Every year, hundreds of tribal girls go missing from the poverty-stricken tea estate areas of the Dooars. But with only two out of 10 cases reported to the police, the Delhi-North Bengal trafficking racket is operating with impunity.
NirmalaOraon looks out of her balcony every now and then, hoping to see her 15-year-old daughter emerge from the dusty road that leads to her modest hut in Sathgaiya Tea Estate in North Bengal. The tea-garden labourer gives up after sunset, only to wake up the next morning with renewed hope. For over a year now, Nirmala has been oscillating between despair and faint hope after Jyotika, her eldest daughter, went missing in December 2011.
Visit any of these troubled tea gardens in North Bengal and you’ll know something is wrong. The streets here never really bustle with activity but one sees a steady trickle, mostly of young men and some elderly men and women, from sunrise to sunset. But girls are hard to spot.
Hundreds of tribal girls, mostly teenagers, from these dying tea gardens have gone missing over the past few years. Driven out of home by poverty and the dream of a better life, these girls have fallen prey to human trafficking. They have been trapped by local ‘agents’ promising lucrative jobs in cities like Delhi. After leaving home, however, these girls have become untraceable.
Jyotika was lured by one Reshma Oraon, a young woman who was her neighbour. Reshma, who like Jyotika is also the daughter of a tea-garden labourer, shuttles between Delhi and home and is believed to have ‘smuggled’ a number of girls out of the tea gardens in the past five years.
“Reshma came home at least twice after she took away my daughter. She said Jyotika went missing after being handed over to a placement agency in Delhi. Each time I confront her, she promises to bring my daughter back home,” says Nirmala. Reshma has convinced the illiterate Nirmala not to approach the police with promises to find Jyotika. During each visit to Sathgaiya, she hands down visiting cards of numerous Delhi-based placement agencies to convince the distraught Nirmala that her daughter is indeed employed by the agencies and will come home soon.
“I took the help of some relatives and dialled some placement agencies only to find the numbers invalid. I fear my daughter has been forced into flesh trade. I do not know if I will even see her again,” Nirmala laments.
About 5km away at Chulsa, the disappearance of a 13-year-old girl has dealt a harsh blow to the mother. School dropout Monica Oraon, who worked in a saw mill till she left home on July 28, 2008, is missing. Mother Dashari Oraon kept crying for Monica for almost a year. The tears gradually dried up but the trauma affected her faculties. Now in her own world, Dashari probably does not even feel the pain any more.
Months after she went missing, Monica had called her maternal uncle Manickchand on December 16 from a mobile phone which she said belonged to a ‘bhaiya’ who visited her. “My niece sounded scared, traumatized and troubled. She said she was in a trap from which there was no escape,” Manickchand recalls.
After complaints to Mateli police station yielded no result, the desperate uncle went all the way to Delhi, running from pillar to post to trace his niece with a photograph that he showed to anyone that cared. But he returned home empty-handed.
Villagers suspect Mili Minj, who lives a few blocks away from Dashari’s hut, took the girl to Delhi. Like Reshma, Mili is also an ‘agent’ and keeps shuttling between Delhi and the tea gardens.
Mahadi Lakra of Mateli Tea garden used to get money from the agent who trafficked her 20-year-old daughter Sushmita to Delhi five years ago. There is no trace of Sushmita for the past four years and the money has stopped coming.
“I am a mother and I obviously miss my daughter but I will not go to the police. With my income of Rs 90 per day how will I feed another mouth if she comes back home? I might sound heartless but there is no other option,” says Mahadi.
Like Mahadi, Salmi Oraon a labourer in Sathgaiya Tea Estate also did not approach the police when her 17-year-old daughter went untraceable four years ago. The girl had eloped with one Naresh of Nagasuree Tea Estate. The two apparently headed for Delhi in search of work. Naresh returned a few months later, without Salmi.
A majority of cases – about eight in 10 – of missing girls go unreported. As a result, the latest CID data for West Bengal shows only 124 women went missing from Jalpaiguri district in 2010. However, the report of a joint study by Unicef, Save the Children and Burdwan University estimates 3,500 minors (including boys) were trafficked from 12 gardens of the Dooars in 2010.
“The official figure for missing girls is only the tip of the iceberg because a majority of the cases are not reported to the police. A good number of girls we have rescued with Delhi police belong to tea estates of the Dooars and most were not reported as missing,” says Rishi Kant of Shakti Vahini, a Delhi-based NGO.
The pain and anguish of the missing girls’ parents have probably been throttled by poverty and hunger. “The condition of these tea-garden labourers is pathetic. They are forced to part with their young daughters and sons as they think that sending them away ensures the children do not go hungry. Hence, most don’t approach the police,” says an officer of Mateli police station.
(Names of the victims have been changed to protect their identities)