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22 Jun 2024, Edition - 3266, Saturday

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Trafficked to die: What happened to these young girls from Bastar

Covai Post Network

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Malini Subramaniam

Little did the girls imagine that the quiet slip out of the safe haven of their homes would end in tragedy. Between June to August last year, 12 girls, aged between 12 and 20, left their villages in Tokapal block in Bastar, and Chhattisgarh to chase their dreams. Six months later, early January this year, 11 returned with a dead body.

Seventeen-year-old Palo Jagannath died abruptly of an undiagnosed ailment while working on a road construction side in Andhra Pradesh, almost 1,000 kilometres from her village.

On January 4, the day the group brought back her body, another 17-year-old, Paiko Kamlu, complained of illness and passed away in the dead of the night. The next day the remaining 10 girls were rushed to the Maharani Hospital in Jagdalpur for a check-up.

The exact cause of the deaths is unknown. The detailed medical report is yet to be made public.

But the accounts of the girls who survived paint a frightening picture of what they faced. The nightmare would have gone unnoticed but for the deaths which have briefly focused attention on the steady human trafficking in the region in the form of labour migration.
Kamlu Veko who lost his daughter Paiko Kamlu. Photo credit: Sakhi
Kamlu Veko who lost his daughter Paiko Kamlu. Photo credit: Sakhi

The journey

Less than 20 kilometres from Jagdalpur, the district headquarters of Bastar, lie the villages of Salepal and Erakote.

One morning in August, in the darkness of the early hours, eight girls from Salepal – Paiko, Mahangi, Saibo, Rajni, Phulo, Mangli, Paiko Sirab and Palo – and in June four girls from Erakote – Neelo, Mitko, Saiti and Jasri – slipped out of their homes.

An hour long walk from the villages led them to the main road where they were joined by Munna, a local labour contractor, who took them in a vehicle to Jagdalpur where they boarded a bus to Vijaywada.

From the city in Andhra Pradesh, they took a train to Giddalur from where another bus was boarded to reach the road construction work site at Epurpeta in Prakasam district, Andhra Pradesh.

Two days of journey had taken them nearly 1,000 kms from home.

The labour contractor sent word to their families that the girls were safe and that they would return after a period of two months.

That’s when the nightmare began.
Jagannath who lost his daughter Palo. Photo credit: Sakhi
Jagannath who lost his daughter Palo. Photo credit: Sakhi

Trapped

At the road construction site, work would begin at six in the morning. Food – mostly rice and some vegetables – was served three times: 8am, 2pm and later in the night at 8pm. “It would be cold and not good but we could eat to our stomach’s fill,” said Paiko Sirab.

The girls were confined to a single room at night. They were not allowed to go to the local market, nor could they freely contact their families. Only a few minutes of monitored conversations were allowed.

Unhappy with the situation, they wanted to return home, but had no money. Before they set out from their villages, they had been promised Rs 5,000 as monthly wages, but no advance was given, and months into the work, they had still not been paid.

Their only security was to remain together, said Mahangi Kamlu, who lost her sister Paiko after returning to the village. “We were scared and would often cry ourselves to sleep,” said Mahangi.

The contractor had assured them that the work would not last more than two-three months, after which they could return home. But six months later, they were still at the worksite, with no money, no clue of where they were, or how they could get back home.

Then, the girls started falling ill.

As Palo’s health began to sink steadily, the contractor took them to the Giddalur hospital, where Palo was declared dead. Panicking, the contractor hurriedly put all the girls in a vehicle to be taken to Jagdalpur. The traumatised girls returned with Palo’s dead body in the ambulance to be followed soon by Paiko’s death in the village.

Missing children

Paiko’s father Kamlu Veko looks visibly shattered. “The girls left without informing anyone in the family,” he said.

However, the families did not lodge a missing persons report. The fact that Manu, the local contractor, belongs to the same village perhaps assured them of the girls’ safety.

“This is one of the key reasons why trafficking which is often enmeshed with labour migration is difficult to check,” said Vijay Sharma, the child protection officer of Bastar district, employed with the Women and Child Development of the state government. “Family members when they realise their children have left without informing them seldom file a report in the police station.” According to him, they should – it can make a big difference.

Between 2013 and 2016, 145 children have been registered missing in the district. All except 14 have been traced and restored to their family under Operation Muskan, a scheme started with central government support to trace missing children, he said. But the numbers reflect those cases that are reported, many hundreds go unreported. The panchayat members and the village kotwar have the responsibility of keeping track of missing persons in the village, but such monitoring is rarely practiced, Sharma added.

Trafficking in the garb of labour migration is quite high in Bastar district. Both adults and children migrate to nearby Odisha and Andhra Pradesh to work in brick kilns and construction sites. The government has mandated the registration of migrant workers at the panchayat level, but the records are poorly maintained, making it difficult to trace or locate the missing population. At the district level, an anti human trafficking unit was set up a year ago. The police has been sensitised to the issue and vested with necessary powers of rescuing victims and arresting the culprits. But the Salepal case shows that rarely happens.

Police failure

Despite the deaths of Palo and Paiko, no case has been filed so far. The main labour contractor for the work site in Andhra Pradesh, Bissa seth, had sub-contracted the task of bringing workers from Bastar to Munna, who lives in the same village as the girls. Munna had taken the help of Neelo, another worker, to convince the girls to leave. The officer at the Kodenar police station Ramcharan Lahri defended the police force’s inaction in the case. “Munna is only a ninth-class educated under-eighteen boy who was hired by Bissa to bring in labour from his village,” he said.

Astonishingly, the officer did not find any reason to file a case against Bissa seth either. “He did not recruit the labour here and he has never been to the village,” he said.

The police did send investigators to question the seth, he said, but they came back convinced with the contractor’s claims of having arranged the accommodation for the girls in an ‘A-class building’, fed them with ‘top-quality rice worth Rs 40 a kilo’, and supplied mineral water bottles since the water was not potable. Bissa seth was “decent enough” to have sent all the money he owed to the girls in a voucher signed in the name of the sub-divisional magistrate, which would be later equally distributed amongst the girls, Lahri added.

But the girls said the money they received was less than what is owed to them. “We were given a mere Rs 17,000,” said Neelo, who claims to have worked for six month . At the rate of Rs 5000 per month, the girls should have received Rs 30,000 each.

Bissa seth, speaking on phone, defended the payments. While the girls and family members maintain they worked for six months, Bissa claimed one batch of girls worked for five months, while the other worked only for three months. “We paid for their boarding, lodging and covered their travel expenses, and therefore calculated Rs 4000 per month,” he said. Based on such a calculation, a total cash of Rs. 2.14 lakh was handed over to the police personnel, he said.

The police officer added that Rs. 20,000 was sent separately for families of Palo and Paiko, to help them tide over the death of the two girls.

Isn’t the contractor guilty of having hired underage girls as labourers and therefore liable for arrest? Other than two girls, who were 14, the rest were well above 14 years, the police officer rushed to defend him.

As for the deaths, the doctors in Giddalur had declared Palo dead due to kidney and liver failure. The detailed medical reports are yet to be made public.

A grim reality

However, the Salepal case has jolted the district administration. Tokapal block now has a child protection committee, as part of the Integrated Child Protection Scheme which was immediately formed in response to the Salepal case, said Sharma, the district child protection officer.

Police checkpoints have been set up with the help of the road transport office, to check if children are being taken away for labour work. The migration register will be strictly maintained and monitored, said Sharma.

At Salepal, there is a pall of gloom over the incident. But the young and the old are migrating and will continue to migrate, said a village council member, with a wry smile. What else could they do with the failing crop and growing insecurity, he said. Neelo’s mother displayed all her cards – the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme card, the bank card, the Aadhaar card – all of which had empty pages.

Disclaimer:The views expressed above are the author’s own

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