The story of women’s trafficking in north Bengal

‘Agents’ act as trouble brews
Lean Season
Mainu Munda in her kitchen. Picture by Biplab Basak

From today, we carry a three-part story on the rise in women trafficking in north Bengal, which has coincided with a dip in the tea industry’s fortunes. The first part focuses on the closed and sick gardens.


October 2005: Police rescue five minor girls, all residents of Banarhat and Baradighi in Malbazar, from Siwan in Bihar. Lured by the promise of jobs as domestic helps, these girls were working as nothing more than bonded labourers with an orchestra group with no food and no wages.

Mid 2006: Jalpaiguri police bring back seven girls, all of them below 16 years of age, from a Mumbai red-light area. They had been taken there by “placement agents” from Kalabari in the Dooars to work as domestic helps.

The tea industry of north Bengal is going through the worst recession of its history. Life is tough at the estates and employment opportunities scarce. “Our women folk are the worst sufferers of the crisis,” said Chitta Dey, the convener of the Coordination Committee of Plantation Workers.

A visit to any closed or sick tea garden gives a clear picture of the desperation to which these women are driven.

“My husband died of TB last year,” says Mainu Munda of the closed Raipur tea estate, about 50 km from Siliguri. “The day he died, he had eaten khichdi after going without food for 16 days. We had nothing to eat, leave aside money to buy medicines.” Having recently sent her daughter Asha (16) away to Bagdogra to work as a domestic help, Mainu hopes for better times now.

Eighteen-year-old Rashma Lohar from the same estate is on the lookout for a job. “I would be more than willing to go out and work instead of waiting for the garden to reopen,” says the girl who passed Class-V. She, too, lost her father to tuberculosis about four years ago.

All these make for a fertile ground for “agents”. “The agents get active when workers and their dependants look for alternative employment avenues,” said Rangu Souriya of Kanchenjunga Nari Uddhar Kendra. “The women get tempted by short-term jobs offering good money. It is only after they reach their destinations, sometimes brothels and red-light areas, that they realise they have been trapped into bonded labour.”

Many return, but by then, it is often too late. “Two girls from a tea garden in the Patharghata gram panchayat came back very sick and died within two months,” said Sunil Jha of Child in Need Institute, which runs a UNDP project, Trafficking and HIV/AIDS, in Darjeeling district.

(To be continued)
Caught on border with no aid around
Bahar Besra of Chotobadra on the India-Nepal border with a photograph of her daughter Sonamoni Hembram (15), missing since 2005. Picture by Biplab Basak

Siliguri/Panitanki, Jan. 24: Bloated women laden with contraband goods around their waists used to be a common sight on Siliguri-Panitanki buses.

Thanks to globalisation, which has filled Indian stores with foreign goods, and the stringent measures taken by enforcement agencies, the number of women working for smuggling cartels operating in Nepal and India has visibly reduced. But does that indicate better times for the women of the Naxalbari-Panitanki-Khoribari belt’

The answer is exactly the opposite. The area, which lies close to the India-Nepal border, is witnessing a mass exodus of women.

“Many go out in the name of work and are not heard of again. There are others who go missing from home,” said Tamali Dutta, in-charge of Bhoruka, a community-based organisation working in the border areas. “Almost invariably, they end up being trafficked, which comes to light much later when someone returns with tales of woe or some kind of illness, or when someone is rescued.”

Absence of development in the area and the crisis in the tea industry have combined to ensure that there are few employment opportunities at home. Cross-border rackets thrive on local support and women are soft targets.

“Drug addiction, prostitution, smuggling — you name it and it is there,” said Dutta.

“In November last year, we caught a woman while she was trying to leave Fulbari village with a group of seven girls,” said Rajesh Kumar Minj, the Buraganj gram panchayat coordinator of Bhoruka. “She said she was taking the girls to work as domestic helps in Sikkim, but sounded unconvincing. We informed the police and freed the girls.”

Most of these cases go unreported. “The tribal families have many children to look after, which is why they don’t spend much time chasing a lost child,” Minj added.

That is why the Darjeeling police records for 2006 show only 31 instances where FIRs were lodged and cases initiated, which itself is twice the number of such cases in 2005 (17). “These were registered as abduction cases,” said Darjeeling police chief Rajesh Subarna. “In 2006, 28 girls and the year before, all 17 were rescued,” he added. In 2004 too, the police have records of only 17 girls who were “abducted” and later rescued.

In a grossly understated reflection of trafficking in the area, the Darjeeling police have registered only three cases last year under the Prevention of Immoral Trafficking Act. As Debasmita Dasgupta, the project coordinator of an NGO, Sanlaap, says: “Trafficking can never be measured. If it were possible to measure trafficking, it would have been possible to control it too.”

(To be continued)

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Back, with stories to hide

Siliguri/Jalpaiguri, Jan. 25: Surobala (name changed) could not believe her eyes when her missing daughter returned home in Panitanki, about 35 km from here, last year.

She was even more pleased to find that Geeta (name changed) had come home after a year with a husband. “She is pregnant and will have a baby in the month of Falgun (February-March),” chuckles the 50-something Surobala, who used to smuggle contraband goods from Kakarvitta in Nepal to Siliguri two or three years ago.

What she does not know, as the information was withheld by a local NGO, is that Geeta had been in a Mumbai brothel till she was rescued by her client-turned-lover. The two are now married and live in Mumbai.

“We have been able to bring back a good number of women to their families, but in all cases we had to hide the real story of trafficking,” said Dipashree Roy of Jalpaiguri Mahila Kalyan Sangha, which runs a short-stay home for rescued women in Jalpaiguri.

When girls go missing, police usually register a missing person’s diary, which is not a proper FIR (needed to initiate a case). “It is only when a family is able to make a specific complaint with the names of suspects that we are able to register cases and start a probe,” said Darjeeling superintendent of police Rajesh Subarna.

During her recent visit to the region, V. Mohini Giri, former chairperson of the National Women’s Commission, criticised the government for sleeping over recommendations made 10 years ago. For one, there is not a single short-stay home in Darjeeling district to provide temporary shelter. Border police stations do not even have separate lock-ups for women.

District social welfare officer Anindya Choudhury said the government is now planning to take up schemes like Swadhar to set up short-stay homes. “We will have a meeting with all NGOs and government agencies on this issue in February,” he said.

After all, few girls are as lucky as Geeta.


The series was first published in The Telegraph, Calcutta, in January 24-26, 2007.

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