Child trafficking in India: When children are bought and sold in the quest for a 'better life'

This is the second in a three-part series on child trafficking in India. Read part one here.

Babubhai* ran a unique matrimonial service out of a small shop in a busy Ahmedabad locality. He bought girls from Gujarat’s tribal areas and sold them as brides to rich Patel farmers. The ‘grooms’ were men who couldn’t find wives in their own communities because sex selective abortions over several generations had led to a severely skewed gender ratio. The few eligible women from the community didn’t wish to live on remote farms.

Babubhai was very proud of his ‘service’ – he didn’t think of it as trade. “I am saving them from poverty and starvation,” he’d say, of the girls involved in his transactions. “What sort of lives would they lead in their own tribal villages? Drunken husbands, more children. And I am giving these men healthy and obedient young wives. They are well worth their price.”

He was happy to show off his “success stories”: the girls who were materially better off, who lived in proper houses now, and had enough to eat. But were they happy? In whispered conversations, the girls indicated that they were little more than domestic and sexual slaves. They had no escape route after their own parents sold them into this “better life”. They weren’t familiar with the language or the food habits of the families they’d been married into. They were expected to work had – and produce sons. When some of the bought brides attempted to run away, their in-laws would register cases of theft against them at the local police station and have them brought back.

I first heard of Babubhai’s service in 2007, but this isn’t a story restricted to Gujarat. Girls from the tribal belts of West Bengal and Jharkhand were bought as brides by farmers in Punjab. When a family could not afford to buy brides for all the male members, the wife would be ‘shared’. These bought brides had no social standing in the communities they were brought to – where the agents, who positioned themselves as saviours when luring the girls away from their homes, abandoned them.

When a girl from impoverished circumstances is sold to a rich, older landowner – or even a visiting sheikh – the argument is that “it is for her own good”, to give her a better life. But can trafficking ever be benign? Can a person be trafficked for his or her “own good”? Can material improvement of circumstances take away from the fact that they were bought and sold as commodities?

These questions become even more relevant when it comes to children who are trafficked from orphanages, or who are sold by their own biological parents to agents because they cannot keep them. They do so in the hope that the child may have a better life with well-to-do adoptive parents, maybe in a foreign land. Or that they can earn enough money in a factory or employed in a rich person’s house and get out of the cycle of poverty. Some of these children do end up in improved circumstances while others don’t – but does that change the nature of the transaction itself?


In the 1960s and 1970s, adoption was considered a life-saving option for children in orphanages – especially if the adoptive parents happened to come from a Western country. The children in these orphanages, however, were not always orphans.  Some had living parents who were too destitute to look after them and had left them in these shelters to be fed and educated. Others were children of unwed mothers or rape victims and they too were handed over to these children’s homes.

 Child trafficking in India: When children are bought and sold in the quest for a better life

Can the trafficking of children ever be benign? Image for representation only. Reuters

Since many of the orphanages were run either by missionaries or NGOs, they pretty much made their own rules. And one of the rules many of these orphanages followed was: no disclosure. So, even if they knew the background of a child, they would not reveal it. Some orphanages kept records, others didn’t and some just lost them.  As a result, most of the children adopted during this time never could trace their biological parents.

What started off as a charitable activity, took on mercenary overtones in some cases. Agencies sprang up to meet the demand from couples who were willing to pay for babies. Children were snatched off the streets, single mothers or hapless illiterate parents were pressured or tricked into giving away their infants.

In July 2018, Nirmal Hriday – a shelter home for unmarried pregnant women, run by Mother Theresa’s Missionaries of Charity’s (MOC) in Ranchi – was accused of selling babies to prospective adoptive parents, by the Child Welfare Committee.

Now, until 2015, Nirmal Hriday had in fact served as an adoption centre. Once her baby was born, the biological mother could, if she wished, hand it over to the institution. The institution on turn would register the infant with the Child Welfare Committee, as mandated by the law, and then place it for adoption. But after 2015, when new rules for adoption allowed children to be placed with single parents, MOC closed down all their adoption centres arguing that this went against their religious beliefs. Consequently, adopting a child directly from any of the MOC’s shelter homes became illegal and was tantamount to trafficking. The MOC homes were required to hand over any children to the CWC which would place them for adoption through the proper channels.

However, after a 2018 incident in which an Uttar Pradesh couple filed a police complaint alleging that a child they had adopted through Nirmal Hriday (via an agent, to whom they paid a few lakh rupees) was taken away from them. Reportedly, the agent had come back to take the child to Ranchi on the grounds that some paperwork was yet to be completed. The police tracked down the agent, and found that she was involved in three other illegal ‘adoptions’ of a similar nature.

Meanwhile, the CWC in Ranchi seemingly flagged a string of irregularities at Nimal Hriday, claiming that of 122 children born at the home since 2016, 56 were now “untraceable”.

In Jharkand, where Nirmal Hriday operates, the poverty level is high and literacy low. Also high in this area is the incidence of teen pregnancies. Previous studies in the state have indicated that minors are trafficked for domestic labour and sex work, with many of Punjab and Haryana’s ‘bought brides’ hailing from this region.

Just before Independence Day this year, the Mumbai Police also said they had cracked a child trafficking ring where boys and girls between the ages of 11 to 16 were being sold to US-based buyers for Rs 40-45 lakhs each. The tip-off came from an actress who witnessed two minor girls at a salon being made-up as per the specific instructions of the adults who were accompanying them.  Suspecting the girls were being sold into sex work, the actress alerted the cops, who were then able to uncover the entire operation.

The children in this case too had been sold by their parents to the smugglers, in the hopes that their offspring would find a better life. No one asked the young victims if the price for this hoped-for better life is one they were willing to pay.

* Name changed

Next: The children that time forgot.

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Updated Date: Sep 02, 2018 13:40:29 IST