Eighty-five kilometres north of Mumbai, at Nagzari-Lalonde village in Boisar, eight Nepali women in their 20s are chatting on the veranda of what looks like a community centre. The structure is at one end of a high-fenced, sprawling compound of the Rescue Foundation, an NGO. It is a temporary home for these women, who were ‘rescued’ from a brothel at Bhiwandi last week and told to return to their homes in Nepal – homes they say were flattened by the devastating earthquake in April.
They are reluctant to reveal too much about themselves, but say are all from the Tamang community – the indigenous inhabitants of Nepal – and that their villages are near Kathmandu. Areas inhabited by the Tamang community were among the worst affected by the earthquake, which killed over 9,000 people and injured twice as many, according to official estimates.
While no figures are available, the police, NGOs and Nepali organisations in Mumbai say the trafficking of Nepali women into India, which had all but stopped, has come surging back since the earthquake struck. All eight women tell the counsellors they came to India in search of a livelihood as they no longer have a means of making money back home.
Among them is 22-year-old Dipti. When the counsellors ask her questions, she is evasive, sometimes even a little aggressive. “Kaam nahin karenge toh ghar kaise chalega? Kaun khilayega hamare family ko? (If we are not allowed to work, how our homes run? Who will feed our families?),” she says.
The women seem well-trained by their traffickers to dodge questions about their journey to Bhiwandi from villages in Nepal. “No one brought us. We crossed the Gorakhpur border on our own long ago and came straight here,” says Dipti, who admits that she, like the others, does not have a passport.
Also present is 26-year-old Sushila. Otherwise shy, she is coaxed out of her silence by a mention of the earthquake. “It swallowed my house and my husband, leaving behind my three children and aging in-laws. I had to move out to feed those hungry mouths,” she says. “Leave us to our fate. Nothing is left there. We don’t want to go back,” she pleads, while the rest nod in agreement.
Senior inspector Shakeel Shaikh of the Thane police’s anti-human trafficking cell, who led the raid, says he had never before seen so many Nepali women in one brothel. “We thought trafficking from Nepal had stopped long ago. But the dormant network has become active again,” says Shaikh, who had led many such raids. An interrogation of two women – also Nepali – who ran the brothel will reveal more about this, he adds.
Triveni Acharya, director of the Rescue Foundation, says her sources on the India-Nepal border had been put on alert following the earthquake, to keep tabs on possible trafficking. It was on a tip-off from one such source that the Bhiwandi raid was conducted.
“This is just the tip of the iceberg. Our information says many more women have landed up in brothels around the country in the past two months. We will soon be launching rescues at Budhwar Peth in Pune” Acharya says.
Meanwhile, Purnkumar, president of Saathi Nepal, a group of Nepali expats that is helping to rehabilitate victims of trafficking, says, “Crops have been destroyed, and there are few jobs or business avenues left. In this situation, old parents have little option but allow children to go and fend for themselves,” he says, adding that with the government tied up with rescue and relief efforts, surveillance on traffickers had become a secondary concern. These “dalals” (middlemen) he says, are the biggest beneficiaries of Nepal’s human tragedy.
Saligram Tiwari, president of Samyukta Nepali Mahasangha, the largest body of Nepalis in Mumbai, also said the number of Nepali women in brothels is shocking. “Strict vigilance on the border had stopped the trafficking of women into India a long time ago. In fact, our organisation had even stopped conducting rescue operations as there was no need for them,” he says. “But now I suspect some people are trying to captalise on the situation in Nepal to make some money. I will personally meet the women and get an insight into the ground reality.”
For Sushila, Dipti and the rest, this is the start of a long and arduous wait for a reluctant homecoming.
(Names of the Nepali women have been changed to protect their identities)