Jharkhand's Khunti village rife with tales of human trafficking, but threats keeps villagers from approaching police
Villagers in Jharkhand's Khunti district don't lodge police complaints as human traffickers threaten the safety of their families. As a result, very few cases reach the state's anti-human trafficking cell.
There are scores of girls from Jharkahnd's Khunti district who have not been able to return home after being lured away at the pretext of jobs
Traffickers dupe parents by claiming that their daughter will do household chores and send back money every month
Villagers are afraid to approach the police because traffickers threaten the lives of their families
Editor's Note: A network of 60 reporters set off across India to test the idea of development as it is experienced on the ground. Their brief: Use your mobile phone to record the impact of 120 key policy decisions on everyday life; what works, what doesn't and why; what can be done better and what should be done differently. Their findings — straight and raw from the ground — will be combined in this series, Elections on the Go, over a course of 100 days.
Khunti: Meena (name changed), a 23-year-old from Karanjtoli village of Kodakel panchayat in Jharkhand's Khunti district, is happily married today and expecting. She was one of the lucky ones who was able to return to her village after being lured to Delhi eight years ago with promises of a good job and salary.
"A girl from my village, who was working in Delhi, had come home on vacation and had convinced me to go to Delhi with her," Meena recalled. "My family situation was not good then, and going to Delhi, where I was promised Rs 2,000 a month, seemed like a good opportunity."
But the dream quickly turned sour. Meena returned home after not getting a single rupee for the five years she worked in the National Capital.
"The employers used to say the money was being sent to my parents, but I figured out later that they were duping me. They didn't even allow me to go home for a vacation. I ran away from there and contacted my brother in the village, who then took me home," she said.
Meena is the exception. There are scores of others from villages in Khunti district who have not been able to return home.
Jeeran Devi, a resident of the same village, said another girl was taken to Delhi a long time ago, "but when her father recently went to Delhi to meet the person who had taken her, he was not allowed to meet his daughter and had to return empty-handed".
Limra panchayat of Khunti's Karra block has around 13 villages with over 200 families. Around 25 girls from different families here have gone missing, some for over five years.
This includes Samru Munda's (name changed) daughter, who has been missing for over three years now. "When she was 15, she went to the market with her friend, and neither of them returned," he said.
After asking around in nearby villages and markets for a few days, Samru lost all hope of getting her back. When asked why he did not go to the police, he said he did not want the legal hassles — a common response from villagers who are reluctant to even talk about the problem.
One villager, whose daughter has been missing for over a year, said: "I approached the person who took my daughter away and requested him to send her back, but he refused. When I insisted, he warned me that if I create a scene or go to the police, the lives of my other children will be at stake."
Such threats from the traffickers is a major reason that deters villagers from lodging complaints with the police.
"During my work at the panchayat, I myself received several threats from traffickers and the so-called powerful people of the villages, who asked me to mind my own business," said Ravi Kumar Yadav, a social activist who has been working closely with the villagers.
Baidnath Kumar, a child rights activist and member of the district's Child Welfare Committee (CWC), said there was a time when a girl used to go missing from every second house in Khunti, and every village had at least one trafficker.
"Khunti district was probably the most affected in terms of human trafficking," Kumar said. "In the past two to three years, over a thousand girls were rescued from various metropolitan cities, and 127 traffickers were arrested. But trafficking has, once again, increased. Being a CWC member, I deal with at least 10 to 15 such cases every month, wherein trafficked girls are rescued and brought back home. They share the physical, sexual and economic exploitation they underwent during their stay in the big cities."
Strangely, even though the problem has persisted in the district for years, only a very small number of cases get registered with the Anti-Human Trafficking Unit (AHTU) of Khunti Police Station — only nine cases in 2017, 10 in 2018 and one till date in 2019. Data from Jharkhand's Central Investigation Department shows that from 2013 to 2018, only 82 cases related to human trafficking were registered in Khunti district, with the entire state registering 855 cases.
Why leave Khunti?
Extreme poverty is what makes families send their daughters to the cities.
"With just one crop grown during the monsoon, there are no other employment opportunities in the villages here," said Arti Kujur, chairperson of the Jharkhand State Commission for the Protection of Child Rights, adding that poverty makes villagers vulnerable to traffickers. "In such a situation, traffickers lure the girls and their families with a meagre amount of Rs 2,000 to Rs 3,000 and take the girls to Delhi, Mumbai and other cities, where these girls are then exploited."
The parents are told that their daughter will do household chores and send back money every month.
"The traffickers are invariably known to the parents, and no money ever reaches them," said Aradhana Singh, a retired police officer and former in-charge of the AHTU in Khunti. "Traffickers often target victims at local haats (markets), organised twice a week in the semi-urban areas of the district where they lure young girls with the dreams of a modern lifestyle, good clothes and money."
Fear of left-wing extremists (LWE) is another reason why people in this area send their children away. "LWEs take young children away from villages to make them a part of their team," Kumar said. "This fear and the need for money forces parents to send their children with traffickers."
Superintendent of Khunti Police Alok said: "Human trafficking is definitely a big problem, and we are trying hard to combat it. We have rescued many children and arrested a number of traffickers, and all police stations in the area have been directed to take immediate action whenever they find that a child from a village has gone missing."
Alok admitted that speedy arrests and convictions will deter traffickers. But he is also puzzled by the villagers' reluctance to approach the police.
"I do not understand why as the police are now sensitised and very supportive in such cases," he said, adding that villagers of Khunti have a big emotional issue, as well. "Maybe the hardship they face have made them like this, but they do not display any emotion when their child goes missing."
The case of the missing girls continues even though the Jharkhand government has launched many schemes to empower girls from the village and their families, both economically and emotionally. This includes the recently launched Mukhyamantri Sukanya Yojna, which offers money to parents of a girl child from her birth till she turns 18 and gets married, as well as the Tejaswini Yojna, which teaches girls life and vocational skills.
Besides rescue and rehabilitation of the children, "our focus now is to empower girls at an early age so they are not trafficked in the first place", said DK Saxena, director of Integrated Child Protection Scheme.
"The Tejaswini Yojna, presently functional in 17 districts of Jharkhand, is a major step towards achieving this aim. The programme is exclusively for girls aged 14 to 24, which is when they are most vulnerable," he said, adding that the objective is to provide such skills to at least 10 lakh girls. "Life skill training includes information on the rights and protection of children, health and nutrition and also financial literacy."
These are all laudable aims, but Saxena's claim that 20,000 village-level child protection committees have been formed to prepare a database of missing children is an exaggeration. A visit to several villages by this correspondent found that while these committees had been set up, they were non-functional.
Lack of political will
Laxmi Bakhla, a social activist working against trafficking in Khunti, revealed that no activist, including her, has never received any support from political parties or sitting MPs and MLAs in Jharkhand.
"They do raise the issue of trafficking in their speeches, but they don't really seem to care about it in reality. Some people have even told me, 'These things keep happening; how many people can you stop?" she said.
Bakhla added that making the issue part of a political agenda won't be of any help till elected representatives take the problem seriously and work against it.
Meanwhile, international NGO Save the Children recently organised a dialogue between leaders from various political parties on the inclusion of issues related to child rights in their election manifestos, in which trafficking was among one of the major issues. Girls' rights activist Rumi Kumari helped make a child-friendly manifesto, which was distributed among all leaders at the programme. She strongly advocates the need to make human trafficking a political agenda, as she herself is a survivor.
"I was forced to work as a domestic help at the age of eight, so I know the pain of falling prey to human trafficking. I believe that political parties should consider this as a challenge and include it in their manifesto for the upcoming elections," she said.
Rumi turned 18 this year and will be exercising her franchise for the first time.
The author is a Ranchi-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters
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