Barpeta (Assam): Last month, 12 children, aged between 13 and 17 years, and 15 adults were trafficked to Arunachal Pradesh from several flood-affected villages in the southern part of Barpeta district in western Assam. They were trafficked to Dada village of East Kameng district in Arunachal Pradesh and had been kept as bonded labour for nearly a month until a district child welfare committee rescued them.
Victims’ parents and guardians had been told by the traffickers that the labourers would be engaged in road construction work in Assam’s Lakhimpur district, but they were sent to neighbouring Arunachal to work in a hazardous environment to break stones. They were deprived of adequate food, sanitation and medical needs, and had remained disconnected from their families as the traffickers did not allow them to make calls. Their movement was restricted, with strict vigilance.
After 20 days, two of the adult victims, Eyakub and Ahila, somehow walked out of the site and managed to slip into a truck. They rolled themselves in a truck’s tarpaulin and crossed the border into Assam. Then, they headed home with their horror story.
They recounted that on the fateful, they were taken past Lakhimpur, the promised worksite, to Bhalukpung on the Assam-Arunachal Pradesh border. On the next day, they were taken to Arunachal on the promise that the worksite was nearby. But they were transported to Dadabasti, one of the remotest villages in East Kameng district. The place is said to be an uninhabited hilly forest, without electricity and mobile network. The trafficked had to arrange their own accommodation by erecting a bamboo platform with tarpaulin roof at the skirt of a hill. They spent the nights in those temporary shelters, where they could hardly sleep.
As they were engaged throughout the day, they had to cook in the early hours with a lot of difficulty. Unknown insects bit them. “The insects dropped in swarms by the fire. They also fell on our plates,” one of the victims recounted. Their legs were swollen within a week due to insect bites.
The only supplies they received were “chawal, dal and alu” (rice, lentils and potatoes). Any attempt to resist the inhumane treatment being meted out to them invited verbal abuse. They were also threatened with death (to be thrown down the hill), in case anyone dared to leave the place. Frequent fever and stomach pain persisted among a few victims. The victims said their repeated appeals for medical help were turned down.
A labour contractor named Ali from Lakhimpur district in Assam recruited an agent in Barpeta district and paid him Rs 60,000. The agent lured the children and their parents with Rs 500 to Rs 1,000 as an advance to each and promised them a daily wage of Rs 400. For 13-year-old Jiyarul (name changed), once a brilliant student and later a school dropout, the agent came as a saviour with that Rs 500 note and a job offer that promised to pay him Rs 400 a day.
The agent took them to Assam-Arunachal border and handed them over to Ali. Ali took charge of crossing the children and adult workers through the state border check post. Their Inner Line Permits were obtained at the border by filing in false information about the children and adults. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, inter-state migration is only permitted after conducting a COVID test. One of the children had, in fact, tested positive for the novel coronavirus.
In our conversation with Ali over the phone, he said without any hesitation that he and the employer even tried to bribe the health officials to manipulate the COVID-19 test result to negative and send the child to work along with the group rather than sending him to hospital or for isolation.
He said, “My malik (employer) was ready to pay up to Rs 10,000 to change the result to negative.”
Thus, the contractor could take 11 children along with the adults to a remote place in East Kameng district in Arunachal Pradesh without any hurdle.
Physical and mental torture
Soon after they were taken to the worksite in a remote hill in Dadabasti, inhumane treatment by the employer began. Young children were asked to break stone with hammers. They could hardly lift the hammers. They used to get tired and exhausted easily. But the site manager would shout at them to get back to work. Some of the children injured themselves as they did not know how to handle a heavy hammer.
The victims appealed to the manager that they would let go of their wages if he allowed them to leave. “But the manager said that we would only be released if we pay Rs 10,000 per person or work at least for three months,” according to one victim. The manager told the children that the labour contractor had taken Rs 3 lakh in advance.
After listening to the accounts of Eyakub and Ahila, those who managed to flee, the family members of the children were at a loss as to how to go about freeing them. The authors’ colleagues and young community workers learnt of the plight and approached Childline Barpeta, a unit of Childline project, under the aegis the Ministry of Women and Child Development and ChildLine India Foundation in partnership with civil society organisations in many districts of India. The endeavour is to care and protect children by providing telephone and outreach services operating through national emergency toll free helpline number 1098.
In Barpeta, the Childline unit has been active since 2015, and has supported rescue, rehabilitation of several child victims of marriage, labour, trafficking and other forms of child right violations. In this incidence, co-author Rafiqul Islam, the then centre coordinator of Childline Barpeta, filed a police complaint alleging child trafficking and bonded labour.
Simultaneously, the authors coordinated with the Child Welfare Committee of East Kameng district, but they faced difficulties in locating the children due to inadequate information about the exact location of the site. After almost a week of struggle and coordination, the child welfare committee identified the location and recovered the children on October 2. The next day, with the active coordination of the Child Welfare Committee chairperson Nama Dodum, the adults were also rescued and sent back home together.
Released from the clutches of the traffickers and back home, they have to now fight against the abject poverty and hunger. These victims of child trafficking and bonded labour belong to the villages in the southern part of Barpeta district. Several of them are from char or river island areas. The perennial flood and erosion caused by Brahmaputra and its tributaries have been affecting their lives and livelihood every year. Various studies suggest that the people living in char and chapori (river island and riverbank) areas are one of the most marginalised communities in Assam.
The Assam government’s two flagship socio-economic surveys on char areas of the state have found that the literacy rate in char areas is as low as 19%, and in a few districts literacy rate has been declining even further. Also, more than 68% of char residents live below the poverty line. In this case, the poverty rate increased between the two survey periods. The recent Assam human development report by the UNDP found that the char children have the lowest “mean year of schooling” in comparison to all marginalised communities in Assam. As a result, young children and adolescents from these areas fall prey to traffickers. The national family health survey (NFHS-4) data suggests that in the char dominated districts, more than 50% of the girl children are married off before the age of 18.
However, the government has not taken any special correctional measure for improving conditions. Moreover, this year’s floods and COVID-19 pandemic have created a humanitarian crisis among them. Most parents of these children are marginal farm labourers and marginal farmers. COVID-19 lockdown has severely affected their livelihood as they could not sell their perishable vegetables, as they did not have access to the market. Subsequently, they could not buy fuel, fertilisers and pesticides for their paddy cultivation. This year’s devastating floods have made them the victims of all sorts of social evils.
Children from these villages are deprived of education. Out of 12 trafficked children, 10 of them were regular students before the pandemic. Since the onset of pandemic, school education has been moved to online mode. They have no access to smartphones, and therefore, they could not participate in the online classes.
The trafficked children reached home on a goods carrier. They travelled for 25 hours standing. They told us that they even did not get space to put their feet on the floor of the van properly. Like a celebration of homecoming, the villagers gathered in the playground of the school, where most of them studied before the pandemic. That late evening, all the villagers sat down on the playground to listen to the horror their children had gone through. Twelve young children stood in a queue, all pulled up their trousers and lungis up to their knee to show their swollen feet. Some were still bleeding. One by one, the children recounted the ordeal they had gone through while parents and villagers wept.
As per Child Labour Amendment (Prohibition and Regulation) Act 2016, “Whoever employs any child or permits any child to work in contravention of the provisions of section 3 shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term which shall not be less than six months but which may extend to two years, or with fine which shall not be less than twenty thousand rupees but which may extend to fifty thousand rupees, or with both.” In the case of a second and subsequent offence, there is a provision of imprisonment of up to three years.
Trafficking attracts more stringent punishment. Section 370 of Indian Penal Code (IPC) in the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act 2013 reads, “Where the offence involves the trafficking of more than one minor, it shall be punishable with rigorous imprisonment for a term which shall not be less than fourteen years, but which may extend to imprisonment for life, and shall also be liable to fine.” For repeated violators, there is a provision for life imprisonment.
The Child Labour Amendment (Prohibition and Regulation) Act 2016 even has provision to penalise the parents and guardians in the case of second and subsequent offence/s with fine of Rs 10,000.
One cannot fathom when we have the powerful enactments against child trafficking, child labour and bonded labour, why police departments of two states, numerous check-posts in every district, special police units for child protection, district child welfare committees, state-level child protection commissions or even the child rights organisations could not intercept the trafficking of 12 children in a time when the whole system should be on alert due to the pandemic. Is our child protection mechanism working or has it failed or even parts of it are complicit in the business of violating child rights?
Soon after getting the information of this horrific incident, the authors informed media personnel and it was reported. The authors were informed that the Assam State Commission for the Protection of Child Rights has written to the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights and top police officers for their action. But so far, everything seems to be on the paper with no reflection on the ground. The traumatised children did not get their wages or any compensation.
As victims of child trafficking and bonded labour, they are entitled to get rehabilitation. However, even after registered complaints, media reports and official communication at the highest level of child protection mechanism, no officials have approached them for rehabilitation. Even their statement has not been recorded, either by police or by the representative from the child welfare committee. Community workers from that locality took the children to hospital for medical treatment.
Investigation officer of the case, Abhijit Baruah told the authors on October 21, “Investigation is going on. We are trying our best to make it quicker. We expect good results soon.”
Child protection units under Integrated Child Protection Scheme (ICPS) have been functioning in almost all districts of the country. Such units are supposed to decentralise vigilance to the blocks and villages in the forms of Child Protection Committees. But Child Protection Committees at the block level and village level planned in the ICPS are yet to be realised. These committees would have been the most effective organs of the protection mechanism. However, it is because of the absence of such committees, villages also have rampant child marriage occurrences.
On the other hand, the trafficker and his handler are going about their business as usual. Two days after the victims reached home, trafficker Ali called one of the community workers to get stock of the situation. The authors spoke to him and asked him to pay wages to the children. Ali told us without the slightest amount of remorse that he has spent enough and would not pay anything. He also claimed that after the children who were rescued, another lot of five children were picked up from another part of Barpeta district.