Guwahati, Kamrup and Rangapara (Sonitpur district), Assam – Sehar, Marget and Prathibha were teenagers, growing up in somewhat similar conditions a few hundred miles apart in the north-east state of Assam, which is visited by floods every year leaving in its wake destruction, devastation and consequent displacement. Sehar and Marget were in Assam’s flood-affected Sonitpur and Kamrup districts, while Prathibha was from a tea tribe community, a multi-ethnic group of tea garden workers that comprised 17 per cent of the Assam’s population, in Sonitpur district. Like other teenagers, they dreamt of finding love and settling down with the man of their choice, away from parental homes.
They never in their wildest dreams thought they would be sold off like commodities, forced to lead lives of humiliation and torture with no apparent means of escape. Like so many others before them and after, the three became victims of trafficking and slavery, all a consequence of their abject poverty that is preyed upon by traffickers, often their own relatives or neighbours.
Raised in tiny rooms in a squalid neighbourhood, the three girls spent most of their childhood on their own. Khaleefa, who is Sehar’s mother, lost her parents when she was a kid, Marget lost her mother as she came to this world. And Prathibha’s parents were busy working hard, making a living, to give her any time.
Their destitution arose from the twin scourges of floods and soil erosion that destroy properties and force many to leave their village and migrate to find some means of livelihood.
Their story is not much different from the hundreds whose properties are damaged by flood and erosion, their farmlands becoming uncultivable owing to the silt and sand deposited by the flood waters entering fertile land across the state.
“During the winter, the water levels in the Haathai Naula, one of the three water bodies that flows very close to Marget’s village Ghogra in Sonitpur district, are depleted, but during monsoon it swells up, damaging houses and depositing silt and sand in our farmland. For a people dependent primarily on agriculture, “the loss of farmland was a heavy blow to us,” says Marget.
“The silt left by floods in the paddy fields turn the farmlands uncultivable. This made my father migrate from our ancestral village Ghogra in Sonitpur district when I was eight year-old,” she added. In the last two decades, Ghogra village has faced several internal and external natural calamities.
“We came to Sonitpur town where my father found work as a cycle-rickshaw driver”, she added.
He made little ferrying passengers often unable to meet the household expenses. Soon he joined a local and started selling liquor, while Marget grew up cleaning the compound of her house, rooms, and kitchen, washing clothes and fetching water.
Unaware of how much her father made, Marget was forced to marry on January 3, 2003. But life was no better for her at her husband’s Dhulapadung village under the jurisdiction of Rangapara Police Station in Sonitpur district.
“My husband earned Rs 800 per week and that was not enough for the six of us including our four children, two sons and two daughters and my husband. Our hardships began after my husband started spending most of his earnings on liquor. I had no choice but to work in a tea garden,” she said, covering her face with a red dupatta.
Earnings from the tea garden were not enough also. Soon Marget began looking for work opportunities with better earnings.
She came in touch with traffickers who have gained notoriety in Assam’s tea gardens.
Unable to bear the financial challenge and the physical, sexual, emotional and psychological abuse at her in-laws, Marget left her village nestled on the background of hills and slopes and surrounded by Dhulapadung Tea Estate.
“I bought a train ticket for Rs 30 from the railway station and reached Guwahati Railway Station. Here, I bought another train ticket worth around Rs 200 and reached New Delhi Junction. During my journey, I was told by an unfamiliar face where I would be able to start as a house help immediately,” recounts Marget, whose back faces the camera as she speaks to us. She remains unemotional as she recalls the experience.
“The house was not very far away from the railway station. I came walking and stopped before a shop. The shopkeeper asked me to wait for a while, and probably made a call to my employer. As I was waiting before the shop, I noticed someone on the terrace looking at me. Meanwhile, the house gate was opened for me. When I entered the house, I was told to use the lift”, she said.
When the lift stopped on the floor, Marget was given a dress to change into because the one she was wearing was dirty and torn.
The next hour she became a cook, did house chores throughout the day till the family of four went to bed. She was given food twice a day from the meals Marget prepared for the household. The morning three hours were devoted to looking after a child. Then she had to take care of an old-age couple. In the meantime, she had to cook and finish routine chores. In the afternoon she had to spend time at a small stitching unit at where she was asked to clean up and work as a helper.
“I would only be able to sleep after the family members went to bed. I not only worked at home but was forced to work at the stitching unit too. I cried a lot and begged them to pay my wages and let me go home,” she said.
Meanwhile, her husband lodged a missing person complaint with the Rangapara Police Station in Sonitpur district.
“Probably, my employer saw my photo appearing in a newspaper and read that the police were looking for me. Hurriedly and for the second and last time I was allowed to use the lift to come down. From home I reached New Delhi Railway Station. And on the arrival of a train I was given a train ticket and Rs 200 by my employer. That was the only money which I have received working for 18-19 hours in the last eleven months in a hellish situation,” says Marget.
When asked how she got trafficked Marget said that while working as a daily wager in a tea estate, she came in touch with the agents/traffickers. The agents convinced her and offered her with a good job and money. One fine day, she made up her mind and left home. She reached Rangapara Railway Station and boarded a train to reach Guwahati. Probably, she was given instructions by the agents to reach Guwahati Railway Station. Here, she was told to board a train to reach New Delhi. During her journey, one of the fellow passengers, probably a trafficker, got friendly and told her where to find employment and shelter in the national capital. But for the eleven months she had spent at a house in New Delhi, she remained cut-off from the world. She never received the promised salary and had to work for more than 18-19 hours. She chose not to share more information about the agents/traffickers.
Marget was comparatively lucky as her husband’s missing person complaint helped her reunite with her family.
Currently, her case is under hearing before the Sonitpur district court.
Hard to escape
A similar story was told by Khaleefa, Sehar’s mother and a resident of flood-prone Nagarbera village on the south bank of the mighty Brahmaputra. Khaleefa’s daughter Sehar was lured by a trafficker with the false promise of seeing pretty places.
In Assam, where floods devastate usually the same marginalised people year after year, Nagarbera village has a very fragile agricultural economy.
Every year the swollen Brahmaputra submerge land and houses for some time, with erosion causing more damage in terms of the land and property. Agriculture suffers extensively, especially the kharif paddy crop.
“The floods caused by the Brahmaputra leaves behind more sand than silt. During the annual deluge we pray to Allah to save us from the floodwaters of the Brahmaputra submerging more and more areas of our village and land. Houses damaged by flood can be rebuilt, but the damage to our agricultural land refuse to heal,” says Khaleefa, who was raised by her relatives after she lost her parents at an early age.
Married at a young age (she says probably 17 as she is unsure of the year she was born) to a villager, Khaleefa had two daughters, but the flooded paddy fields left them impoverished.
“Food became scarce for us. Meanwhile, my husband remarried. I packed up a few belongings in a polythene bag and decided to migrate to Guwahati to raise my children,” said Khaleefa her eyes downcast as she tries to finish the household chores of her employer. She sits with her left profile to the camera unwilling to face it.
Khaleefa did back-breaking work to earn a living, collecting supplies from ration shops, cleaning houses, cleaning cooking utensils, and collecting water. And then she had to hurry back to send her children to school. Her youngest daughter Sehar was a pretty face with delicately chiselled features. Khaleefa knew the world would be unkind to a lovely soul like Sehar and tried to protect her. Sehar was not allowed to have any friends and could not go out of the house much, under Khaleefa’s instructions.
In search of better life
Despite her efforts, Sehar was lured by a local unemployed youth with the false promise of taking her to visit a big city. A free spirited beautiful girl always eager to smile, Sehar found herself in an unknown place with no knowledge of the local language in 2019.
“My daughter was shocked, when she found herself confined to a room in an urban town in Punjab – to be handed over to an unknown face any moment. She screamed and yelled for help,” Khaleefa narrated.
A cycle of hope
“Sehar’s scream alerted neighbours. The family who came to rescue Sehar decided to make her their daughter-in-law,” Khaleefa said.
Currently, due to Covid restrictions, Khaleefa is unable to meet her daughter but says Sehar regularly shares her happy moments with her new family through pictures. She regularly speaks to her mother and is planning to visit her whenever Covid restrictions are lifted. “She seems
to be safe and happy,” Khaleefa said, rolling tamul paan in a slow rhythm from her left jaw to right whose juice left red stains on her lips. She seems anxious about being speaking so long to this reporter.
Her voice is soft and barely audible, and her words trail off as she speaks. She used the smart phone of one of her employers to speak to Sehar on a Whatsapp Video Call on my request.
A damp July afternoon in the areas of Dhulapadung Tea estate in Rangapara in Sonitpur district. The gate to a typical Assamese house built on bamboo pillars, with walls of bamboo strips plastered with mud and thatched roof, is wide open, as the neighbourhood joins Royal Soreng, secretary of Akhil Bharatiya Chah Mazdoor Sangha [All India Tea Workers Organisation].
Inside, 19-year-old Prathibha, in a tee shirt and shorts, comes out, doing chores and serving guests with lukewarm water and bisoni [hand fan].
Prathibha was born in Moinapuli village, which is nearly 8 kms from the Rangapara Railway Station. She tells her tale in the company of her uncle and rescuer Royal, softly, punctuated with frequent smiles. Her nails are painted, her brown hair frames her face and a black thread is tied to her left knee to ward off the evil.
She grew up in the backdrop of tea gardens, where the exploitative structure of Assam’s tea economy continues.
A cycle of exploitation
Here tea workers are given a paltry daily wage of Rs 205 up from the previous rate of Rs 167, which was the lowest compared to the daily wages of tea workers in Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu at Rs 403, Rs 349 and Rs 333 respectively. And her parents were one of the 10 lakh tea workers in the organised sector working in 856 tea estates producing around 55 per cent of India’s tea.
Due to low wages, many parents can barely afford two square meals a day let alone the basic healthcare for their children, which makes the proposal of someone else taking responsibility for the child, while offering a small amount, too appealing to resist. In other words, they are ready to give up their children in return for some money, such is the plight of these workers.
Dream slowly dissolved
For girls like Prathibha, whose dreams have slowly dissolved into the background of harsh reality, she spent the first13 years of her life fighting to get a share of the scarce resources that were divided among her five brothers and sisters.
Prathibha would rise early with her parents who worked in a tea estate in Rangapara in Sonitpur district.
She helped her parents raise her brothers and sisters living in a ramschakle house that required immediate repairs. Like most rural settlements, there was no plumbing or tubewell, and water is sourced from wells within the community.
The rising insecurity and financial instability caused Prathibha to stay at home when girls of her age went to the school or played in the ground.
“There was no time and an opportunity to enrol myself in the school. The burden of raising five brothers and sisters and household work came naturally on me”, said Prathibha, an almond-eyed teenager.
In her case, traffickers established their contact with a relative who knows such families who are in dire financial circumstances and see their family members and children as a vehicle for financial support.
“But…nothing came in our hand”
In 2016 at the age of 13, Prathibha left her house from a quiet village located few metres away from the boundary of a tea garden in Sonitpur district, to the state of Haryana where the Government for last several years is running a campaign to save the girl child, some 2200 kms away.
“I was 13 when my uncle took me to a village in Haryana. I was told to do all the household work and prepare chapattis for 7-8 people. I was living completely in an isolated area where I was unable to understand the language and communicate with others. Life was hell there,” Pratibha, aged 18 recounts.
The monthly settled wages of Rs 3,500 never reached her or her family in the two years that she worked.
She added: “We were foolish to trust people. I left home thinking it will bring more food for the family and a proper roof to our house. But…nothing came in our hand”.
Officials working among the tea-gardens in Assam feel that poverty is likely to leave a daunting impact in future for the tea workers
“A fertile ground for human trafficking”
“Deplorable socio-economic problem resulting from poverty and illiteracy is making a fertile ground for human trafficking in and around tea gardens,” feels Dr Tilak Chandra Adhikari, chief medical officer Assam Govt’s Public Health Centre, Rangapara, Sonitpur district. Mr Adhikari said unhygienic living condition, inadequate sanitation make them vulnerable to deadly infections and diseases. Moreover, many women workers in the past have shown anaemic symptoms”.
Prathhiba’s uncle Royal Soreng who rescued her thinks that it is the relatives and friends who act as the go-between between families and traffickers.
They use a variety of trafficking methods, including relying on word of mouth or on phone numbers and contacting friends and family members who are in dire need of financial support.
“On the basis of collected information, they approach their target and do the deal. Everything happens very quietly. I feel many traffickers keep themselves informed about the people whom they prey. I am surprised at the vast network of traffickers. I think they enjoy the support of people in power”.
Royal said Prathibha was rescued due to timely intervention of the police.
“We had lodged a missing person complaint with the Rangapara Police Station who approached higher police officials in Sonitpur and adjoining Tezpur District. Quickly, a contact with the employer of Prathibha in Haryana was established. I was there in Haryana where my niece was held captive,” said Royal adding “no police case was registered in the entire matter”.
Never ending calamity
Assam is one of the most vulnerable states in India to climate change. Each year, like clockwork, three to four waves of flood ravage the flood-prone areas. The measure of devastation is increasing every year in the last six decades.
According to the Economic Survey of India, 10% of the country is flood prone. In Assam, approximately 40%, or 931,000 hectares of land is flood-prone. As per a report on climate change published by the Government of Assam in September 2015, erosion has destroyed more than 3,800 square kilometres of farmland, more than Goa’s total area since 1954. A civil engineering report says that between 1954 and 2008 about 4,27,000 hectares have been eroded at the rate of 8,000 hectares every year, like clockwork.
And one of the major problems facing the disaster-hit people is river erosion and the resultant landlessness.
According to Assam’s Disaster management records from 2010 to 2015, 880 villages were completely lost due to erosion, 67 villages were partially lost, and 36,981 families lost their homes. Experts feel that the government’s formation of a separate department of climate change is not going to change the plight of the hundreds who face the brunt of flooding and erosion.
“The state enjoys unique topography and physiographic location that has a dense network of rivers, horse-shoe lakes, natural wetlands, abandoned courses of rivers. The southwest monsoon completely dominates the lives of over 3.12 crore people and the agricultural economy to a large extent. The government’s effort for structural solutions like the construction of embankments, digging of canals, digging of river beds, digging of wetlands, creating reservoirs/ creation of reservoirs and to release the flood waters to deal the very issue of floods and erosion in the river, village and farming are insufficient,” Kulojyoti Lahkar, wildlife conservationist and conservation biologist said.
This is alarming
As per the crime in India 2019 report, Assam recorded 201 human trafficking cases which is third highest in the country and tops in India’s North Eastern region. Out of the total trafficked victims, 80 were minors among which 56 were female. Of all the immoralities that is used in the human trafficking is the enslavement of children for sexual gratification.
The National Crime Records Bureau data suggests that the number of victims above 18 years of age is 168 of which 132 were female.
In the light of the alarming rise in cases of trafficking and forced labour in the country due to further impoverishment of poor families, Nobel Peace Laureate Kailash Satyarthi has demanded urgent passage of Anti- Trafficking Bill in the upcoming monsoon session of the parliament without further delay.
In 2018, India’s Union Cabinet Minister for Women & Child Development Ms Maneka Gandhi presented The Trafficking of Persons (Prevention, Protection and Rehabilitation) Bill, 2018. The Bill was passed in the Lok Sabha. However, the Bill was never tabled in Rajya Sabha and it lapsed with the dissolution of the last parliament.
“Climate victims becomes refugees”
Currently, Sehar is apparently happily married after her rescue and is planning to visit her native place once the Covid restrictions are lifted. Marget who is spending time with her four children, has started working as a daily wager in the tea estates or in the paddy fields in Rangapara in Sonitpur district, while Prathibha is looking after five brothers & sisters and manages all household work.
Amid little hope and little disappointment, Marget 38, the eldest among the three said: “No one trusts displaced families. The government trusts them on the basis of documents and for the villagers and neighbours displaced families remain an outsider for decades and decades. Actually, climate victims become refugees”.
This report was written and produced as part of a media skills development program delivered by the Thomson Reuters Foundation. The content is the sole responsibility of the author and the publisher.
*The names in the story are not the real ones.