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Waiting for Christmas

Suffering and HopePUBLISHED IN THE SUNDAY INDIAN EXPRESS

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As one domestic help’s story roils two countries, DEEPU SEBASTIAN EDMOND meets the rescued Vasant Kunj girl who is now hoping to study again, her mother who can’t afford to bring a second daughter home, and the others like them streaming out of Jharkhand to work in Indian homes — on hope and chance

She smiles and sways to the music as her housemates sing a song composed by their teachers. “Don’t go to Delhi, Mumbai/ If you go, your life will be spoilt/ Don’t go just because someone invites you/ If you go, you will find yourself all alone,” go the lyrics, in Sadri language.

It was two and a half years ago that the 18-year-old made that trip, which ended with her rescue from a home in Vasant Kunj, New Delhi, in September, tortured and traumatised.

A month in hospital, seven plastic surgeries and a brief visit home later, the girl is at the Sakhi centre of the Union HRD Ministry’s Mahila Samakhya Society in Khunti district, where she has been staying since November 23. A scarf covers her head and neck, concealing the scars that remain.

Sitting at the back of the class, she speaks about her experience with startling clarity, unlike other trafficked girls. Rishi Kant of Shakti Vahini, the NGO that helped rescue her, says counselllors spent long hours with her. “It paid off,” he says.

She did not want to go to Delhi, she recalls. “Dorothy said I could learn Hindi if I go… We were doing badly that year. My father was dead; we were borrowing food.” Dorothy, the “agent” from Sahibganj who took girls like the 18-year-old to big cities for work, has since been arrested by the Delhi Police.

***

The Muri Express from Tatanagar/Rourkela to Jammu Tawi covers 10 of Jharkhand’s 24 districts, taking 30 hours to reach Delhi from Ranchi. Most of the stops it makes, in Maoist-hit districts such as Latehar, Palamu and Garhwa, are one-minute halts long after darkness has swallowed up the sleepy hamlets. However, at almost every halt, the train finds eager passengers — in one-crop Jharkhand, Muri Express is the way out for people seeking unskilled labour in North India. It’s also the preferred mode of transport for domestic help like the Vasant Kunj girl, working in most of India’s homes.

For many like the 18-year-old, the journeys end in tragedy. However, that hasn’t slowed the stream of people boarding Muri Express with “agents”. Apart from this train, Sampark Kranti and Swarna Jayanti Expresses have been identified as important in the trafficking chain.

Madan Kumar Sahu of NGO Sahiya says the agents have got wiser. Earlier they took their victims in large groups and got on the train from Ranchi. “Now, no group is larger than five-six girls. They have stopped using big cities as transit points. Smaller stations are safer,” says Sahu.

On the Muri Express, three people sit leaning against each other on the bottom berth. They look no older than 15, but the boy claims to be above 18, and the father of an infant that the girl next to him is holding.

 “We are from Gumla district’s Ghaghra panchayat and are going to Himachal Pradesh’s Palampur for work,” says the boy, refusing to give his name. The other two with him are his “wife and sister”, he adds. “My sister is still in school; I intend to enroll her when we get to Palampur.” He has been making the trip for four-five years though, he admits, long before he turned 18.

This is peak time for migration, after Diwali, when work on the fields is done but for harvesting.

“My elder brother will take care of the crop,” says Laldev Oraon (35) from Lohardaga district’s Kisko block, who is travelling with his wife and child less than a year old on the train. “We will travel to Ambala and go to Chandigarh. We have been going to Chandigarh for two years or so. Earlier, it was Shimla,” he says.

Oraon doesn’t have a job waiting for him at Chandigarh, but is not worried. “We will ask around for construction work,” he shrugs. He says he can earn up to Rs 300 a day, more than his wife.

***

After a nearly 30-hour ride, three nervous girls hasten out as the Jharkhand Swarna Jayanti Express chugs in at the Anand Vihar Railway Station in East Delhi. The train is late by more than four hours due to the dense fog.

The girls stand out among the station crowd and are immediately swarmed by autorickshaw drivers. The girl who takes the lead says ‘Ashok Vihar’ repeatedly, to no one in particular.

Surender Rawat follows the girls, hesitantly. “Pata nahin (Don’t know),” he mumbles, admitting he has no way of spotting the girls trafficked even after years of waiting around at various railway stations in the National Capital Region. Rawat works for Shakti Vahini, an NGO that has brought out most of the cases of trafficked Jharkhand girls in cities.

As a driver agrees to take the girls, Rawat, along with a woman staff member of the NGO, hurriedly approaches them. However, one of the girls, Sushma Topno, says they don’t need him. “We are here of our own accord,” she declares. Rawat says girls unwilling to speak out are one of their biggest obstacles.

In this case, Sushma and the other two girls are taken to the police station on the railway station premises. All three of them insist they are above 18 — while Topno claims to be 19, Sunita Kumari says she is 22 and Anju Kumari 19. Sushma says they are on their way to meet “Raju bhaiyya” in Ashok Vihar Phase-III. She has a visiting card of ‘Sharda Placement Service’.

It’s not their first visit to Delhi, and their testimonies indicate at least two were minors the first time. “We like this,” says Sushma of Somner village in Gumla district. “I first came three years back. I don’t remember where I worked first. The next year, I was in Gurgaon, then Janakpuri.”

Sushma also claims that Sunita and Anju, both from Khunti, are her relatives.

All the three say they are paid at the end of their 11-month contract, a common trend. At the end of every 11 months, the girls are shifted, ensuring that the agent earns a commission off them each year from their new employer.

Rawat says they can’t do much for the Sushmas, Sunitas and Anjus, if they don’t talk. “I would normally have registered an FIR and tried to verify their ages.” Instead Pranjita Borah, who also works with Shakti Vahini, counsels the girls, writes down helpline numbers for them and hails them an auto.

***

The Vasant Kunj girl arrived in similar conditions in Delhi two years ago. And the initial years were not bad, she says. “I was in Noida first, then Lajpat Nagar. They treated me well, even let me call my mother. Dorothy would come every month, and collect my salary. I never got anything. At the end of 11 months, she would take me to her house and put me in a new place within three-four days,” she says.

It was in June 2013 that she was employed by Vandana Dhir, then-country communications director of French company Alstom, in Vasant Kunj. The first few days went without incident. “Didi (Dhir) let me sleep in a room. I also started cooking,” the girl says.

But only five days later, according to the girl, Dhir got angry when she said she wanted to talk to her younger sister, a 16-year-old working as a domestic help in Mumbai. “She was on her way home and I just wanted to make sure she was safe,” says the 18-year-old. “She tore the paper with my sister’s mobile phone number on it and started beating me. She beat me with her hands.”

After that, she was given food just once a day and allowed to only sleep in the bathroom, she says. “Didi would latch the door from the outside.”

She was allowed outside only to walk the dog along with Dhir’s aged mother. “The latter never beat me,” she adds. “Whenever her daughter did, she would plead, ‘Dolly, don’t!’.”

Over the four months that she spent at the Dhir home, the girl says, the beatings got worse. “She attacked me with the hard end of a broom as I bathed,” she says. Once she was hit with the plug of a laptop charger. “I started bleeding. Most of the damage to my scalp is because of that injury,” she says.

At the time of the rescue, she had burn marks as well as scars from knife attacks, and her wounds were open. She was also found without any clothes on.

***

According to data available with the Criminal Investigation Department of Jharkhand, 252 cases of trafficking have been registered in the state since 2001, with the accused being chargesheeted in 181 of them. The Criminal Law Amendment Act, 2013, introduced human trafficking into the IPC, substituting slavery. Anybody who for the purpose of “exploitation” recruits, transports, shelters, transfers, or receives a person through threats, force or deception and inducement can be charged with trafficking. The term “exploitation” covers sexual exploitation. Incidentally, the consent of the victim is immaterial in a determination of the offence of trafficking.

A total of 414 girls have been “rescued” till now, as per Jharkhand records. There has been only one conviction: on May 16, 2012, five traffickers were sentenced to 5-10 years in Ranchi.

The 252 cases pale in comparison to the numbers in a document that the CID is now circulating. It lists details of 181 “placement agencies” and 34 individuals identified as “kingpins”.

During a November 11-12 public hearing, the Jharkhand government told the National Commission for Protection of Children’s Rights (NCPCR) that an action plan on human trafficking was in the works. Social Welfare Secretary Rajeev Arun Ekka went on to claim that they had had a meeting only about a week back and that the plan would be ready in 15 days. However, that remains an empty promise, with no meetings held since then.

The Sunday Express accessed the “action plan”, and it’s far from the finishing line. “It has not incorporated any of the recommendations I had made for a Jharkhand state action plan. This includes the use of village chowkidars, something West Bengal has done to good results,” says Aloke Kumar Tikoo, member of the NCPCR.

The draft also needs to be updated to account for amendments in the law and policy since 2012 — such as the institution of Anti Human Trafficking Units and the POCSO (Protection of Children from Sexual Offences) Act — and also proposes about nine new bodies to monitor human trafficking even as the existing ones continue to fail.

Activists worry traffickers are now shifting base to the National Capital Region and moving girls elsewhere almost as soon as they reach Delhi. “There are many placement agencies opening their offices in Gurgaon. Sometimes traffickers alight with the girls in Ghaziabad to avoid rescue operations,” says Shakti Vahini’s Rawat.

***

At the Gurgaon Sector-21 Arushi Home for Girls operated by NGO Salaam Baalak Trust, a 15-year-old is sulking. “She cuts her wrists often,” says Khusboo Sharma, the warden. The girl says she is from West Bengal’s Siliguri, but the authorities have not been able to track down her house despite seemingly precise directions from her. “I was brought here by Kedar Agency in Siliguri. I was doing well in my Holy Cross school. I want to go back,” she insists.

However, her future is uncertain even if she is sent back. Her parents are dead and, according to her, “My didi sold my sister and me to the agency. I don’t know where they took me to in Delhi. All I know is that I ran away within a week.”

A 13-year-old from Ranchi district’s Angada has been at the Arushi home since September because the district does not have a Child Welfare Committee. She was brought to Delhi in September 2012. “My brother came to take me back home as our father is not well. But the officer in charge said that the father himself has to come,” she says. Her brother had even carried along proof of identity, but it was not enough for the wary authorities.

A 14-year-old orphan from Sahibganj district’s Borio block was first trafficked to Ranchi as a nine-year-old. “The people who took me to Ranchi told me they would admit me to a school. They used to beat me a lot,” she says. She was rescued after two months of forced labour and admitted to the Sahibganj Mahila Shikshan Kendra of the Union Human Resource Development Ministry’s Mahila Samakhya in 2010-11.

The centre houses girls and prepares them for a year to rejoin the school system. “I was in the fifth standard when they took me to Ranchi. After studies at the MSK, I was admitted to the sixth standard,” she says. But her sister made her drop out, she adds. “She sends her children to school, but not me.” The Mahila Samakhya could not monitor her activities after her stint, and recently she resurfaced at a two-night discussion meeting of former MSK students at Sahibganj town, coming on her own.

“I want to go back to school. Maybe the MSK can keep me for another year. I try to make sure I remember whatever I learned here by reading my sister’s children’s books,” she says.

 ***

The Mahila Samakhya intends to keep the Vasant Kunj girl at its Khunti centre till 2015. “We try to prepare our students for admission to the sixth standard. If she is ready, we can send her to school,” says Smita Gupta, the state programme director at Mahila Samakhya.

Samakhya’s Sakhi centre houses 30 children in the 15-18 age group. About 25 of them have been trafficked domestically for forced labour.

The Vasant Kunj girl’s two year-plus worth of sweat meant Rs 15,000 for her mother —

Rs 5,000 at the end of the first year and Rs 10,000 at the end of the second. “My daughter never came home once she left. Dorothy came twice with the money. When I told her it was not enough, she said she would give more later,” says the mother, speaking at her home in Pathna block of Sahibganj.

Working as an agricultural labourer occasionally, for up to

Rs 120 per day, the mother now banks heavily on the salary of her minor daughter working in Mumbai. “She sends Rs 3,000-4,000 monthly,” the mother says.

Asked whether she would be willing to bring back her daughter from Mumbai and admit her in a school, she pauses before saying yes. None of her three other children — the youngest as old as six — go to school though.

“The family she is with in Mumbai treats her well,” adds Vasudev Gorain, the neighbour who accompanied the girl’s mother to Delhi after the incident. “They even came visiting recently.”

On the girl and her mother’s return from Delhi, Jharkhand’s Social Welfare Minister Annapurna Devi had met them. No official of the Sahibganj district administration has met them since. The talk of providing them money to build a house under the Indira Awaas Yojana has remained on paper.

“The NREGA man wants a bribe of Rs 400 for a job card. I am not on the BPL list; I don’t even have a ration card,” says the mother. She gets a widow’s pension of Rs 400 per month.

The Vasant Kunj girl is not thinking of going back to her village yet. “I want to return, but only when I am a teacher. Nobody teaches well at the village school,” she says.

Her one daughter coming home in the worst circumstances, the other even further away, the mother hopes against hope. “Bada din (Christmas) is coming. I would like my eldest to come home for five days,” she says.

However, the calculations are against her — a 650 km will take at least 15 hours and cost about Rs 500.

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