Spectre of child marriage, trafficking looms large in Sunderbans
Subsequent investigations led to the arrest of six people, including prime suspect Nur Alam Khan, and a couple from the village of the two girls.
In September 2021, two sisters, 15 and 19, received job offers. Ordinarily, they would not have wanted to work but the argument to stay home just didn’t exist. The pandemic was raging, and their educational institutions had been shut for over a year. Their father, the only earning member of the family, had lost his job as a daily wage labourer in Kolkata.
There were mouths to feed, and no money. There were no options left.
So it was arranged that the two sisters, and three other women from their village in the Sunderbans in West Bengal, would travel to Delhi to work as maids in the homes of the rich and the affluent. They left home on a bus and reached southeast Delhi’s Madanpur Khadar three days later, exhausted and disoriented.
Things began to unravel quickly. They sensed they had unwittingly become part of a prostitution racket.
“Almost everyday we were asked to line up and be introduced to strangers. Sensing something was wrong, one of the women in our team managed to flee and return to our village. She informed police and we were rescued on October 20, and returned to our village on October 23,” the 19-year-old said, understandably unwilling to share more information.
Subsequent investigations led to the arrest of six people, including prime suspect Nur Alam Khan, and a couple from the village of the two girls. The girls were sold at ₹15,000 each to the prostitution ring, police officers told HT.
These two girls were rescued, but others may not have been so lucky. Experts fear many such girls were lost to the effects of the pandemic and prolonged school closures, particularly in impoverished areas.
In the second part of a series on the wider impact of school closures, HT traveled to the Sunderbans to discover the ramifications of the pandemic in an area where child labour, human trafficking and child marriages have long dominated the discourse. Any gains made over the past decade may have been wiped out by the pandemic, and two cyclones.
“The Sunderbans and south Bengal have always been an area of concern when it comes to trafficking and child marriages,” said Rishi Kant of non-profit Shakti Vahini, a member of the team that rescued the two sisters. “With schools closed during the Covid-19 pandemic, people losing their jobs and the delta being hit by two back-to-back cyclones – Amphan in May 2020 and Yaas in May 2021 – the children, mostly girls, have become all the more vulnerable,”
Vulnerability in the Sunderbans
Located on the southern tip of West Bengal where the Ganga meets the Bay of Bengal, the Sunderbans delta comprises 102 islands, of which 54 have human habitations and the rest are forest hunting grounds of the Bengal tiger.
Most of the 4.5 million people that call the Sunderbans home make a living from farming, fishing, collecting forest honey or catching crabs and prawns. With no prospects of regular employment, many are now leaving the islands looking for work, travelling to cities such as Kolkata, but also states as far away as Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Delhi, Gujarat and Maharashtra.
When the pandemic struck, even this tenuous system was broken. As the government invoked a harsh lockdown in March 2020, lakhs of migrants took to India’s roads, walking, climbing atop buses and trains, desperate for the solace of home, their places of work no longer able to sustain them.
Around one lakh migrants returned to the Sunderbans in 2020, according to Bankim Chandra Hazra, Sunderban affairs minister of West Bengal.
Mosiar Sardar, a class 12 student at a madrassa in Canning, was one among the many whose life changed in a matter of months. His father, Rezaul Sardar, used to work as a daily wage labourer in Kolkata’s Metiabruz. In June 2020, he returned home, only to return to work in December 2021. In that time, Sardar has gone from class 12 student to an auto-rickshaw driver.
“My father was unemployed for more than a year. If I don’t work, my family will starve. I hope to appear for the board exams in 2022, but am unsure if I will be able to,” said Sardar.
No time for learning
His family used up their savings and borrowed some more from a relative to buy the auto-rickshaw for ₹1.28 lakh in October 2020. It now earns them between ₹300 and ₹400 a day. Sardar works 12 hours a day, from six to six, ferrying passengers from Canning railway station to Godhkhali, the gateway to the Sunderbans. There is simply no time for school.
Schools in West Bengal shut down in March 2020, and were reopened for classes IX to XII in February 2021. Classes continued for around two months before they were again closed in April 2021. Schools reopened in November 2021 after the second wave subsided, but have had to be shut down again from January 3 because of the third wave.
Chiranjib Mondol, a teacher at the Shantigachi High School at Lahirpur on Satjelia Island, said classes for students of Class 9 to 12 started in the middle of November. “But some of our students have not attended since then. Only around 15-20 out of 44 boys in Class 9 are coming to school regularly,” Mondol said. “The attendance of girls is more than that of boys, with around 25-30 of 35 coming to school everyday. We managed to get in touch with a section of them. Some have gone to work in other states along with their parents, who are migrant labourers.”
A survey in just two villages in 2021 by another teacher in Satjelia, who did not wish to be named, which was part of the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan to identify school drop outs, revealed that of 224 girls surveyed, at least seven were married during the pandemic, and at least four boys left for other states to work.
“When then lockdown was there, restrictions were imposed and schools were closed, there was very little news filtering in on what was going on,” said Nihar Ranjan Raptan, founder secretary of Goranbose Gram Bikash Kendra, a NGO working in the delta. “Now, a grim picture is emerging.”
Child marriages rise during pandemic
The school closures in the Sunderbans also brought to a grinding halt an inbuilt mechanism that kept a check on child marriages and truancy: the Kanyashree clubs. These clubs are essentially information networks developed by each school across the state, particularly in the Sunderbans, where the students act as eyes and ears of school authorities, keeping an eye out for child marriages.
The clubs are a part of the Kanyashree programme, a state government scheme launched in 2013 by the Mamata Banerjee government. Under the scheme, a girl student gets around ₹1,000 per year and ₹25,000 once she turns 18, if she is unmarried and studying in school. She gets another ₹25,000 for her marriage if she is over 18 years under the Rupashree scheme.
If she is unmarried and continues with postgraduate studies, she gets another ₹25,000 under the Kanyashree III scheme. Across the state, there are 7.4 million girls enrolled under the Kanyashree programme.
“This huge (Kanyashree) network helps us keep a tab on students. From this network we found out that at least three students were not in the village,” said Rocky Das, a teacher Rangabelia High School. “We contacted their families and found out that they have gone to Andhra Pradesh and Andaman and Nicobar Islands to work.”
If some schools like the Rangbelia High School, which has around 1,130 students in Gosaba, managed to keep the clubs alive, for most others, with students back home, the connection between them and the teachers was lost. In academic year 2020-21, when the pandemic was raging and reports of child marriages were doing the rounds, in just one school in Gosaba, 22 applications under the Kanyashree programme were rejected after the girl was found to be married. Between April and November 2021, there were 11 such rejections.
“When we get to know (about the child marriage), police are informed. But the parents are so poor that they beg us not to lodge a complaint as it would ruin the lives of both the boy and the girl. They are let off with a warning and an undertaking,” said Sudeshna Roy, special consultant with the West Bengal Commission for the Protection of Child Rights.
Despite some advances made in the past decade, the girl child is still considered by many as a burden, Roy said. “So, whenever there is a loss of income in the family, the girl is married off even though she is yet to attain legal age. Sometimes she is sent off to work and that how she often becomes a victim of trafficking” she said.
A help desk introduced by the commission to receive calls on cases of child marriage in June 2020 received 169 calls from across the state, with a majority coming from south Bengal and the Sunderbans.
Across the country, experts in the field said school closures and the economic losses and a cycle of debt for the poor precipitated by the pandemic meant more child trafficking and marriages.
“The Bachpan Bachao Andolan (save childhood campaign) after a survey in April 2020 warned that such incidents would rise once the lockdown was relaxed. Between March 2020 and November 2021, we have rescued at least 11,044 children,” said Dhananjay Tingal, executive director of the campaign. “Of these, around a thousand were rescued when they were in transit from one state to another.”
Most of these cases were reported from states such as Telangana, Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Delhi and Rajasthan. While the boys were mostly brought from Bihar, Odisha and Chattisgarh, the girls came from West Bengal, Jharkhand and Assam, said Tingal.
These dangers were acknowledged, even predicted by the Union home ministry as well when in an advisory in July 2020, it asked all states to set up new anti-human trafficking units and upgrade infrastructure of existing ones to combat and prevent the menace.
In December 2020, the National Human Rights Commission of India also asked all state governments to set up a 24/7 helpline for the reporting and tracking of these cases, asking for special surveillance in railway stations, bus depots, airports, and routes to remote villages.
“Trafficking thrives on human vulnerability,” said Sunitha Krishnan of Prajwala, who has worked on these issues for decades and was awarded the Padma Shri in 2016. “The Covid-19 pandemic triggered the biggest ever migrant crisis in the country. The traffickers found this as one the best opportunities.”
“I would say the rate of trafficking of women and girls shot up 100-fold during this time,” she said. “During the lockdown, when the entire world was going inwards, trafficking went outwards. Traffickers found newer ways to trap people. It was not just the traditionally poor people who fell in trap, but even the new poor who fell victims. The potential targets increased. Online methods were increasingly used to trap the weaker section by the well-oiled trafficking network.”
Speaking to HT, Sashi Panja, state minister for women and child development and social welfare said, “Covid-19 hit us only in early 2020. But child marriage, trafficking and child labour has always been a challenge for us, which the government is fighting along with social workers. We need to watch out for the students mostly in the upper primary section. There is no denying that incidents have taken place. Chances of trafficking could be limited because people were not moving out during Covid but child labour may have gone up.”
Roy said education and awareness were the only ways forward. “It is not just education of girls but also boys because whenever there is a marriage, a boy is also involved,” she said. “Sex education and lifestyle education is also very important.”
Back at the Sunderbans, a worried Chiranjib Mondol can only think of one way where losses from the previous year can begin to be mitigated. “We need to open schools at the earliest,” he said. “Once the academic processes, studies, exams, annual programs such as sports, midday meals start, I am sure we can return to some form of normalcy.”
(With inputs from Neeraj Chauhan)