Ranchi: Vikas Munda (name changed) puts up his fishing equipment stall at the Rath Mela every year. Munda, who hails from the interior of a village in Ranchi's Mandar block, has his entire family helping out with business during the Rath Mela. However, even as he sells fishing nets and hooks to his customers, his eyes scan through the crowd, trying to locate the daughter he lost at the same fair five years ago.
Jagannathpur Mela, or the Rath Mela, is among the biggest fairs organised in the city every year. Lakhs of devotees, not only from Ranchi but also from other parts of the state, visit the fair. The mela is also a convergence place for farming related equipment and products, as it attracts farmers and their family members from the most interior parts of the state. This makes it a hotbed for traffickers as well, as they can find thousands of vulnerable children at one place who can be lured to big cities for work and exploitation.
The 10-day Rath Mela will start from Saturday, 14 July this year. Munda reached a few days ahead of the fair's official commencement, and with the crowds flowing in, he is hoping to make good business. "I remember seeing my 15-year-old daughter talking to some man at the fair five years ago and when I asked her who it was, she said that he offered her a job which she was very eager to take," he said.
Munda said he tried to convince his daughter not to be lured by the offer, and she did seem to understand it at that time, but the next day, as he was busy setting up his stall, his little girl went missing and has still not been found.
Munda is not alone; many children go missing during the rush of the Rath Mela. Social activist and member of Child Welfare Commission in Khunti, Baidnath Kumar, says he learns of children going missing from the fair every year. "There is an area named Baur Jhopri in the vicinity, where placement agents assemble. These agents and traffickers are not just locals but a number of them also come down from Delhi before the fair begins," Kumar said.
Citing an old case from 2013, he said that a girl was found unconscious at Hatia railway station in Ranchi. She was admitted to Rajendra Institute of Medical Sciences (RIMS) by the local police. She said that she was from the Simdega district and came to Ranchi to visit the fair. "She said she was lured by a person and was fed something which intoxicated her. She was raped by a few men but later managed to escape. She said there were other girls as well who were locked up with her in a room," Kumar added.
"This is one of the many cases. This came to light because the girl managed to escape, but many girls are taken away to Delhi from the fair, never to be found again," he said.
In the past, the police have arrested traffickers who had come to Ranchi before the fair in order to search for victims. One such case was of Lata Lakra, who after her arrest, confessed to having trafficked around 150 girls. Lakra was arrested in 2015 by Aradhana Singh of the anti-human trafficking unit of Khunti.
Singh, now retired, said Lakra belonged to Ranchi's Chanho block, and initially went to Delhi to work as a domestic help but later became a trafficker and started luring young girls from Ranchi and Khunti districts. After a FIR was lodged against her in Khunti, the police started following her moves and realised that she was supposed to arrive in Ranchi to attend the Rath Mela and lure more girls from there. "We nabbed her when she came to Ranchi," Singh said.
Similarly, another trafficker Bharat Nag, was also arrested from the Rath Mela in 2014, later gave the police clues which led to the arrest of trafficking kingpin Pannalal Mahato in 2015. "Traffickers from Delhi come to Ranchi just before the fair is about to begin. In fact, many of them would be staying at hotels situated in Hatia even now. If these hotels are raided, a number of traffickers can be arrested," Singh added.
Rishi Kant of Shakti Vahini, an organisation working against human trafficking, said that now that the Rath Mela is starting, the police should be very alert in order to ensure the women and children are safe. "We have witnessed many traffickers who have been active in Rath Mela for years. In the past, there have been arrests and rackets have also been busted at the fair."
Ranchi police on high alert
The Ranchi Police has decided to not just take preventive measures but also spread awareness at the Rath Mela. Ranchi SSP Anish Gupta said, "Apart from the police deployment for maintaining law and order, extra deployment will be done to prevent trafficking. We are going to deploy a special team from the anti-human trafficking unit of the Ranchi Police at the fair."
Gupta said that the cops, who will be at the fair in uniform and in plain clothes, will keep an eye out for identified traffickers, the records of whom are available with the police. "We are also getting help from NGOs working against human trafficking, to provide us with inputs, if they come across anything," he said.
Apart from this, the police will also be teaming up with the state's information and public relations departments in order to spread awareness. "Rath Mela is a very good place to spread awareness against human trafficking as it witnesses crowds from the most interior parts of the state," Gupta added.
Various awareness activities, including displaying ads on LED screens, making announcement on loudspeakers, distributing pamphlets and organising nukkad nataks (street theatre) will be done at the fair.
Hotbed for traffickers
Not just the Rath Mela but other local markets and fairs organised around villages are also among the favoured spots for traffickers to pick up vulnerable girls. Singh said, "In Khunti, haats are organised twice a week and people living far away arrive in groups as these places are the only source of entertainment for them. These are the people who have never seen the outside world and they get excited about going to a city, thus making it easy for the traffickers to lure them."
Describing the modus operandi of the traffickers, Singh said that most of the young girls are brought by local traffickers through people known to them. "The girls' nanis, chachis or mausis take the girls to the haats around 2-3 times and the girls get excited about it. After a few trips to the local markets, these girls are lured to be taken to see big cities like Ranchi and that is when they sit in the train and are trafficked," Singh said.
— The author is a member of The NewsCart, a Bengaluru-based media startup
Updated Date: Jul 13, 2018 15:02 PM