Ranchi: The brutal killing in Delhi of Soni Kumari, a tribal girl from Jharkhand, has once again starkly foregrounded the issue of human trafficking, raising crucial questions about how to ensure the protection of young girls who are preyed upon in the name of employment. Moreover, despite all the procedures and drills in place, how is it that the human trafficking network is still intact?
“The news about her death has jolted us, but surrounded as we are by adversity, what can we do,” asks Shankar Oraon, Soni’s brother: “We have never faced the police until now; and here we are having to give statement after statement – when did she leave, with whom did she leave, why did she leave? Should we see to the cattle and our fields or remain entangled in this matter? For the last ten days I have been distraught. Every time I step out, I am accosted by questions from the villagers.” Shankar speaks haltingly, as if wanting to blot out the memory of those moments when he was asked to identify the dismembered body of his minor sister in Delhi by the police.
Shankar is a resident of Dahada, a village with a tribal majority in the remote area of Lapung in Jharkhand. A few days ago, the body of his sister was recovered by the Delhi Police, which has since arrested alleged human trafficker Manjeet Karketa for the crime. Manjeet is also from Jharkhand – he is a resident of Kamdara in Gumla district, which is adjacent to Lapung. In connection with the same crime, the Delhi Police is on the lookout for a woman along with two other accused as well.
The initial police investigation has revealed that the alleged traffickers had brought Soni to Delhi. After placing her in domestic employment, they regularly pocketed her wages. Several months later, when the minor asked the accused for her wages, she was murdered in a planned manner.
After this terrifying incident relating to human trafficking came to light, Jharkhand Police too has been making its own enquiries. However, the local administration seems to be getting some relief in the matter for the simple reason that no FIR has been registered in any police station in Jharkhand about the tribal girl disappearing or being trafficked.
Baidyanath Kumar, who has been running a campaign against human trafficking in Jharkhand for years is of the view that the little stir caused in the state in the wake of the incident has more to do with the barbaric method of Soni Kumari’s murder. Otherwise, he points out, every second or third month, there are reports of the terrible helplessness of the girls who are trafficked, suffering untold atrocities, and all those stories are hushed up – this, despite the fact that many of these reports are about the travails of girls who have been located in other regions, rescued with great effort and brought back to Jharkhand.
Simple lives, stark helplessness
Coming back to Soni Kumari’s family, Shankar lives with his mother and younger brother in Dahada, which falls under Malgo panchayat. There are about 75 families in this village where tribals are in a majority. The only means of livelihood available to them is farming and working as labour in the fields.
Shankar Oraon says his father, Bandhu Oraon, died around the month of Phalgun (mid-February to mid-March) last year. The responsibility of looking after his mother, Aetwari Oraon, and brother, Pradeep Oraon, has fallen on his shoulders since. Pradeep is a student of Class VIII in the village school. Their home is a kutcha structure with a tiled roof.
Shankar owns two oxen, two goats and some land. Since there is an acute shortage of the means of irrigation, he engages in wage labour in addition to tending his own land. The two sacks of onions that he has harvested will be sold in the rainy months to stock up on household essentials.
The news of her daughter’s murder has left Aetwari and other village women traumatised. She had no idea of where her daughter had gone or that she would be killed in cold blood by human traffickers. As to the question, when did the girl – Soni – leave, Shankar says he does not remember the exact date, only that she left a few days prior to their father’s death last year. He was not at home at the time. His mother says she left the house saying she was going for a bath and did not return.
According to both Shankar and his mother, they never received any news of her whereabouts. They did not approach the police about this matter either. When asked why they did not approach the police or the panchayat, Shankar says, “Earlier too, Soni had gone away to work in the brick kilns. On many an occasion, she would absent herself from the house for several days. We thought she would eventually return. In any case, many people from this area keep going to other regions to earn a livelihood.”
In the midst of their day-to-day struggle, when they did try to obtain some information, there was none forthcoming, says Shankar. Moreover, he points out, “My sister never sent any money back home. Before this, even when she returned from the brick kilns, she did not give me any money. I too did not ask for it.”
Jhugia Oraon, who lives in the same village, intervenes at this stage. She speaks in the local dialect: “It is a known fact that girls have been going outside to work. There has even been some discussion in the villages about the fact that middlemen and meth (human traffickers) do not treat these girls properly.”
Who is accountable?
Sugi Devi, the mukhia of Malgo panchayat says, that Soni Kumari was taken to Delhi was never brought out in the open. Kaushalya Devi, another resident of the village, is distressed by the fact that human traffickers who provide village girls to people in the metros and big cities happen to be locals themselves. Worse, still, women are also involved in trafficking.
The officer in charge of Lapung police station states that he has minutely examined the records of the last one-and-a-half years and determined that Soni’s family did not register any complaint about her going away or being lured by someone to leave the village.
A tribal youth from Lapung, Rohit Munda, expresses his view that the panchayats should also have some accountability in such sensitive matters. Pointing out that illiteracy, poverty and unemployment are the main factors that encourage and embolden human traffickers, he asks if it is not the job of the police to keep an eye on or arrest the agents who make trafficking possible – but the police moves only if an FIR has been registered. On the other hand, it angers Rohit that concerns like poverty and unemployment due to which human trafficking is assuming terrifying proportions, are not on the agenda of the government or the powers that be.
Meanwhile, in his role as special juvenile officer, Rajkumar Mehta, the deputy superintendent of police in Ranchi, has also spoken to Soni’s distressed family members. He too has stated that both Shankar and his mother have told him they never approached the police at any time.
Kelly Kislaya, a senior journalist with The Times of India who writes on the issues of human trafficking and violence against women in Jharkhand, feels there is a dire need to grasp the helplessness and innocent existence of families living in tribal areas, for it would help in comprehending their poverty-stricken condition as well. This is precisely the ordeal that Shankar’s family experienced after all.
The journalist explains that police stations are a long way off from villages located in hilly and forested areas. Also, the idea of having to face the enquiries and rough behaviour of the police for registering a FIR makes distressed families think twice about approaching them. They are aware that in such cases, the police will invariably tell them to first make a round of the relatives to find out something.
The simple existence of many tribal families, who know nothing other than to work the fields, is such that they often end up not saying anything about the girls who have left their homes. Other families allow their daughters to go in the hope that if the girls send some money home it would help them make do somehow.
In several cases it has come to light that human traffickers are able to lure innocent village girls with fancy dreams of living in big metros, says Kelly. It is essential that governmental and non-governmental organisations work on the ground to prevent this from happening.
It is worth noting that anti-human trafficking units have been set up in Jharkhand’s tribal majority districts such as Ranchi, Khunti, Gumla, Lohardaga, Simdega, Chaibasa, Dumka and Palamu to stop incidents of human trafficking. Apart from this the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) too keeps an eye on such matters.
The figures tell us that between 2014 and March 2017, about 247 human traffickers were arrested – of those, 103 were women. In the same period, 394 cases were registered and 381 individuals were rescued.
Experts are of the view that human traffickers are also involved in many cases of missing children. Between 2013 and May 2017, as many as 2,489 children went missing of which 1,114 children remain untraced. This is despite the fact that the police department has affixed specific responsibilities to be carried out by officers at various levels and at the same time it continues to seek the assistance of NGOs.
Social activist Baidyanath Kumar explains that in 2013 he had submitted the names of 240 human traffickers and placement agencies operating in Delhi and other cities. While these names were investigated, no serious action was taken. It is in the national capital of Delhi and the adjoining state of Haryana that the maximum incidents of inhuman treatment of domestic helps take place – incidents in which human traffickers and placement agencies play an especially dangerous role.
Baidyanath claims that several notorious traffickers continue to evade the grasp of the police, successfully taking a large number of girls from Khunti, Gumla, Chaibasa and Ranchi to metropolitan cities. Even those girls who are rescued are not rehabilitated properly.
This time, the State Commission for Protection of Child Rights itself has taken notice of the murder of a Jharkhand girl. Chairperson Arti Kujur has stated that Delhi Police has been asked to submit a report in a week’s time. In addition, a decision has been taken to send a seven-member fact-finding team to Delhi.
In this context, it is worth noting that the Jharkhand state government has set up a state resource centre in Delhi to help girls who are victims of human trafficking. However, chairperson Kujur has questioned the role played by the resource centre, terming it defunct. She had written to the state government on this matter earlier, too.
A horrific scenario
It is a never-ending scenario: in January this year a minor girl hailing from a remote village in Khunti district was rescued with help from the Delhi Commission for Women. The employer, a doctor living in a posh area of Delhi, had burnt the girl’s hands and thrown hot water on her face. The girl had been working there for four months. After this incident came to light, the police even arrested the doctor.
This incident was followed by another case of a minor girl from Latehar who was subjected to extremes of bestial treatment. The Delhi Commission for Women acted on this matter as well. Some days ago, two minor girls from the villages of Rajbhitta and Chapri in Godda were rescued from Faridabad. These girls also described the intense exploitation and trauma they were subjected to.
Ravikant, who heads the Delhi-based organisation Shakti Vahini which works towards the protection of child rights and against human trafficking, says there is a huge demand for minor girls as domestic helps in the metros. In the absence of a Placement Agency Act in Jharkhand and several other states, those who work in those agencies have assumed the face of traffickers, raking in money running to crores of rupees.
The children are trapped from both sides. On the one hand many household employers indulge in inhuman behavior, and on the other hand the placement agencies grab their wages and prevent them from returning home or communicating with their family members. While it is understood that paucity of employment opportunities will compel people to migrate, it is the duty of governments to ensure safe migration, says Ravikant. Apart from this, domestic work by children between the ages of 12-16 should be included in the category of hazardous work in the Domestic Workers Act, he adds.
Considering that for years human trafficking has been rampant in areas of Jharkhand where tribals are in a majority, it is time the anti-human trafficking units became proactive. The ground realities are stark – many families do not open their mouths about girls going out for work, but when girls are preyed upon and exploited, there is an anguished cry for help. Notwithstanding the efforts that are going on at several levels, the horrifying pictures of human trafficking that regularly appear in the media indicate that there are still many more inhuman stories of exploitation waiting to be told.
This article first appeared in The Wire Hindi and has been translated from the Hindi original by Chitra Padmanabhan.