From the time she was 13, Phulmani (name changed) was forced to act as a surrogate mother and deliver six children by human traffickers from Jharkhand, widely considered a hotbed of modern day slavery.
Phulmani, now 31, was made to breastfeed the children – all born in consecutive years in Delhi – for about six months before giving them to the agents who sold them off.
The resident of Patru village in Gumla district was rescued by rights activists and returned to Jharkhand last year. Her experiences have left her emotionally and physically scarred.
“They treated me like a money minting machine. My will never mattered to them, all they wanted was me to deliver babies for them," she said, avoiding eye contact.
Phulmani was lured to Delhi by an agent from her village with the promise of a job in the national capital. She worked as a domestic help in a posh locality in her first year in Delhi before the inhuman treatment began.
She has no idea who bought her babies or what became of them. But now she is seeking justice and has filed a complaint with the Child Welfare Committee (CWC) in Gumla.
Rights groups have complained for long that well organised rings have been trafficking girls and young women from Jharkhand. According to civil society groups, about 10,000 children are trafficked from Jharkhand every year to either work as domestic help or sex workers, but trafficking for forced surrogacy has never been heard of before.
The CWC in Gumla came across another case of trafficking for surrogacy from Lotwadugdugi village in Palkot block. The girl was trafficked to Delhi when she was just eight years old. Now 29, she returned to Jharkhand last year and alleged that she was forced to deliver at least 10 babies, said Alakh Singh, a member of the CWC.
"It is not a regular pattern, but we have come across a few such cases in the past. It is a major concern if such practices are happening in the state," said additional director general of police (CID) SN Pradhan.
Like Phulmani, some more girls from Gumla and Lohardaga districts of Jharkhand were trafficked for conceiving children, local residents claimed. Some girls were even forced to conceive babies for sale in Jharkhand, they alleged.
Jagatram Mahato, an elderly man from Arahasa village in Lohardaga, said teenagers from his village had been lured to Delhi and some northern states for forced surrogacy.
"Some of them even gave birth to children in the village. Later, the agents came and took the babies," he said. While a few girls were paid a negligible amount for being surrogate mothers, a majority did not get even a penny, he said.
However, police said they could not act unless FIRs were filed about such cases. A majority of the girls did not bother to complain to the police, probably due to fear, villagers said.
The NGO Shakti Vahini says it has rescued more than 100 girls from Jharkhand in Delhi. Bachapan Bachao Andolan (BBA), the NGO run by Noble Prize winner Kailash Satyarthi, says it rescued almost 80,000 children across India, of whom 15% to 20% were from Jharkhand and Bihar.