Gethin Chamberlain reports on the battle to curb the trade in thousands of young girls from remote north-east India into middle-class households in Delhi and beyond.
The Indian teenage girls being trafficked into Delhi's middle-class households
Gethin Chamberlain reports on the battle to curb the trade in thousands of young girls from remote north-east India into middle-class households in Delhi and beyond. Many are the daughters of Assam’s tea pickers unable to live on their meagre monthly wages. The girls disappear, often without a trace and, of course, the money never comes.
“Delhi!” For Elaina Kujar, the name was at once terrifying and fascinating. It was so far away, so exotic. For a 14-year-old girl for whom the boundaries of her Assamese village marked the ends of the known earth, it seemed a very big adventure.
And yet the man sitting in front of her in their small house on the edge of the tea plantation was telling her parents that he could take her there. There would be money, more money than the family could dream of, and smart clothes, and trips to the cinema.
"He said it would change our lives and my parents believed him. The tea garden was closed and they were not working, so we had no money. So they agreed I would go with him."
Yet Elaina was a little nervous. It sounded too good to be true. She was doing well in school and hoped to become a nurse. Instead she would be working as a maid in the home of a wealthy family.
She was right to be wary. When she said goodbye to her parents as a 14-year-old, it was the last time she would see them for four years. In that time, she would be held prisoner, forced to work for no pay and finally raped: she had become one of India's growing army of child slaves.
Now 20, she sits on a low chair inside the family hut on a tea plantation in the Lakhimpur district of Assam, playing with her long dark hair. Rain is starting to fall on the galvanised tin roof and against the bamboo strip walls, rendered with mud.
She was 14 when Sreenivas the trafficker came to the village from Delhi to take her and her sister Shivani away.
"He was offering good wages and a good life and he said he would change our lives," she says.
"He talked about another girl from the village who had gone away before us and how she had earned good money and become a model."
Sreenivas took her to Delhi and set her to work in his own home. She had been there three months when she first tackled him about money.
"He laughed and said I'd get 1,500 rupees [Dh91], but he didn't give me anything" she says. "I spent two years working in his house with no money.
"I had to look after his child. I would start at 4am and work through until midnight. He was always leering at me."
Sreenivas made sure there was no chance of Elaina getting away. The doors were kept locked and he would not let her talk to her sister on the phone or return to the village.
One night she was sitting on the sofa in the living room where she slept on the floor, waiting to go to bed.
"He sat down next to me and he was watching a blue film on his computer. He took some tea and closed the computer. He asked if I saw the film and if I thought the film was good. He had a dirty expression on his face.
"Two days later he asked me for a body massage. Then he raped me."
She says it in a matter of fact way, offering no more details.
"His wife was suspicious about what was happening. I told her he had raped me but he denied it and told me to shut up my mouth.
"I told him I would not stay anymore. After that, I was always crying, but he kept me locked in the house. How could I get back to Assam? I was afraid. I had no money and he threatened that I would end in a brothel."
Eventually Sreenivas relented and sent her to work in another apartment. The new employer was kind, but still he paid her wages to Sreenivas. Ultimately though he was to prove her salvation. When he learnt her story, he sent her home.
In some ways, she was the lucky one. Now she works in a creche on the tea estate and can afford to pay for her three brothers to go to school. Many girls never return.
Thousands of girls from India's remote north-east have been lured to Delhi with promises of riches only to be sold into slavery.
They are trafficked by agents who can earn anything from US$65 to $165 for every girl they bring in. Often the traffickers live in the same villages as the girls.
And the slave trade is booming. There are an estimated 100,000 girls kept behind locked doors in Delhi alone, working for the rapidly expanding middle classes: others are shipped on to the Middle East to work for wealthy families.
Indian government figures show 126,321 trafficked children were rescued from domestic service in 2011-12, up nearly 27 per cent year on year. Hundreds of thousands more slip under the radar.
The US State Department's annual report on trafficking lists India as "a source, destination, and transit country for men, women, and children subjected to forced labour".
It estimates that up to 65 million people are engaged in forced labour. It describes official complicity in trafficking as a "serious problem" and warns that there are reports of rising rates of trafficking.
The demand is driven by the rapid expansion of India's middle class, a small but growing proportion of the population with money to burn. These are the people who can afford to pay as much as Rs60,000 (Dh3,666) to a placement agency to buy a live-in maid - and who often regard the possession of a number of domestic servants as an important status symbol.
The parents of the trafficked girls can only dream of such riches. Wages on the tea estates are low, even by Indian standards. The standard payment for a tea picker in the Brahmaputra Valley is Rs90 a day. The World Bank's "extreme poverty" line currently stands at $1.25 a day (about Rs75).
Tea companies say that the value of "benefits in kind" - a tin-roofed hut to live in, access to a hospital and basic schooling for children up to the age of 12 - is enough to clear the minimum legal wage level (Rs158.54). But it is nowhere near enough to keep a family, the workers say. When a trafficker comes calling, girls like Rabina Khatun are easy prey. Rabina sits in the semi-darkness of the small house she shares with her mother, brother and four sisters. Her father is dead: they needed the money and when Anita, another woman from the village, suggested she could earn Rs3,000 a month in Delhi, it was too tempting to refuse.
"My mind is not very clever but the lady made false promises," says Rabina in her soft voice.
For two years she worked as an unpaid servant from 7am to midnight, cooking and cleaning.
"I was not aware of why they were not giving me money. They said I would get my money when I went back to the village."
When she was finally released, she discovered she had been cheated. There was no money.
Rabina was so furious that she agreed to return to Delhi with another trafficker from the village who offered to help get her money back. Instead he sold her for Rs10,000 to another placement agent with a dangerous sideline. "He was selling girls to other men to do what they wanted with them," she says.
"I was taken to a house and they locked me in. Then they raped me. Afterwards they took me to Old Delhi station and left me there with no money.
"There was a man there who saw me crying and talked to me and he took me to the police station."
She came back to the village in January this year. Slowly she is recovering, she says. But the anger she feels at what happened to her has not diminished.
"I want the men to be punished," she says. "I am never going to Delhi again. I am very angry. I want to kill them, I want to beat those people."
Her mother hovers anxiously over her as she talks. She at least had the consolation of getting her daughter back. Many other parents are in limbo.
Arjun and Mukti Tati perch on low wooden stools in the courtyard of one of the larger houses in the tea garden. They are in their 50s and have walked several kilometres to get here after hearing that people have arrived who may be able to help them find their daughter Binita.
Arjun pulls out a passport-sized picture of the girl. She would be 17 today, he says. She was just 14 when the trafficker took her away.
He was from their village and had persuaded them to let her go to Delhi with the usual promises of money and a better life.
"He said to me, 'You are not well and you have no money, she will get Rs1,500 a month in Delhi and support you. So I was happy that she would go," says Arjun.But when after a few months there was no sign of any money, they began to worry. "I realised all was not well. We were both praying to God to send our daughter back to us."
A year passed, then another, and no word came. His wife sits silently by his side, tears rolling down her cheeks. They went to plead with the trafficker to help find her, but he refused.
"She was a very gentle girl, always playing, very happy," Mukti says. "We went to him 100 times but he always said he had no information."
Saphira Khatun is crying too. She carefully places the picture of her daughter Minu Begum on the table in front of her. Outside the darkened hut the monsoon rain hammers down. Her two other daughters, Nadira, 17, and Munu, 20, sit beside her.
Minu was 12 and had been doing well in school, says Munu, visibly distressed. But the trafficker convinced her to go.
"She had big dreams," says Munu. "Any 12-year-old wants to go to the big city, it is more exciting than the village."
Minu had been to the trafficker's house a few times. One evening, she failed to return. They have not seen her since the day she disappeared, four years ago.
"We love our sister," says Munu, between huge sobs. "She loved to study, she knew about the importance of education. After school she wanted to join the police."
"She loved me so much," says Saphira, almost to herself.
Shobaha Tirki is listening to the story
[WHY/HOW IS HE THERE?],
saying nothing. For years he worked on the plantation, doing odd jobs, picking up a few rupees here and there.
One day he met Sreenivas, the trafficker, who was visiting the village. Sreenivas told him that he would pay good money if he could supply girls from the village. Shobaha agreed.
"The first time we took seven or eight girls from here and they came back safely. That developed goodwill in the community," he says.
Shobaha is 50, with a shock of jet-black hair and a well-filled stomach. He sits in a plastic chair as he describes how he became a trafficker.
He has sold maybe 20 girls, for Rs10,000 a time. It is not hard to convince them to go with him, he says.
"First I meet the parents and convince them to send their daughter. I tell them there are good wages, good facilities, I tell them they will get Rs3,000 to Rs5,000 a month and come back in a year.
It is the fault of the placement agency if they don't get paid, he says with a shrug. But he would never send his own daughters. He seems irritated. It is not easy being known as the local trafficker, he says. "I'm under a lot of pressure from the local community and the police when parents complain," he grumbles.
Kusma Takri knows how he feels. She used to work in the tea garden, earning Rs40 a day. After Elaina and Shivani left for Delhi, she began to wonder whether she should go too.
Sreenivas sent her to work for an American couple, They were nice, she says, but the trafficker pocketed all the money. She called him, asking for her money. "Bring me five or six girls to Delhi and I will pay you commission," he countered.
So Kusma gathered together some girls and started her new career as a trafficker. He promised her Rs4,000 a girl and over the next two years she sent him 52 girls.
She knew the girls were not being properly paid, she says, but the trafficker was always promising more and more if she brought more girls.
"He says 'the next time I will pay everything', but he never does," she says.
Now she is trapped. She needs to keep sending girls to make a living herself. "Here is no money, no work, my babies are small and my husband only gets Rs500 a month," she says.
"This is my job. I know the Delhi placement agencies are bad but I am caught between the placement agencies and poverty
. What can I do?"
Behind her, the tea gardens stretch away towards the distant hills, shrouded in cloud. It starts to rain again.
Not everyone is prepared to admit defeat. A group of tireless activists for the rights of children have taken the village to their hearts. Bachpan Bachao Andolan - Save the Childhood Movement - have been rescuing children from slavery for more than 30 years, pressurising the Indian authorities, actively pursuing the traffickers.
HOW HAS IT CHANGED OVER 30 YEARS?
Rama Shankar Chaurasia, chairman of the BBA, says the scale of the problem is immense.
"One hundred thousand maid servants are kept behind closed doors, behind bars. They are kept as slaves, they cannot talk to their parents, their wages are withheld and taken by their placement agency or supplier, their employers are told not to pay them directly because if they do the girls will run away. For years they work this way."
According to the BBA, there are at least 2,300 illegal placement agencies in Delhi and 356 registered agencies. The going price for a maid can be as much as Rs60,000, says Mr Chaurasia. "The person who pays that feels they have purchased the girl."
In an attempt to get to grips with the problem, the Indian government hopes to have 335 anti-trafficking units set up in police stations around the country by the end of this year.
But police work alone will never be enough, says sub-inspector Nirmal Biswas, the newly-arrived officer in charge of Laluk police station.
The faces of missing girls peer out of the noticeboard on the way into his office. On the wall is the crime chart. It lists 24 kidnappings for 2012, against 10 rapes, 17 thefts and 13 crimes against women.
They are trying to make progress he says, flicking through a large file on missing girls. In the last month they have registered four cases of trafficking and recovered one girl and the trafficker. A placement agency in Delhi has been raided and the owners brought to Assam for questioning. He unclips their mugshots and flips them across the desk, then flicks through sheet after sheet of pictures of women on the agency's books.
It is progress, he says. But it will not stop the trade. "It is the poverty here," he says. "If any trafficker offers Rs1,000 they will get girls.
"Their parents are poor and if the trafficker offers them money they will believe them. It will be defeated only with employment and development and eradication of poverty.
"We try to make arrests but all the development by the government is not coming to the villages. The only way is if it comes to the villages."
A few kilometres away on the tea plantation, the monsoon rain is pouring down again. Nadira Begum's eyes are fixed on the picture of her missing sister, Minu.
"Nobody does anything to stop bad things happening to poor girls," she says angrily. She stares out of the door at the rain turning the yard to mud, trying to regain her composure.
"Please help us to get our sister back here. Wherever she is in India, please give me my sister back."
Gethin Chamberlain is a photojournalist based in South India.