India haven for child sex tourism!

First-time visitors often find children within three to four days of arrival, delivered to their rooms as bellboys.
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Updated on Jan 22, 2006 11:43 AM IST
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None | ByMayank Tewari, Ramesh Babu and Shevlin Sebastian, New Delhi/alleppy (kerala)/mumbai

Jameela (14) and Ashfaq (12) are part-time cleaners of houseboats in Kerala’s backwaters. Their employer has told them they have to entertain foreign guests in a “different” way. They don’t mind, because they need the extra cash to take care of their ailing mother. Besides, everyone knows how on Kovalam beaches, bikini-clad aunties and Western uncles roam freely with “paid lads” — even as the police dismiss them as “isolated” cases.

Andre (54), an Austrian tourist, was in Delhi just before Diwali last year. He wanted to send $100 to fellow paedophile Lindsay Ashford (an activist trying to decriminalise paedophilia in the West). He met some boys at a cybercafe across the road from his Paharganj hotel, and casually mentioned his tastes, promising them Rs 600 if they could help him out. Three days later, the police picked him up, but had to soon let him go — they hadn’t caught him with a child. He immediately fled the country.

On 16 December, 2000, Sangeeta Punekar, child rights activist, accompanied the Mumbai police in a raid on the Madh Island hotel room where Swiss couple Wilhelm Marty (59) and Loshiar Lily Marty (56) were having sex with two girls — aged 9 and 11. The room was filled with paraphernalia and they had recorded the sex. Wilhelm shouted: “You Indians are all corrupt, we can buy you.” They were sentenced to seven years imprisonment, but when they got bail in 2004, they fled the country.

India has become one of the hottest child sex tourism destinations. A report, Trafficking in Women and Children in India, sponsored by the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), highlights this, mentioning not just Goa, which since the 1990s has uncovered rackets by Freddy Peats and Helmut Brinkmann, but also Alleppy and Ernakulam districts of Kerala, where houseboat tourism has lately seen a boom.

But the reports findings tell only part of the story. “The attention paedophiles are paying to India is preposterous,” says Rakesh Gupta, a child rights activist. “They’re mentioning the Golden Triangle — Delhi, Agra and Jaipur — in their anonymous blog posts.”

Most paedophiles heading for Kerala start in Delhi, where police estimate the existence of 10 cartels specialising in child sex tourism. “With nearly a lakh homeless children in the Capital, it’s easy for paedophiles to come and exploit them,” says Dr Rajat Mitra, who heads Swanchetan, an NGO specialising in rape trauma.

Mitra tells of a time he saw a European in Connaught Place walking with two boys. He stopped the foreigner and asked him how he knew the boys. “Are you the police?” the foreigner aggressively asked, and disappeared. The urchins — good-looking ten-year-olds — said that “uncle” had promised to give them toffees in his hotel room.

First-time visitors often find children within three to four days of arrival — delivered to their rooms as bellboys. All they need to do is hook up on an Internet group message board and find the “right” contacts. 

In Kerala, “sex on the water” is the latest rage for paedophiles. Foreigners usually book houseboats for weeks, and they’re a safe bet. “It’s difficult to track a boat in the winding backwaters,” says a senior policeman in Kottayam. “There are no fixed stopovers and most houseboats carry their workforce, so it is difficult to identify the victim,” he says, admitting the bust a few years back of a German who had procured 38 children from nearby Karnataka, a rare occurrence.

In Mumbai, nearly 70,000 minors are abused yearly, estimates Kusumbar Choudhury of Save the Children India. Given that the sex tourism trade is as invisible as it is efficient, there are no hard numbers, but it is believed that the kids come from all corners of the country, as well as Nepal and Bangladesh.

Why India, suddenly? Mitra says that the earlier hotspots were Bali and Bangkok — crackdowns in both places have seen a shift in the trade to India.  Punekar believes it’s because Pakistan has strict Islamic laws and Sri Lanka has ethnic conflicts, so paedophiles head to democratic India. In addition, Indian hotels and tourism are coming up to international standards. Also, as the Martys taunted, India’s law enforcement is either ignorant, lax or corrupt (or all three).

Mumbai’s activists have found that the paedophiles appear far from seedy; they are often highly qualified professionals with a well-thought out plan. And the local contacts have learnt the trade quickly. “Touts who frequent popular spots in Mumbai are highly sophisticated and speak English well,” says Choudhury. He adds that they are clued into the Internet guides and discussion forums where they may find potential customers.

In Delhi, the police are fairly clueless. They know that the begging cartels, which began in the 1980s, have caught on to sex child tourism. NGOs claim that street children have caught on to the signs — a ten-rupee bill waved in a certain way, for instance — and that good money makes it difficult for social workers to reach out to them.

There’s also a domestic demand. A police officer talks of two public urinals near the New Delhi Railway Station that has become a major destination for local paedophiles. “For Rs 50, ten-year-olds perform oral sex,” he says. “A traffic constable once followed a man who had wrongly parked his car, and stumbled onto this.”

The NHRC report says the problem of child sex tourism in India is compounded as there is a “silence of the community and an unwillingness to speak out” on this matter. Only Goa has come up with extensive legislation, but more initiatives from the government are required. Urgently.

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