Traffickers who pose as well-wishers, parents who reap benefits, villagers who keep quiet and countries that turn a blind eye. An India Today investigation uncovers the shocking underbelly of sex trade that has surged alarmingly in the wake of the devastating earthquake in Nepal Baini. O baini. Kasto chha” Sister, what’s up? An NGO worker calls out from a little tin cubicle, fitted with CCTV cameras, on the edge of the 66-feet No Man’s Land separating Nepal from India at Sunauli in Uttar Pradesh. The ‘sister’, in a red nylon dress, hurries towards India, as if she hasn’t heard. The NGO worker catches up, with constables of Armed Police Force Nepal in tow: where are you going, why? The ‘sister’ stutters: she has got a job in India but doesn’t know where. The NGO worker makes a few quick calls, tells her no such job exists, packs her off home and starts scanning the horizon again: “O baini.”
But for every girl rescued, countless others slip through the cracks of Nepal’s porous borders. In June, the police found a girl-hiding inside a hollow tree trunk-near Nautanwa in Maharajganj, a few kilometres away from Sunauli. Since morning they were looking for her on a tip-off by local informers-beating the shrubs, checking under trailing vines, brushing aside tall grass-in the dark woods that border India and Nepal. Someone flashed a torch and spotted her, frozen like a small animal in blinding headlights, with a badly bruised face and rope marks on her wrists. And she began to scream.
Sex traffickers on the prowl
It’s the scream of unimaginable loss. Like her country, Nepal, she faces not one tragedy but two. Ten weeks after a 7.8-magnitude earthquake killed nearly 9,000, injured 28,000, displaced 2.8 million and left 600,000 homeless, she is a face among the devastated multitudes: her village, Ramkot, flattened, her home crushed, her mother lost forever in the rubble. But that’s just half the story. Like tens of thousands of women, she is also a victim of human greed-snapped up, sold and smuggled into slavery or prostitution-as her country tries to put together shattered pieces of life and landscape. Yet another disquieting presence, sucked into hidden black holes of sin and vice across the world, forced to lead a life of abuse and disease, divorced from social systems, stripped of all identity.
Two million women and girls are especially vulnerable in Nepal, reports the United Nations Population Fund; more than 1.4 million are living in crowded camps; about 28,000 girls, who have lost their family, face serious risk of exploitation. “Unstable atmospheres in the wake of huge disasters give criminals the chance to traffic and enslave vulnerable people,” says Anuradha Koirala, founder of Maiti Nepal, a non-profit organisation working with the UN and credited with rescuing over 20,000 women and children. “Human trafficking is growing faster than the arms and drug trade. Yet, unlike those trades, those who buy, sell and use people for sex and cheap labour go unpunished. There has to be a new sense of urgency and political will to tackle the crisis,” she says.
Trafficking is not new to Nepal. Some 15,000 girls are sold every year, informs the US State Depart-ment’s annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report. “But after the earthquake, it’s very severe now,” says Rajendra Gautam of Pokhara, founder of anti-trafficking NGO, 3 Angels Nepal. “About 40-50 girls are rescued every day across the country, compared to about 12 earlier.” West Asian countries and China are the new destinations. It’s no longer girls with white skin and Mongolian features from poverty-stricken ethnic groups such as Sherpa, Tamang, Badi or Chepang. Anyone can get caught now, from age 10 to 40.
But the nation hasn’t healed. “Body bags are still piling up,” says Archana Tamang, international consultant at Human Rights and Equality in Kathmandu. “Aftershocks and quakes keep us on edge. Our whole country is gripped by a profound fear psychosis.” The situation is worse in Sindhupalchok, Gorkha, Dhading or Kavre, where 90 per cent villages are in ruins, she explains. “Millions are on survival mode. They have no choice or dreams left. Traffickers are most active there, promising Rs 20,000 to people for whom Rs 500 is a fortune.” As monsoon brings down lashing rains, floods and landslides, displaced families are migrating haphazardly in search of safety and livelihood: they are easy prey.
The ‘Safed Bakri’ are coming
“Madam, some ‘safed bakri‘ are coming. Would you like to raid?” Baba, a former trafficker who now helps rescue girls, had alerted Vineeta, founder of The Alliance-Nai Asha, an anti-trafficking NGO in Lucknow, within three days of the quake. “When relief workers started reaching Nepal, a lot of desperate parents were asking them to take their children to India, some asked for money deposits,” she says. Brothel owners, scenting an opportunity, started sending out traffickers with relief. “Within days of the earthquake, the number of Nepali girls zoomed in Lucknow brothels.”
In Delhi, it was during a sting operation at Kotha 64 on GB Road that Rishi Kant of anti-trafficking outfit Shakti Vahini suspected a red herring. It was right after the earthquake. And his team realised that the brothel-owner was rushing emergency relief to quake victims: sacks of rice, dry lentils, clothes. “In fact, all the girls in the kotha are Nepali. And they were going to their disaster-ravaged villages, dressed to the nines, with relief. God knows what stories they trumped up but a look at them would have been enough for any young girl in a disaster zone to be lured,” he says.
Lure of a better life
She once knew a river: Narayani, flowing like shiny ribbon of silver between Nepal and India. Blood red laligura flowers bloomed along its banks, kingfishers skimmed its waves, gharials lurked below. The Daunne range stared down from its majestic height. On April 25, that familiar world came tumbling down. As people set up tents amidst the ruin left by the temblor, she moved in with her family. But soon, men started circling around her, with pretty words, suggesting she leave the village for a better life abroad.
In the end, someone drugged her, possibly a neighbour. She woke up in a cottage across the border in India, hidden on the upper floor. She was kept there with hands tied, untied only to be raped or beaten repeatedly by men, both known and unknown. But somehow local people got the wind of it. Sensing danger, the men fled and she ran out. Now in a ‘safe home’ in Kathmandu, the teenager is fighting for her rights: she has filed charges against those who trafficked her. And, yes, she wants to keep the child she is carrying. She is ready to fight for that, too. Whether she will again gaze out of her window at the river is still a question.
Dark as ebony, with quick eyes, Manoj, an accused in two trafficking cases, is now out on bail. “I drive taxis. What do I know of trafficking?” he says. Why did he get caught, then? “Bad luck,” he says. The first time, because he had a trafficker as a passenger and the second time, some girls at an NGO kiosk pointed him out “falsely”. “I was just crossing the border on a cycle.” But he knows exactly how girls are ferried across the border: you need five-six people. One to bring a girl from village to town, one to take her to the border, one to collect her from across the border, one to go along with her to a big city. “I have heard all this. I see that the girls come willingly. They want jobs, money, to go abroad or get married.”
“It’s a vicious circle,” says Rishi Kant. Trafficking usually starts with a new man in the village. He always comes across as someone who is married, educated, with a good job. The parents meet him, listen to his talk about opportunities in other cities or countries and his proposal to get good jobs for their girls. According to reports of jailed traffickers by the National Human Rights Commission of Nepal, the oft-heard confession is: “I trapped the girls on the pretext of falling in love with them and promise of a good job.” The other is: “I studied her family status and her safety nets, before contacting her or her guardians.”
“But these people are at the bottom of the trafficking pyramid and are the least paid,” Koirala points out. As the trafficker takes a girl out of the village, a whole ecosystem gives him support. “The driver knows, the guesthouses where they stop on the way know, the shop-owners from whom they buy new clothes for the girls before crossing the border know. The same thing works on the other side of the border, till they reach the destination,” says Koirala. At every step, someone different accompanies the girl. “The main criminals are those who sponsor the crime. And rarely they get caught.”
The border outpost of Sunauli is a study in chaos: a group of boys with rucksacks stand at a distance, looking worried and speaking on mobile phones. A man in a straw hat and goggles waits in front of an NGO kiosk. A girl stands quietly behind him. A woman with four girls elbows forward. One can hear the cacophony of voices: “We want to visit India”, “I’m her uncle. Have lined up a job for her”, “I’m going to India with my daughters to shop”.
Thanks to a 1950 treaty, the 1,751 km of open border between India and Nepal can be crossed by anyone at any time without a passport. “There has been an alarming rise in human trafficking along the border,” says B.D. Sharma, director general of Sashastra Seema Bal (SSB), which guards India’s northern frontier. About 30 per cent of trafficking victims the SSB has rescued from Nepal since 2008, and 49 per cent traffickers caught, have been in the last two months. “Of the 26 border posts, 10 are high-risk zones, such as Sunauli in Uttar Pradesh or Raxaul in Bihar,” he says. To strengthen vigil, anti-trafficking NGOs from Nepal have been roped in: “Many of the NGO workers are victims of trafficking themselves. They can spot suspects from a mile away.” Sunauli is also a trafficker’s delight. The chaos allows criminals to navigate below the radar. On a given day, men cluster around games of cards, fruit sellers shove carts, armed jawans strut their guns, monks stand silently, foreign tourists click selfies. Through this heaving mass of humanity, smoke-belching trucks amble by. “About 10,000 people step across the border and over 300 trucks ply daily,” says Jitendra Yadav, the station house officer of Indian police. It is estimated that Nepalis spend more than Rs 1 crore daily on their shopping in the Indian market across the border. And everyone watches everyone-just like the giant Buddha eyes painted atop the ‘Welcome to Nepal’ gateway.
“Traffickers mostly travel by road in small vehicles,” says Sharma. Sunauli in UP and Raxaul in Bihar are well connected. As a result, both are major hubs for all sorts of traffickers: human to drugs, fake currency to arms. Sunauli has a history of police confrontation with Lashkar-e-Taiba bomb-makers, Indian Mujahideen leaders and Dawood Ibrahim’s henchmen. Raxaul has its own infamous gangs and rampant smuggling of gold, narcotics, contraband and arms. It’s also believed to be a safe haven for ISI operatives.
Traffickers have little to fear
“We just guard the official crossings. But traffickers use unguarded entry and exit points too,” says Dipak Bhatta, who heads NGO 3 Angels Nepal in Sunauli. “There are 22 such entry and exit points in and around Sunauli through which traffickers can get away.” Before the earthquake, Bhatta’s team used to rescue five-six girls daily. The numbers have now gone up by five times. “It’s the tip of the iceberg,” he says. “Many more must be using the unmanned crossings.”
“Repeated movement along same routes can bring on the spotlight of suspicion. So traffickers take remote, unguarded routes during lean periods and official border crossings during tourist seasons,” says Vinod Kumar Bhardwaj of University of Rajasthan, who has conducted research on Nepal trafficking. “Women and girls are brought to cities by one gang and handed over to other gangs,” he says.
Some girls are pushed into prostitution locally, some shipped out. At the check post they are sent out in small groups to cross the border. The trafficker never comes with them, but crosses over later. They meet up once they reach India and move toward their destination.
Routes have clearly evolved in India: those from western Nepal take the Sunauli-Maharajganj-Gorakhpur route to move towards huge sex markets in Kanpur, Lucknow, Varanasi, Agra and Delhi. Those from central Nepal cross near Jogbani and Raxaul in Bihar, to move to Patna or catch the Mumbai-bound Jan Sadharan Express. Those from eastern areas cross over near Thakurganj and move to Siliguri, Guwahati and Shillong. From this experience of fieldwork, Bhardwaj believes, “traffickers have little to fear on the way. It goes on with the consent of security forces of both sides of the border.” More than half the girls enter local sex markets. The rest move intermittently towards Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkata. From there, they may be sent off to other cities within India or outside, especially the Gulf and Malaysia.
Procuring a girl is costly for a trafficker, says Ashis Srivastava, who leads the raids for The Alliance-Nai Asha. “They spend about Rs 10,000-Rs 15,000 just to befriend a girl’s parents, build up special bonding and flash one’s wealth so that they believe in their promise of good life,” he says. Mediators play a role in convincing parents, each getting about Rs 10,000. For crossing the border, one needs to get a taxi, one they trust, who could charge about Rs 3,000-Rs 5,000 for each girl. The trafficker would then try to sell the girl to a brothel for about Rs 50,000-Rs 75,000. They would try to make as much profit as possible in the first year, he explains. “It’s a relentless system. A girl has a short shelf life. If she survives the abuse and beatings, if she doesn’t die of AIDS or get killed, she becomes a trafficker by her 20s,” he says.
TRICKS AND TRAPS
New baits, new destinations
No border can stop Sonkaliya. Ask her anything and she flashes her six identity cards, each so different that she could be six totally different people. In one, she is employed by Varanasi fashion garment company Win-Win, in another she is a journalist with Community Radio Parivartan 89 MHz, in yet another, she studies in Kapilvastu Multiple Campus. Ask her what she does at Win-Win to get Rs 27,000 a month and she says: “I train.” Train what, who? She just repeats, “I train.” And who is the quiet girl with her? “My sister, Gita. I am taking her to Win-Win for a job.” At a glance, the only certain truth about Sonkaliya is that she is lying.
Fashion, modelling, dance bars, massage parlours, adult entertainment: those are the new baits dangled by scammers. Sonkaliya’s Win-Win card is a fake “privilege card”, with no address, no details, just one line written on it: “We are the team.” Yet about 30 per cent of all those intercepted at the Sunauli border say they work for Win-Win, points out Maya, an NGO volunteer. No one really knows what Win-Win is all about. “They all say that they live in a dormitory in Varanasi.” It appears that they get enormous salaries considering they don’t have any particular job skill. If one person manages to take three more, they get a commission. Each new recruit would have to cough up Rs 25,000 to enrol. They all say Win-Win is into fashion garments.
In yet another typical case, the Central Investigation Bureau of Nepal (CIB) arrested more than 10 traffickers of Kathmandu in June; they were making rounds in dance bars, in the guise of doing photoshoots for their modelling agencies, and luring girls to go abroad. Most of them had investments in dance bars in West Asia and Africa, where photographs of the girls were being sent, with as much as $3,000 changing hands for a girl. The CIB found that once there, their travel documents were seized and they were forced into adult entertainment and sex. Many were physically beaten, isolated and locked up.
The destination is also changing: India is no longer the main bait. A large number of trafficked girls are sent off to West Asia, Malaysia, Hong Kong, South Korea, Japan, even Africa and Sweden, shows the TIPS report. China is emerging as the new hotspot for adult entertainment and sexual exploitation. In yet another recent raid, the CIB busted a marriage bureau that lured young girls into “paper marriage” with middle-aged Chinese men, ready to pay Rs 15 lakh to Rs 25 lakh for a “foreign bride”. Girls were told that the marriage would be in name, while they would work in a company for a hefty salary-enough to allow them to bring their family to China soon. Investigations revealed at least 83 such bureaus operating in and around Kathmandu.
Recruitment and education frauds are the new baits. There have been a series of recent cases where young Nepali students have coughed up huge sums for supposed college admissions at foreign universities, only to find that they have been trapped in appalling conditions or dangerous work, without any way to get out. Lethal networks are developing around organ trade and global terror outfits. The Asia Foundation reports about illegal extraction of kidneys from impoverished villagers of Kavre, for black markets in Delhi and Chennai, for millions. Nepal CIB has uncovered a trafficking racket of smuggling Nepali women, at $7,000 each, to the dangerous Islamic State militia in Syria, for sex and as human shields.
Children are not spared
It was in the course of running her restaurant, Cafe Aamu, in tony Lalitpur that Archana Tamang realised that even children were not being spared. “Right after the earthquake, we decided to send food on every Saturday to an orphanage,” she says. But within weeks, she noticed that the number of children were rising or falling, dramatically. Her friend Shashank Sadi, a Bangladeshi expert in disaster risk management, also observed the same trend in a number of unregistered child homes. Sadi consulted Nepal’s Central Child Welfare Board. There is now a nationwide circular against relocation of children without authorisation or travelling without parents.
Eight million children are affected by the earthquake. About 950,000 are in makeshift tents or on the streets. At least 245 have been rescued from being trafficked or illegally placed in child care homes. The Unicef has raised concern about “orphanage volun-tourism”, to foreigners expressing interest in adoption or orphanage visits. Recently, the police rescued three children who were trafficked from Sindhupalchok to Pokhara by a Chinese woman in the name of adoption.
Too many stakeholders
It’s the letter Shakti Vahini wrote to the Union home ministry that has triggered action. The Uttar Pradesh home department, already at work on the project, stepped up vigilance on the border. CCTV cameras were installed on the trafficking trail, anti-trafficking units activated, sensitisation programmes for the police and a network to bring all anti-trafficking stakeholders to solve the problem was taken up. “We had been working on the issue for a while, with the chief minister taking personal interest in it,” says Uttar Pradesh Home Secretary Kamal Saksena. There’s much more on the anvil, from a capsule on anti-trafficking laws to rehabilitation and skill-development endeavours for the victims. “UP has taken a lead in this. So traffickers are now shifting to Bihar and West Bengal,” says Saksena. “Our model can be followed by other states.”
“Most of the traffickers are patronised by our leaders,” says Vishvendra Paswan, Member of the Constituent Assembly, Nepal. “They work for and are nurtured by our political parties and bureaucrats. What hopes does Nepal have of combating the menace of trafficking?” he asks. Koirala points out that the problem is that there are too many stakeholders involved. “The Nepal government, the home ministry, the law ministry and the judiciary are doing excellent work. But unless the women and social welfare ministry and foreign employment ministry come on board, the loopholes can never be plugged.”
“Traffickers are no longer gutkha-chewing, uneducated men and women,” says Amitabh Yash, IG of Gorakhpur zone. “They carry cell phones, speak in English, can be respected members of the community.” There is evidence that traffickers are increasingly using smart technology to coordinate, swap and share information, move money and services around the world quickly, yet remaining anonymous. “Technology can also be part of the solution, especially biometrics,” he says, “especially, fingerprints, retina scan, voice and face recognition.” The Unique Identification Authority of India is tying up with child care homes this year to find missing children, curb trafficking and illegal adoptions through biometrics.
Meantime, girls are flying out of Nepal. That’s the alert the Interpol has sounded out. At Kathmandu airport, a gaggle of girls, in jeans and crop tops, walk briskly towards the security checkpoint: a spring in their steps, a bright smile on their face and AirAsia boarding passes in their hands. Ask them where they are off to and they chorus in unison: “Malaysia.” Why? “We’ve got jobs.” Ask them the name of the company and they balk: “Presiâ€¦. Preseâ€¦,” they look at each other. “It’s a mobile packaging company,” one of the girls pipes up. It may be so, but hardly likely.