The missing daughters of Odisha’s border villages

The Crime in India 2022 report, released by the National Crime Record Bureau says 1,120 persons were trafficked from Odisha during the year 2022, the highest in the country; Lulkidhi village has many such girls, whose family laments their loss

December 09, 2023 10:17 pm | Updated December 10, 2023 10:55 am IST - LUlKIDIHI

Karmela Kujur cries after talking about her missing daughter while she sits outside of her home in Odisha’s Sundargarh district. 

Karmela Kujur cries after talking about her missing daughter while she sits outside of her home in Odisha’s Sundargarh district.  | Photo Credit: Biswaranjan Rout

A visitor to Odisha’s Lulkidihi village in Sundargarh district, will see their phone light up with BSNL’s welcome messages from Odisha, Chhattisgarh, and Jharkhand. But before the one-nation-one-number plan was implemented in 2015, the now 60-year-old Victor Minz would cross State borders countless times, from this village bordering the other two States, to access cheaper rates and better phone networks, just to make anxious calls to New Delhi and Mumbai. He was desperately looking for his second daughter, Rati (name changed to protect privacy), then about 16. Two decades since Rati left for New Delhi to work as a house-help, Mr. Minz wonders if he will ever know what befell her. The police complaints led nowhere.

The Crime in India 2022 report, released by the National Crime Record Bureau (NCRB), says 1,120 persons were trafficked from Odisha in 2022, the highest in the country. Though with 1,816 person rescued, the State also has the highest number of human trafficked victims rescued in 2022. But as of December 2022, as many as 7,565 children under 18 continue to be missing. Odisha ranks sixth in the table of missing persons, with 41,759 people still not traced.

Residents of Lulkidihi village walk to work in Odisha’s Sundargarh district.

Residents of Lulkidihi village walk to work in Odisha’s Sundargarh district. | Photo Credit: Biswaranjan Rout

In Lulkidihi, many daughters have gone missing, leaving parents in despair. Some families maintain contact, thanks to mobile networks, preventing their children from becoming statistics on the missing persons list. Most people here are from tribal communities and speak a linguistic mashup of Odia, Hindi, Sadri (the local dialect), and Chhattisgarhi. Routes to India’s metro cities are mapped out even before girls take their Class X examinations.

Lulkidihi comes under Balisankara block. At a conservative estimate by the locals, over 300 girls have travelled from here to work in metros, some under compulsion, many with consent. Arun Kumar Sahoo, a concerned youth in Lulkidihi, says, “Teenage girls often come into contact with suspicious agencies. Some relatives turn out to be agents too.”

Gadhatoli, an area in Lulkidihi, houses 30 families. A brief survey reveals that 10 girls have sought employment as domestic helpers in Mumbai and New Delhi. The dearth of opportunities and employment options in Lulkidihi prompted them to seek out livelihoods there.

Rasmita Kujur, 50, is a mother to three daughters who have embarked on a journey to Mumbai. After they finished school, they sought out and got placed in homes, the oldest via an agency, and the other two through the oldest. Anticipation fills the air as her daughters plan to come back on Christmas eve, a tradition observed by the majority of Christian households here.

But in the neighbouring Bondega panchayat, for Nuas and Blasos Lakra, Christmas is bleak. Mr. Nuas Lakra’s sibling, Mary (name changed) is ‘lost’ in New Delhi. “There was no mobile phone then. I could not get in touch with my sister. Despite our tireless efforts, and with regular follow-ups with the police, we do not know where she is,” he says. Mary had left when she was 13, with a fellow villager.

Blasos Lakra (right), his son and daughter at their home at Lulkidihi in Odisha’s Sundargarh district.

Blasos Lakra (right), his son and daughter at their home at Lulkidihi in Odisha’s Sundargarh district. | Photo Credit: Biswaranjan Rout

For Mr. Blasos Lakra, the pain stretches over 16 years as his eldest daughter disappeared soon after she had landed in Mumbai. “I went to Dadar and Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminal in search of my daughter. I never could find her,” he says, heartbroken. She too was 13.

According to the Sundargarh district police records, only three missing cases of missing girls were reported in 2021, but in 2022, only one case was filed. This is in sharp contrast to survey conducted by Pragati, a non-government organisation, in 70 villages in 11 out of 17 blocks in Sundargarh, about 14 years ago.

“Our survey revealed that 44,707 girls had migrated to various cities for employment, primarily as domestic helpers. At that time, over 13,000 girls were untraceable,” said Subhashree Ray, a Pragati associate and current member of the Child Welfare Committee in Sundargarh.

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While government initiatives like subsidised rice and other welfare measures have reduced this exodus, girls still venture to big cities to work as domestic workers without adequate protective measures.

A senior police officer in the district said organised networks are operating in the district identifying young women who need work, and luring them with the promise of a high pay in the cities. Girls get ₹8,000 to 10,000 per month, and often save for their weddings. The district police claimed that they had run a campaign where they had urged people to enrol with district labour offices before heading out of the district for any work.

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