Human traficking from Assam worsens during Covid-19 pandemic: Rights activists
GUWAHATI: In May 2020, at the peak of the countrywide lockdown and travel restrictions because of Covid-19, 15-year-old Meena Ray (name changed) was trafficked from her village in Kokrajhar district of Assam with the promise of marriage and sold to a brothel in West Bengal’s Siliguri town.
Luckily, with help of child activists and the police, she was rescued a month later and was brought back. Investigations revealed that a 35-year-old man from Bongaigaon district of Assam, who was involved in poultry business, befriended Ray on a social media platform and trafficked her to Siliguri.
Experts in Assam believe Ray’s was just one of the many cases of human trafficking that happened during the past two years after the Covid-19 pandemic started. While Assam has been a hub for human trafficking in the past, it is feared the scenario has worsened due to the new disease.
According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) figures, Assam recorded 308 cases of human trafficking in 2018 - the second highest figure in the country after Maharashtra (311). The number dropped to 201 in 2019 (third highest after Maharashtra (282) and Andhra Pradesh (245). In 2020, Assam recorded 124 cases - seventh highest after Maharashtra, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Jharkhand and Rajasthan.
“Human trafficking, especially trafficking of children, continued during the nationwide lockdown in 2020. We recorded 144 cases of child trafficking during that year in just four districts of Kokrajhar, Chirang, Baksa and Udalguri, which form the Bodoland Territorial Region (BTR),” said Digambar Narzary, chairperson of Kokrajhar-based Nedan Foundation, an anti-trafficking NGO.
“Last year, a total of 156 cases of child trafficking was recorded in the four districts of BTR region alone. The figure would be much bigger if data for the entire state is tabulated,” he added.
Narzary says return of thousands of people who went outside the state for work during 2020 because of the pandemic and lockdown, closure of schools due to the pandemic and lack of enough seats in schools and colleges to accommodate students appearing in board exams, who were promoted en masse without conducting tests, could be some reasons for rise in trafficking.
“In BTR, a total of around 50,000 students got promoted in Class 10 board exams while the total available seats in higher secondary schools and colleges were only around 26,000. This led to shortage of seats in colleges. Many students who were not able to secure seats started accompanying former migrants who started returning to their workplaces outside the state when lockdown measures eased,” he said.
Last year 40 children (16 girls and 24 boys), who were trafficked from Baksa district of Assam in 2018-19, were rescued from Sikkim. The matter about the missing children came to light when the state government directed health and social welfare departments to report cases of children who were absent from their homes.
“Trafficking is going to increase in coming months as peoples’ lives and livelihoods have got affected totally due to Covid-19. It is not possible for parents in many poor families to continue supporting their children’s education especially those who are in the senior classes as it’s expensive,” said Narzary.
He added that while earlier people from outside the state used to come to Assam and lure children and women away with various inducements, now due to the lockdown and restrictions on movement, people from within the vulnerable communities act as sub-agents of traffickers from outside and play a big role in the operations.
“It is not easy for people from outside the state to come to indulge in trafficking. So the modus operandi has changed. People from within communities are trafficking children, women and youths in the name of jobs as labourers outside. Those trafficked would only get to know what will happen to them only after they reach their destinations,” said Narzary.
“While several trafficked victims end up as labourers or are sold into prostitution, Narzary said that another new trend in recent years is of girls trafficked outside the state to be sold as brides in states like Haryana and Rajasthan or to be used for surrogacy purposes,” he added.
Narzary cited the example of an 18-year-old from Dhubri district who was sold to a man in Rajasthan in 2018. After she gave birth to a girl child, the man, who wanted a boy, sold her off to another person. When she gave birth to another girl child, the second man also left her. She was rescued in 2020 from Ajmer with two small girls. The victim is back in her home in Dhubri now.
Another emerging trend is of luring victims through social media. Due to lockdown and classes conducted online, children have got access to mobile phones for their studies.
“Now profile of students especially girls are now available because of online classes. Some students go to mobile repair shops to repair or recharge their phones and they come in contact with potential traffickers. Now traffickers have access to these girls and are able to become friendly through online chats and lure them with promise of marriage, jobs or a better life,” said Narzary.
Child rights activist Miguel Das Queah pointed out that while Covid-19 and the lockdown and restrictions accompanying it have pushed millions to poverty and led to conditions which are fertile for human trafficking, the actual figures on how many are trafficked could be difficult to estimate.
“Cases of trafficking are usually not identifiable when it is reported to the police as in most cases it is registered as a missing person report or case of abduction/kidnapping. It is only when victims are rescued, the trafficking aspect comes to light,” he said.
According to the NCRB data, in 2020 a total of 177 persons (in 124 cases) were trafficked in the state and the same year 157 trafficked persons were rescued. Data shows that most of the victims were trafficked for domestic work (36), followed by forced labour (26) and forced marriage (18).
In 2020, a total of 877 children went missing from the state while 685 who went missing in previous years, were yet to be traced. The same year, police rescued 1232 missing children. In 2020, a total of 3859 persons (including children) were reported missing from Assam. If 3437 missing persons from previous years are added to the list, the figure goes up to 7296.
“According to the Supreme Court guidelines, the police have to register a FIR for a missing person’s report, but many times this doesn’t happen as police treat it as a case of elopement or something else. In the case of missing children, the first 48 hours are crucial. But due to police inaction, theirs is no rescue and till the time the victim is recovered there’s no clarity on whether it was a case of trafficking,” said Queah.
He cited the example of a 13-year-old girl from Hajo in Kamrup (Rural) district who had to drop out of school due to the pandemic and was sent to her uncle’s place in Guwahati. Her uncle sent her to someone else’s home to serve as a domestic help. The girl, who was being physically and mentally abused, was rescued recently. But till that happened, there was no record of her getting trafficked.
The present state administration under Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma has given the slogan of ‘zero tolerance against child trafficking and child sexual abuse’ as one of his main agenda, but activists suggested framing of proper guidelines on what needs to be done and how trafficking can be prevented.
“I urged the CM to prepare a clear-cut modus operandi to prevent trafficking. Rescuing a victim is just one aspect of the issue. One needs to have measures to prevent trafficking, ways to rescue, prosecution of those involved and rehabilitation,” said Narzary.
Apart from strict directions to police to register FIRs in the cases of missing children and take prompt action to rescue them, Queah stressed that the social welfare department of the state should get more proactive to identify causes of trafficking and take steps to ensure children and others don’t get trafficked.