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Human trafficking in West Bengal | Living on the edge

As children, these women were trafficked from the Sundarban, in West Bengal. Their panicked parents went to the police for help, but once they were rescued, they were no longer accepted into the communities they left. A deep dive into how the shamed survivors live on the periphery of society

January 05, 2024 01:24 am | Updated February 08, 2024 04:29 pm IST

Rubika, 22, from South 24 Parganas, was trafficked in the Delhi-National Capital Region by a neighbour a decade ago.

Rubika, 22, from South 24 Parganas, was trafficked in the Delhi-National Capital Region by a neighbour a decade ago. | Photo Credit: DEBASISH BHADURI

In Sundipukuria village, South 24 Parganas, West Bengal, a 5-foot-wide canal demarcates the village from a marshy stretch, where human settlement is difficult. The firm land is home to ‘respectable’ families, the marshy stretch, to a “noshto meye” (‘corrupted’ woman). A wooden plank placed tenuously over the canal into which sewage is emptied, connects the two worlds.

Sultana (name changed to protect privacy), 30, is a survivor of trafficking. She lives in a hut with her 10-year-old twin daughters. None of them is allowed to cross over to the ‘other side’. “My father and brothers all live in the village, but they don’t speak to me or my daughters ever since I was rescued, eight years ago,” says Sultana, breaking down.

She was trafficked for prostitution by an older woman who had lured her with the prospect of a well-paying job. Sultana had bumped into the woman several times at a local market she’d frequent to buy zari for her embroidery consignments. When her ageing father was hospitalised in a Kolkata government hospital, the two got talking. “She knew that my husband had abandoned me after I gave birth to twin daughters, and that I was all by myself, with little support from my family,” she says.

The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) report for 2022 reveals that 40,725 women and 10,571 girls went missing from West Bengal that year, the highest numbers in the country. A senior officer from one of the State’s Anti-Human Trafficking Units, on the condition of anonymity, says that two districts — South and North 24 Parganas — have been contributing the highest number of missing cases over many years now.

The NCRB report says traffickers often exploit girls’ and women’s vulnerabilities by making false promises of a new job, better living conditions, and support to their families. “Such promises may appear legitimate to people, but it makes many men, women and children easy prey for exploitation,” it says.

Lies and the law

Sultana is one of many women from the delta region of West Bengal who got caught in the web of promises of a better future. She left one of her children with her landlady and hopped on the train with the other, for a job in Howrah. The children were then two years old. After deboarding at Sealdah she recalls saying she’d like to buy some food from an eatery on the station. “The woman convinced me that I should have her tiffin instead of spending money on a meal from roadside shops,” adds Sultana.

That was the last clear memory she has. When she regained consciousness, she found herself in an AC three-tier compartment of a train and could overhear that they were heading towards Kanpur. “I looked around and saw that my daughter was sitting next to a stranger. I was threatened: if I spoke a word, she would be harmed,” she remembers.

The two were blindfolded and taken to an apartment in Delhi. Over the next eight months, they were sold twice. “I was first sold for ₹70,000 and my daughter for ₹20,000 to a massage parlour. When I attempted running away, they sold me to a brothel in Nepal,” says Sultana. Here, the women had allegedly chosen prostitution as a profession, so the owner sent Sultana back to those who had sold her.

After a couple of attempts at escaping, in exchange for a ring she was wearing, Sultana reached the New Delhi railway station and boarded a train, leaving behind her toddler. When the travelling ticket examiner, also from the delta region, learnt about her ordeal, he contacted the West Bengal police and social workers in the trafficking space. After a few months of doing the rounds of the police station, and bribing them ₹50,000 to rescue her daughter, the two were united. Those who trafficked her from Bengal were arrested; those from Delhi were not.

When Sultana reached her village, instead of being greeted, she was warned to stay away from her parents’ home. “My brothers and sisters-in-law said that if I ever set foot in our village they would beat me up,” she recalls. When she appealed to them, they pushed her to the ground, she adds. “Once, my children were walking next to my neighbour’s children. The family crossed the bridge and brutally assaulted me,” she says. “They broke my clay oven and threw the cooked food in the canal next to my house.” Sultana bites at the skin around her fingernails, trying to control her tears. She says her only reason for living is her children.

Sultana, whose husband abandoned her, making her vulnerable to trafficking, with her twin daughters.

Sultana, whose husband abandoned her, making her vulnerable to trafficking, with her twin daughters. | Photo Credit: DEBASISH BHADURI

Some support

Rubika (name changed), 22, from Chaltaberia village, South 24 Parganas, who was trafficked to the Delhi-National Capital Region by a neighbour a decade ago, too suffers from similar woes. The only difference is that she has a husband to support her and her children, but at a cost.

“After I was rescued from the traffickers, I did not tell my family that I was sold to a brothel, so despite the stigma of having spent many nights outside my home, my husband, then 16, accepted me,” says Rubika. “However, if I spend a minute more on my phone or try to step out of my house, someone reports to him that I am possibly going to meet a client,” she says.

Rubika and Sultana do not have family or friends to confide in. With an increasing number of social workers in the area, the two have found each other and other women who were trafficked from the region. “I sometimes call Sultana didi whenever I hear whispers of neighbours gossiping about me or when my husband beats me up suspecting that I am seeing other men. She is the only person who understands how permanent our scars are,” says Rubika, sobbing.

She has not been out of the house for anything other than chores, and those too are limited. “Every month on the pretext of buying materials for my embroidery work, I go to the office of KEYA [Katakhali Empowerment and Youth Association, an NGO that works with trafficked women], to chat with social workers and a few women who are survivors of trafficking,” she says, adding that these are the only people who do not judge her.

Shoshti Naskar, a social worker with KEYA, says rehabilitation has been a challenge in the districts of North and South 24 Parganas. “Families express their grief over their missing daughters, but once they have spent nights outside their domestic rekha (boundary), they are no longer interested in having them back,” says Naskar.

With the continuing efforts of social workers, the region has seen a gradual shift in the attitude of public servants towards the survivors of trafficking. “Earlier, those working at fair price shops would deny giving them their ration. Now they have started giving them their rightful share without bothering them,” adds Shahila Khatun, another social worker with KEYA.

For most social workers the challenge of rehabilitation is secondary. “The first challenge is for the kin of the missing girl or woman to register a complaint with the local police,” says Khatun. Presuming that the child or woman has eloped, police in the region are reluctant to lodge first information reports (FIRs), she adds.

Namita, who has started a grocery store in her village in North 24 Parganas from the compensation money given by the State government.

Namita, who has started a grocery store in her village in North 24 Parganas from the compensation money given by the State government. | Photo Credit: DEBASISH BHADURI

Difficult environments

At the Hingalganj police station, North 24 Parganas, two families, neighbours, try to register complaints about their daughters who had gone missing on November 20. Helplessly waiting outside for the police to pay attention to them, the father of the 12-year-old says it has been five hours since they’d arrived. Minutes later, the officer in-charge, Animesh Daw, says there are only a handful of missing girls and women, and no trafficking cases in the past two years. “Most of the missing cases are of minors and adult women eloping. These families just overreact,” says Daw.

Khatun says the police register a POCSO case when those under 18 are involved. “In many cases because the girls leave their houses by choice, the police refuse to apply Sections 370 (forced labour and slavery) and 370A (exploitation of trafficked persons) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC).”

Of late, the region has seen a large number of cases where traffickers lure women pretending to have dialled a wrong number, says Aptar Ali, a social worker with KEYA in the Basanti block of South 24 Parganas. The block has a missing girl in every fourth household, he says. “Every other household here has generational traffickers. The ‘familiar strangers’ identify vulnerable women, then pass on the information to traffickers outside the region,” adds Ali.

Girls, mostly between 12 and 14 years, stuck in the rut of poverty, with little chance of a better future, fall for the lure of a better life. “What is there in their villages? The lands are too saline for crops to grow properly, they have little to no job opportunities, the men from this region have all migrated to different parts of the country in search of jobs, and the women and the elderly have a variety of diseases from the ecological changes in the region,” says a frustrated Ali.

He has been campaigning vigorously against child trafficking in South 24 Parganas, conducting awareness sessions in schools and among adults in villages, and distributing booklets with helpline numbers.

The migration in the region has added to the vulnerabilities of the children in the area. After the region was hit in 2009 by Aila, the strong tropical cyclone, a large number of men and women migrated to the southern States in search of work. “The crops for the season had all been destroyed and the after-effects of the storm were such that the locals could not harvest for the next few years. This left behind a large number of toddlers to be taken care of by their ageing grandparents,” says Khatun. Many unsupervised children fell prey to traffickers.

Tashi (name changed), 13, had gone missing from home on November 11 last year. The teenager was being brought up by her 62-year-old ailing grandfather, while both her parents had migrated to Karnataka for close to a decade now. “I registered the complaint with the coastal police, but it’s been over two weeks and there has been no news of her,” says her father.

For social workers, a growing issue was minors eloping from their houses and later being sold to brothels by their ‘husbands’. “Tashi’s location has been tracked in Karnataka, but because the local cops do not have the resources, they are unable to investigate further,” says Naskar.

When The Hindu visited Basanti block to meet the family of Minara (name changed), who had been missing for over a decade, they rushed out thinking that the team had come to tell them about the whereabouts of their daughter. “Every time we see a car in our village, we feel our sister has been found,” says Minara’s elder brother. Between waiting and doing the rounds of the police station, most families forget how their missing daughters looked.

Amid the despondency, Namita (name changed), a survivor of human trafficking, started a small grocery store with the compensation she had received from the State government, seven years ago. “Initially people would avoid coming to my store because of the stigma, but now many come, and even strike up a conversation with me,” says Namita, who aspires to expand the general store. She is also one of the campaigners against human trafficking in her village in North 24 Parganas.

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