On the morning of July 19, the same day that a video clip of the sexual assault on women in Manipur went viral and shook the country, social media threw up another series of disturbing images. Except these were from a middle-class neighbourhood in Delhi, and featured a couple, the woman in pilot’s uniform, being thrashed by about 15 people, including women. A few videos focused on an emaciated child, who had burn marks on her arm, injuries on her face, and blood in her left eye. She looked scared, lost, and disoriented.
The same morning, Delhi Police said the couple — Poornima Bagchi, 33, an IndiGo pilot, and Kaushik Bagchi, 36, an aviation engineer with Vistara — were accused of hiring the 10-year-old girl from the video as a stay-at-home help to care for their four-year-old son. The police said she had been physically and mentally assaulted on multiple occasions. The girl’s family and neighbours came together, pulled the couple out of the four-storey building in Dwarka, where Poornima and her husband live in a two-bedroom rented apartment, and beat them up.
“Apart from taking care of the boy, they forced her to do other household chores — cleaning, washing clothes and utensils, and even cooking sometimes. They regularly tortured her, thrashing her, and burning her with an iron,” says a senior police officer. Her family says no wages were paid. According to Delhi Police data, 311 children have been rescued from factories and domestic work so far in 2023.
A few hours later, the couple was arrested and booked under Sections 323 (voluntarily causing hurt), 324 (voluntarily causing hurt by dangerous weapons or means), 342 (wrongful confinement), and 370 (buying or disposing of any person as a slave) of the IPC, provisions under the Child Labour Act, and Section 75 (assaulting and abusing a child) of the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015. They are now in 14-day judicial custody in Tihar jail. Both were derostered by their respective airlines.
Priya (name changed to protect identity), the child who lived with the couple and their son, was rescued, and is now at a Child Welfare Committee (CWC) shelter home. She is being counselled through her trauma.
“She was crying a lot, and clung to my mother,” says her brother, an eight or nine-year-old, who is recovering after a bout of typhoid.
Sarla Devi (name changed), Priya’s mother, breaks down: “They would have killed my daughter in some time if my nanad (husband’s sister) had not rescued her.”
The 500-metre divide
Like many urban working couples in nuclear families and no family support in the city, Poornima and Kaushik needed both a nanny and someone to do the housework when they were away on duty. They had moved to the colony less than two months ago. Like many others, they too came to the city for work.
Priya had come to Delhi about two years ago with her parents and six siblings from Berua village in Bihar’s Muzaffarpur district. As farm labourers and Dalits, they were among the most marginalised in the village. “Then I met with an accident, and we had to borrow money for treatment. This threw us into severe debt, and we had no money even to feed our children,” says Anil (name changed), Priya’s father. This coincided with the death of his parents. “So, we decided to come to Delhi, so that my wife and I could work, and our children could at least eat.”
They took a room just two lanes behind the blue-and-white striped building where Priya would eventually be tortured and allegedly made to sleep on the balcony, exposed to the elements. In one room of a chawl-like building, they cook, eat, and sleep, sharing a bathroom with families of other migrants from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.
Both homes are in Dwarka Sector 8’s Bagdola area, where planes landing in Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport fly so close that the noise breaks into conversations.
The assault comes to light
One day in May, Kaushik came to meet Priya’s father at their room to ask if she would come to work. “He promised good education, food, and clothes. He said he would raise my daughter like his own,” says Anil, adding that Kaushik assured them that she had to just play with their son.
Priya moved into the Bagchis’ house in May. On July 19, her bua (father’s sister), Rani Devi (name changed), who worked as a domestic help in the same locality, was passing by. She spotted her niece cleaning the balcony. Rani claims Poornima was hitting Priya from behind, shouting at her to “clean properly”.
“When I yelled from the road, the woman [Poornima] hid behind a wall. My niece was so traumatised that she signalled to me to keep quiet and leave,” she says. “I went to their house on the second floor with one of their [the accused’s] neighbours, who had also witnessed the assault. They did not open the door till people gathered and threatened to call the police.” Gradually, the crowd propelled the couple downstairs.
At the time, Priya’s parents were at their village in Bihar, tending to one of their daughters who was sick. “I got a call from Madam [Poornima]. She was yelling and saying something related to my daughter, which I could not understand. So, I thought something had happened to my child,” says Sarla. “I told her to let me talk to either my daughter or my nanad, or I said I would call the police,” she says. Poornima handed the phone over to Rani, who explained the situation.
After the rescue, Sarla called her daughter. “After two months, the first time I saw her was on a video call. Her face was battered, and I began to cry,” she says. The family doesn’t own a smartphone and needed to borrow one from someone in the village. Entrusting their sick daughter to family members, they caught the first train to Delhi, reaching the city only the following evening.
Families, friends, and neighbours
At the Dwarka South police station, a senior officer says the couple has been “deceptive during questioning, claiming that the child sustained injuries after falling from the stairs and burn marks from touching hot utensils”.
At home, Priya’s family alleges that their daughter was hit often with a rolling pin on her face and with a screwdriver on her back and thighs. Sarla also claims they got about “50 to 60 calls” from the Bagchis. “She [Poornima] called me before the police took them and even from the police station several times, as she was talking in a hushed voice. The woman first asked me if I was recording the call. I told her I have a simple, cheap phone. Then she suggested that both the families sit down and settle the matter. She said, ‘Take as much money as you want,’” Sarita says. “I told her we haven’t sold our daughter and disconnected the call.”
Anil cannot believe what has happened to his daughter. He describes her as the brightest among his children. “In the village, she and one of her brothers were studying in Class IV, but here we could not send them to school,” he says.
Vibha, a neighbour and fellow domestic worker, speaks about the couple trying to accuse Priya of theft once the family descended on them. Rani, who is the reason Priya was rescued, says, “Madam threw a ₹500 note at her and said, ‘Jaa apna ilaaj kara le (Go, get yourself treated).’”
The neighbours are angry, demanding strict punishment for the couple.
Anant Sharma, an advocate and legal adviser to the resident welfare association of D-block, Sector 8, Dwarka, believes that the entire episode was avoidable. “Why did the girl’s family trust someone else with their daughter? And if they did, why did they not constantly check on her?” he says, adding that when they went to Bihar, relatives could have looked her up.
Anil says, “Whenever we called, they made excuses so we couldn’t speak to her, or if they gave her the phone, the woman [Poornima] would stand right there so that my daughter couldn’t tell us the truth.” Once, Priya had complained about the woman beating her. “When I asked Madam about it, she said she had hit her lightly because she was being mischievous,” Sarla says.
Away from Delhi
In Maharashtra’s Nagpur, Poornima’s family is worried. “Those videos were circulating here as well and we have been getting calls about it,” says her sister’s husband, requesting not to be named. He runs a construction company and says that it is difficult to believe what has happened.
He describes the couple as “very nice” and “professional people”, adding that had this happened in Maharashtra “hum sambhaal lete (we would have taken care of it)”. He says Poornima lost her father, a government servant in Maharashtra, in 2005, after which her mother ran a small grocery store to manage the family’s finances. She too passed away in 2019.
“Poornima herself has struggled a lot to become a pilot. She studied on scholarship and even took up a private job to help her family. She had to undergo so much training to be a pilot, and even after that she did not get a job for a long time,” he says. Poornima married Kaushik in 2016 and had joined IndiGo as a pilot only about seven-eight months ago. “After her training, she had her baby, so again she did not work for a few years,” he adds. Their son is currently with Kaushik’s family in Jamshedpur, Jharkhand.
He is angry that the community had thrashed the couple. In Delhi, he says, this sort of thing is common. “Bahut badi galti nahi hai (It wasn’t a big mistake), but the matter got highlighted because of their respectable jobs. We don’t have family in Delhi, so I travel there for the case. It’s getting very difficult to manage.” He also says there was a chance he too could be attacked.
‘Entrapment and exploitation’
Activists and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have raised their voice in support of Priya and other domestic workers facing abuse.
Maya John, convener, Gharelu Kamgar Union (GKU), a domestic workers’ union, terms 24x7 house help employment a “systematic trap and slavery”. She explains that the reason a large number of minors are involved in child labour, mainly domestic work, is due to the social and economic condition of their families.
“The scope of child labour emerges from the plight of adult workers. We don’t have effective policies that ensure sufficient wages to adult workers. Hence the burden falls on the children of impoverished households to supplement family income,” she says. “Kids are paid even less and are forced to work much beyond their physical and mental capacity.”
“We don’t have effective policies that ensure sufficient wages to adult workers. Hence the burden falls on the children of impoverished households to supplement family income”Maya JohnConvener, Gharelu Kamgar Union
The GKU convener says that tribals and Dalits who migrate to big cities from the poorer regions of India such as West Bengal, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, and Jharkhand are the easiest targets. She also questions the government’s commitment towards making effective policies for domestic workers. “Even after 12 years of its adoption, India has not ratified the International Labour Organisation Convention 189 on domestic workers,” she says. It advocates for the rights of domestic workers such as a safe and healthy working environment, and fixed wages.
Bachpan Bachao Andolan (BBA), an NGO working for child rights, is helping the survivor and her family with legalities, compensation, and counselling. Dhananjay Tingal, executive director of the NGO, says, “Assault leaves a child in trauma. Children begin to fear similar situations or surroundings, and develop insecurities. They even fear making basic mistakes that children are allowed to make.”
The organisation is working to get a relief certificate, which helps a person rescued from bonded labour secure financial and other benefits from the Central government. Just this year, the BBA has rescued 773 children from child labour, of which five were rescued from housesholds.
At the shelter home, Anil says, a policewoman asked Priya what she wants to be when she grows up. “She said, ‘I want to be a cop like you.’”