satyapal, the number of trafficking cases of tribal girls from the agency areas of Visakhapatnam and Vizianagaram shot up two decades ago, between 1990 and 2000, when gemstone miners from the plain areas forayed into the forests.
“The gemstone miners and businessmen hailed from different parts of the country, from as far as Rajasthan and Gujarat. It was they who first exposed the tribals to big money and technology such as mobile phones,” he says.
Charu Sinha, a senior Indian Police Service officer who had served as the Superintendent of Police of East Godavari and is currently posted in Telangana, says: “There are two angles to trafficking in the tribal belt. First, the young Adivasi girls from Visakhapatnam, Vizianagaram, Srikakulam, and East Godavari are taken to other towns and cities mainly by women who were victims themselves and are from the same area. These older women are paid by the kingpins to bring more girls, and the teenagers fall for the supposedly rich lifestyle displayed by the older women. The second is the attraction of city life and the film industry. The Integrated Tribal Development Authority and social welfare department hostels are ironically the places from where the girls are taken. The girls are tempted with promises of a great city life or the promise of a career in the film industry. Typically, the middlemen are young men. The girls, once caught in the vicious circle of money, deception, exploitation and social stigma, rarely turn back. They, in turn, get others from the same villages.”
The elopement route
With the rise in trafficking, certain locations are proving treacherous for Adivasi girls. Villages that are close to main roads, railway stations and bus stations, and the weekly markets in the agency areas are places where the girls are most vulnerable. It is here that they come in contact with a world that is very different from their village life. It is here that middlemen, whose network extends all over India, come and look for young and particularly poor Adivasi girls and try to entice them with flashy clothes and baubles.
Most of these cases of girls going missing are treated as elopement cases by their family members, says the DIG of Visakhapatnam (Rural), Ch. Srikanth. So, it is is difficult for these girls to file a complaint as most of these cases go unreported, he says.
As for the middlemen, the promise of marriage has become the most common way for them to get girls, Balaraju says. “In 80% of the cases, as the families object to the marriage, ‘the couple’ elopes,” he says.
How is the increase in trafficking cases being dealt with?
The Chairperson of the Andhra Pradesh State Mahila Commission, Nannapaneni Rajakumari, says, “We are planning to set up a helpline and counselling teams at the district and mandal levels to counsel young girls and women about trafficking. Apart from this, district collectors, especially those covering tribal areas such as Visakhapatnam, Vizianagaram, and Srikakulam, have been told to identify and map the vulnerable pockets and collect data. We are also working on a project of employment-centric skill development for tribal women.”
However, Sunita Krishnan of Prajwala, an NGO that rescues and rehabilitates victims of trafficking, feels that the trafficking issue is not being addressed in an appropriate manner. “Most of the trafficking cases come to light after the police conduct a raid at a brothel. But things do not progress from there. Typically, after a raid, the victims are sent to correction homes and the brothel managers are booked under the Immoral Trafficking (Prevention) Act, 1956, and sent to remand. The investigation closes with that,” she says.
She adds that the punishment is insufficient under the Act. “The police needs to use stringent Sections of the Indian Penal Code such as Sections 370 (buying or disposing of any person as a slave), 370A (exploitation of a trafficked person), and other relevant ones concerning illegal confinement, sexual exploitation, and kidnapping,” she says.
The most crucial way of solving the problem is by reaching the kingpins and middlemen, says the legal advisor to the Visakhapatnam City Police Commissionerate, K. Ramakrishna. “The issue is not being viewed holistically by the State government and the police,” he says.
While officials think of ways to tackle the problem, the women try to put their traumatic past behind them and think of the future. Rajini says she wants to educate her son. “I have requested the headmaster to admit him next year. I want him to have a proper home and a decent life,” she says, as she gets up from the steps and walks towards the village school. “I am now learning tailoring to support my family. I have also joined the NGO that rescued me. I hope to be a part of their team. I have decided to tour the tribal hamlets to educate young girls, and tell them not to get tricked by strangers who promise them jobs in cities.”
( Names of the trafficked women have been changed .)