India's nationwide lockdown, in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, has revealed cracks in the social fabric like never before, explicitly marooning the weakest, poorest, and the most disenfranchised among us.
The unorganised sector accounts for 93 percent of the country's total workforce: a population of 420 million that keeps the machinery of the Indian economy running. As social security laws evade these millions, families and individuals belonging to this demographic are rendered especially vulnerable to the horrors of human trafficking, which includes illegal sex and labour rackets. The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) reported 38,503 cases of trafficking in the country between 2011 and 2019.
For 16-year-old Somesh Singh*, a victim of labour trafficking from Bihar's Gaya district, memories of his time in a bangle factory in Jaipur last year — cooped up in a burning, tarry hole — are already woolly. On returning home earlier this year, Somesh says he had "mistakenly heaved a sigh of relief", believing the worst was behind him. The lockdown, however, with its caveats of monitored movements, limited human interactions, and consequently, fewer meals seems to Somesh not a far cry from his days in bonded labour.
For Somesh and three other survivors of trafficking who spoke with this correspondent, 'home' amidst a lockdown has only meant grave uncertainties, and a fear that the "new normal" will push them back into the net of trafficking from which they escaped.
Somesh Singh, 16, Bihar
Somesh loved going to school, but had to forsake it three years ago for his two younger siblings — a brother and a sister — as his father, the sole breadwinner in the family, failed to keep up with piling expenses on a plummeting income. He is a daily-wage labourer who was previously employed at an oil factory all the way across in Gujarat, and earned Rs 7,000 a month, until the lockdown was imposed. "The men who smuggled me away to Jaipur lived in our neighbourhood. They promised me that they'll enrol me in a good school and help me study. They knew about my family's condition too," he says.
Somesh's family — also comprising his mother and a married elder sister living in an adjacent village — was unaware of his plans of escaping to Rajasthan in search of a better life, and lived in the dark about his whereabouts for months until news of Somesh's rescue surfaced.
"They (traffickers) did not pay me for the three or four months that I was there, working in the factory. There were 10 more boys and a few girls working with me, and most of them were from my village, trafficked at different times," he says. He tells me that the other boys and girls working with him were either his age, or younger than him. While the boys handled the manufacturing, the girls were sent to the markets to sell the jewellery. "None of us were allowed to call home. They beat us up every time we even mentioned home, and said this is where we will have to live for the rest of our lives," he says.
His homecoming coincided with the initiation of the lockdown, only weeks before which his father had returned to the village from Gujarat, hoping to resume work after reuniting with his son. But the coronavirus outbreak knocked the wind out of their sails, bringing their meal-count down to two — sometimes even one — from three, as his father's local odd jobs began drying up too. "I have been suffering from a fever for several weeks now, ever since I returned home. I have been to the doctor who gave me medicine, which is now over. I did not get any (free) medicine after that, neither do we have the money to buy more. Thank god no one else at home is sick," he says.
"You know, I would often get fever while living there. The bhaiyyas had given me medicine only once — that's it. I would have to work with raging fever, and look forward to the three meals of only rice every day," Somesh tells me.
With the lockdown underway, means of assisting his father at earning a living have fast disappeared too. Government help remains a distant reality as well. "There's barely any food at home. It's becoming difficult to survive. I would initially feel really afraid to step out, and I haven't even been able to meet any of my friends. We anyway lost touch after I left school," he trails off, sounding crestfallen, only to cheer up a second later and tell me that he hopes to become a doctor someday.
"I'll go back to school once this lockdown ends, and study hard," Somesh says, his smile seeping through his words over the phone. He tells me his fears have merely "lessened", with help and guidance from NGO workers who had rescued him from the factory. "They told me to be brave, and I have tried really hard. The lockdown is only making the process harder, but at least I am with my family," he says before hanging up, and asking me to "stay safe".
Ashwani*, 26, Andhra Pradesh
Ashwani coughs intermittently for over a minute before beginning the conversation. She informs me she had pneumonia three months back, and is yet to recover completely. "My symptoms were tending towards tuberculosis, the doctor had said. He prescribed medicine and food worth Rs 2,500 per month. How can we afford that under the lockdown?" she asks.
Living in Vijaywada with two daughters and her husband — who recently graduated to driving a rented car from a rented auto — Ashwani has been taking life one day at a time, especially since her rescue from a prostitution ring a year-and-a-half ago. Her husband used to earn around Rs 10,000 a month; ever since the lockdown, he has only received half his salary. "The owner has asked him to come to work only two or three times in all these months," she says, before being overcome by another bout of coughing. The Rs 15,000 she loaned from a neighbour (at 15 percent interest) to pay for her treatment is now exhausted, with her health only worsening.
"I still have aches and ailments due to the abuse I faced during my time in prostitution," she tells me. Six years ago, when she joined a beautician training school in Vijaywada, a friend of hers swindled her into prostitution, luring Ashwani with promises of a better life. "Back then, I was estranged from my husband and was living at my mother's house with my daughters," she says. Her girls, aged 12 and 14, were enrolled at a private convent school till last year, following which they were shifted to a government institute.
Ashwani herself was forced to drop out of school in Class Seven, at the young age of 13. Soon after, she was married off by her mother — who works as a domestic help — and father, who drives an auto. Quite expectedly, they were unhappy with her "untimely return". "They had plans of sending off my brother to study further, and get my sister married off. They obviously treated me and my girls as liabilities," she says, adding that she now shares only a nominal relationship with her parents. After her rescue and rehabilitation, Ashwani reconciled with her husband on being counselled by the police and local NGO.
"A client beat me up and absconded with my jewellery. That is when I went to the police to complain, and consequently, I was rescued too," she says. "I tried to kill myself by overdosing on sleeping pills once I was rescued," she adds abruptly.
"I now talk to another survivor like me, whom I met through Vimukthi [an Andhra Pradesh-based NGO], every time I feel lonely or suicidal," Ashwani says. But forestalling thoughts of hunger, sickness and death has become tougher in the pandemic. Her ration card provides her only a handful of rice and pulses every month, besides the paltry sum of Rs 1,000 from the government ever since lockdown ensued.
Ashwani misses going to work and earning for her family, she says. "I used to bring home Rs 3,000-4,000 a month from a local supermarket, where I would do the job of packing goods. But my health did not allow me to continue for long. Now, during the pandemic, even if the shops reopen, there is no way for me to go back to work since my health has only worsened under lockdown. It's a vicious cycle, you see," she sighs.
Her husband, despite being supportive, often reminds her that her earnings will amount to nothing if all of it is spent on her treatment when she is taken ill, owing to work-induced exertion.
"What do we do?" she asks. "Just when I thought life was getting back to normal, the lockdown came and bulldozed our lives yet again."
Munira Ali*, 15, West Bengal
Munira misses Surat, the city she has come to call her first home, even though her origins lie in Canning city in Bengal's South 24 Parganas district. Her father, who works at a salwar tailoring workshop, moved with his family all the way to Gujarat a couple of years ago, only to make frequent visits back home after Munira was smuggled into a sex-trade racket by a man posing as their well-wisher.
"He won the trust of my family and brought me with him to Canning from Surat in late January last year. Esrafil [perpetrator] was trying to send me off to Pune or Mumbai, but got caught midway by the police and the Goranbose Gram Bikash Kendra (GGBK, a local NGO), who rescued and rehabilitated me for around a week before sending me back to my family," she recalls. The nightmare, however, was far from over, as one of Esrafil's wives, Munni, attempted to traffic Munira off to Maharashtra the very next month.
"She threatened me with murder, and blackmailed me constantly, when she realised that trying to fool me would not work. Munni initially posed as someone trying to save me from her husband by giving us information about his whereabouts. But her cover was blown," she says.
In the past couple of years, Bengal's porous borders along the districts of South 24 Parganas, North 24 Parganas, Murshidabad, Jalpaiguri, and Alipurduar have proved propitious for trafficking rackets and other illegal businesses. According to the data released by NCRB, the state registered the highest number of trafficking cases in 2016, amounting to a total of 3,579. Canning and Diamond Harbour subdivisions under the South 24 Parganas, in particular, have emerged as major hotbeds for this crime.
"It is a reality of several women in this part of the state," says Kakali Das, Munira's handler from GGBK, owing to which the district administration introduced a rehabilitation programme named 'Swayamsiddha' in 2018. The scheme aims to spread awareness about trafficking among locals through various mediums and channels. Supplementing their efforts, the NGO too has proactively rescued and counselled several women in the region like Munira, most of who continue to fight long and tedious legal battles at court against their traffickers.
"The second time too I was rescued by GGBK and the Baruipur Police, who nabbed us in the dead of the night, on 22 February last year. Since Esrafil is a seasoned trafficker, he was being closely monitored by the police for very long," Munira tells me. The case is now being handled by the Criminal Investigation Department (CID), with Esrafil and his accomplices facing charges under the POCSO Act.
Munira and her family travelled back to Bengal earlier this year, in order to attend one such court hearing, soon after which the lockdown was imposed. "We are a family of eight at the moment. I live with my parents, my three younger sisters — who go to school — and one elder sister, who is pregnant. My maternal aunt too is pregnant, and is living with us at the moment, but we don't have any income through the lockdown," she says.
While the family continues to be coerced into withdrawing all charges against the perpetrator by his associates, the Alis* remain undaunted and resolute in their pursuit of justice. They have been a constant source of strength to the 15-year-old, who, after losing her friends on dropping out of school in Class Nine, has found companionship in her parents. "They always look out for me. After being rescued for the second time, I suffered from severe anxiety and required medication, which the NGO gave me," she says. However, she ran out of medicine soon after the last batch arrived in February, following which her health, both physical and mental, witnessed a sharp dip.
Concern clouds Munira's voice as she speaks of the lockdown's effects on her family. "There are two pregnant women at home, and my elder sister is just 22. On top of that, my headaches have started to relapse, because the medicine is not reaching me anymore due to the lockdown. There is barely any food at home either. We don't even know when the next court hearing will be and when the proceedings will end," she says.
The teenager attributes a large part of her regained confidence to a local NGO named Bandhanmukti, where she works as a community leader spreading awareness about trafficking through skits and street theatre. Munira is slowly, but surely, rediscovering the joys of stepping out alone, even after sundown, despite having to look over her shoulder ever so often.
With Cyclone Amphan further aggravating their already precarious living conditions in the South 24 Parganas — one of the worst-hit districts in Bengal — the roof above their heads has literally caved in, leaving them with little to no hope.
"During the lockdown and until the cyclone happened, the government had only been giving us some ration, not money. We have been borrowing money from a cousin of mine, who is a doctor. He is also helping us source some medicine since we have two pregnant women at home, and we cannot have them falling sick," she says, only to prove in the very next moment that her spirit, despite the weight of her hardships, is far from broken.
"I want to start my own business of clothing and tailoring," Munira says, of her aspirations for the future. "I have no plans of getting married any time soon."
Ujwala Gokul*, 25, Tamil Nadu
For 15 years, Ujwala and her family — comprising six younger siblings and her parents — woke up at 4 am to clean the grounds, feed the hens, and look after the eggs at a farm in Pudupatti, a stone's throw from their village Alampatti. Their village may have as well been miles away as "the farm-owner never allowed us to even call our relatives, forget letting us step out of the farm. We weren't allowed to go to the hospital if we fell ill. If we complained about being sick, the owner would say we are making excuses to get off work," Ujwala recalls.
It has only been a year since they returned home — a rented one-room-and-kitchen unit sheltering nine people — and hope has already started to peter out.
"Back on the farm, only our living quarters were free. We were not given any food; just Rs 150 per day, which too we had to beg for most of the time. We toiled till 6 in the evening, and went back to nothing. Now, we pay Rs 1,000 as rent, while our income has been zero since lockdown was imposed," she says.
Ujwala, who studied till Class Six, was working as a salesgirl at a textile shop 30 minutes away from home after being rescued, until the shutters came down three months ago. One of her younger sisters, who has studied till Class Eight and is 16 years old, accompanied her to work.
"Since my sister hasn't turned 18 yet, the shop owners were not allowing her to work there for the longest time, until they finally agreed. I would get paid Rs 4,000 a month, while my sister would earn Rs 2,000. My father found work as an agricultural labourer and earned around Rs 2,000 a week. All of that has stopped now," she informs. Her mother is homebound, looking after two of her disabled siblings. Being able to afford only one meal for each person every day through the lockdown, their prognosis shows little promise at present.
Ujwala requests a moment's pause before resuming her account. "I got married last month, but that did not really work out well, so I am still with my family," she tells me. Her body seems to be giving up on her, with an obstinate headache compounding her agony.
"Nothing feels right anymore, you know? We do lead a more peaceful life than we did before, but our difficulties have only doubled under lockdown. It takes a while to rebuild your life after facing decades of abuse; whatever progress we had made has now been completely shattered," she says. The family is currently surviving on her siblings' disability pension, and the Rs 1,000 they received in April through the Public Distribution System at ration shops. "We are now being merely granted some oil and rice for free, with pulses being subtracted from the list since May. But the quality of rice we get is so inferior that it does nothing for our nourishment," the 25-year-old says.
As compensation for the years they lost working as bonded labour, Ujwala's family has been granted a piece of land at Pudupatti by the government. "But what do we do with it?" she asks, as the village name triggers horrors that they have all struggled to move past. She can barely recount their initial days at the farm, besides a stray memory of her father being informed by a neighbour about lucrative opportunities in a neighbouring village.
"That's how he landed up there. Soon after, the farm-owner asked my father to bring the rest of the family to the farm too, and that's how we all dropped out of school," she says in a monotone.
On being rescued from Pudupatti, the family was sent to a rehabilitation centre by a NGO for six days, following which they received sporadic counselling. "We are able to talk to our neighbours freely; the trauma does not get in the way," Ujwala trails off, before adding — "Our lives had begun to resume normalcy, you know, but now it's like starting from scratch again" — both emotionally and financially, because of the coronavirus outbreak.
Clearly, the pandemic has set them back by several long years.
*Names changed to protect individual's identity
— Illustrations ©Adrija Ghosh for Firstpost