LAKHIMPUR, India – One evening 11 years ago, Prisha (not her real name) was playing with friends by the riverside near her home in India’s northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh, when there was a sudden commotion and her friends ran away. As she turned around to see what was happening, she saw a man lurching toward her. That was the first time she saw her trafficker. She was five years old.
“He seemed neither old nor young,” Prisha says of the man who lifted her and bundled her into a jeep. As she tried to scream for help, he slapped her.
“I told him, ‘Don’t take me away! Let me go to my mother!’” Prisha says. “He told me, ‘I will send you to school.’”
The man then drove to a house to pick up his wife and three small children, and put their belongings in the back of the jeep where Prisha was being kept.
“We drove for three to four days and nights before we reached another house where they kept me with them all these years,” she says.
It wasn’t until April this year that she finally managed to escape.
“It was about 11 o’clock one night when everyone was asleep that I ran to the road and hopped into a car that was passing by,” Prisha says.
Now 16, the petite, wiry teenager with dark, sunken eyes still does not know the name or the address of her trafficker. All she remembers is that he lived with his family in a stilt house in the remote village of Sangram in Arunachal Pradesh.
“They made me work at home and in the fields during the day. At night, I was made to sleep with different men, including the [trafficker’s] family members,” she says, lowering her head and fidgeting with her fingers. “It would hurt. But if I resisted I was beaten up.” She wasn’t paid and was given little food.
The men who gave Prisha a lift when she made her escape helped her get in touch with the police. She is now living in a government shelter home in the Lakhimpur district of Assam state, which borders Arunachal Pradesh, as the police try to find her mother and eight siblings.
“I want to go home,” she says.
Stories like Prisha’s are not new to Assam, which in 2015 reported 1,494 cases of human trafficking, the highest among all 29 Indian states, according to the most recent data from India’s National Crime Records Bureau.
The state’s statistics on child trafficking specifically are also the highest in the country, with almost 38 percent of the nation’s total cases from Assam.
Sangeeta Tete is the coordinator for women’s programs at PAJHRA, an NGO in Assam working with Adivasis – a term commonly used for tribes that migrated from central India to the northeast. Tete says a lack of money and education make Assam a prime target for traffickers. “Adivasi girls are most vulnerable to trafficking,” she says.
Adivasis are among the poorest people in Assam, with high levels of illiteracy. Their numbers in the state are estimated to be at least 6 million.
“People from Arunachal Pradesh often come to Assam in search of cheap labor, and for a few thousand rupees Adivasis give away their children as young as five years old,” Tete says.
Once the children are gone, they seldom return.
“There have been cases where dead bodies of girls wrapped in bamboo mats were left outside their parents’ homes by the traffickers,” she says.
Betrayed by Family
In Okrabasti, a village in northern Lakhimpur ringed by lush green paddy fields, at least 11 boys and girls have been victims of trafficking since 2005.
In the settlement populated by day laborers and farmers, very few people have filed police reports on their missing children: in many cases, a family member was involved in the kidnapping.
Two of Aarti Nayak’s daughters have been trafficked to Arunachal Pradesh in the past four years. The younger of the two, Putli, was sold on the sly by her husband’s nephew two years ago, when the girl was about seven years old.
Putli was rescued in February this year with the help of police, after her family discovered that she had not run away, as her trafficker had told them.
When she returned home to Okrabasti, her hands and feet were swollen. She said she was made to work as a babysitter and was often beaten, sometimes with a pressure cooker, a common appliance in Indian kitchens. The nephew was never charged with her trafficking.
Now Putli attends a government school near her house but her older sister is still missing. Nayak has not seen Bhuno in four years. The girl was aged 10 when her mother and stepfather sent her away with two men they knew, to work for a family in Arunachal Pradesh.
“The men told us that our girl would be educated and each day after school she would help with household work, which would fetch her 1,500 rupees ($23) every month,” says Nayak, 30, a mother of four.
“My husband said that since they will educate her, we should send her.”
Many months passed, but Nayak received no news of her daughter. As her anxiety grew, she inquired about the two men who had taken the girl away. She failed to trace their whereabouts, but she did manage to contact the brother of one of them. He was working as a laborer for the same man who is alleged to be holding Bhuno captive, and he gave Nayak his employer’s phone number.
The first time Nayak called and asked about her daughter, the voice on the other end told her she had dialed the wrong number. Three years later, she tried again. This time, Nayak says, the man who answered her said, ‘‘How can I send back your daughter? I have raised her.”
To explain the long gap between the two phone calls and the fact that she did not ask the police to help her find Bhuno until recently, Nayak says: “I was helpless, I had no support from my husband. I did not know the procedure of filing a police complaint.” Her eyes well up with tears.
The middleman’s brother has told Nayak that the captor’s family changed Bhuno’s name to Lalita. Traffickers often change their victims’ names to make it more difficult for families and police to track them down.
The money that was promised to Nayak’s family was never sent.
Arming Girls With Education
Runumi Gogoi, chair of the Assam State Commission for Protection of Child Rights, says one reason for the area’s high rate of child trafficking is that the state government does not have the resources to deal with the cases.
“The police do not have enough vehicles to go for rescue operations,” she says. “They are understaffed and untrained to handle trafficked children.”
Even when the children are returned or rescued, Gogoi adds, the state cannot do much to help them reintegrate into their communities.
“The rehabilitation of these children is very poor. Some districts do not have children’s homes. In some other districts there are no separate homes for boys and girls,” she says. “No counseling happens for rescued children because there is a dearth of trained counselors working with the government.”
Gogoi believes education is the key to tackling child trafficking in Assam, noting that children who work as laborers instead of attending school are more vulnerable to trafficking.
She wants to see the government introduce schemes that focus on schooling for the state’s low-income communities as well as the populations displaced by floods, which are a regular feature in some parts of Assam.
“If children are schooled properly, they are less likely to be trafficked,” she says.