Pandemic, poverty, recurring floods and human bondage in Bihar
Bihar is India’s most flood-prone state and recurring floods, apart from displacing millions every year, also contribute to human trafficking as poor families spend several months in flood relief camps from where their children are lured into ‘jobs’. Gaon Connection met several such children and here is what they told us.
Rahul Jha 30 April 2022 5:38 AM GMT
Himanshu sells vegetables in a small stall in his village Pakdi in Supaul district of Bihar, India's most flood prone state where millions are displaced every year due to the floods. Himanshu was one of those millions, yet, he considers himself lucky.
"In July 2018, after the floods, I was living with my family in the government relief camp near the Kosi river. From there, some agents took me to Ludhiana to work in a textile factory," the 18-year-old told Gaon Connection.
"I was made to work several hours a day and was given only food and lodging; Rs 3,500 a month was sent to my mother back home in Bihar," Himahshu said, still sounding traumatised at the memory. The employers refused to let him come home and only after Himanshu put up stiff resistance that more than two years later, in October 2020, a train ticket was bought for him and he was sent home. "I live in my village now and run a small vegetable shop right here," he sighed in relief.
Bihar is India's most flood prone state with 28 out of its 38 districts repeatedly affected by floods. The recurring floods, along with grinding poverty make villagers, especially young children and adolescents, and their parents, an easy target for those in the business of child labour. And, the past two years of the COVID pandemic have led to a rise in the incidence of child labour and child trafficking as parents' livelhoods have dried up.
As per the official data of state's Child Welfare Organisation, the Social Welfare Department and Child Protection Unit, between July 2020 and September 2020, about 250 children hailing from Bihar were rescued.
Meanwhile, according to the state's Labour Resources Department, in 2020-21, 466 child labourers were rescued. The previous year, 2019-20, the number was 750. In 2018-19, another 1,045 children were rescued (of which 750 were from Supaul district alone).
Bihar also has a large number of 'missing' children – third largest in the country. And such cases have registered an increase. From 4,817 missing children in 2016, the number rose to 5,547 in 2017 and 6,950 in 2018, as recorded by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB).
"It was in 2019, I remember. Some people who were working in the flood relief camp where we lived, approached my father and persuaded him to let me go to Chandigarh to work," Rohit, who is from Mahishi village in Saharsa district, told Gaon Connection. "There were seven other boys who went along with me to Chandigarh and we were trained in tailoring for fifteen days," the 17-year-old recollected.
Rohit said that they were put to work for nearly 12 hours a day. "We were provided a bed to sleep on and three meals a day. Seven thousand rupees a month was sent to my father directly, and I was given thousand rupees a month," he continued. Rohit worked there for about a-year-and-a-half and then returned home. But four other boys from his village still work in Chandigarh, he said.
Rohit and Himanshu are just two examples in hundreds who have fallen prey to the lure. Recurring floods and abject poverty, say experts, is a major contributory factor in pushing youngsters in child labour.
"It is not uncommon for young people to be lured into leaving Bihar to work in factories elsewhere. Thousands of families who lose their homes and lands in the floods, are forced to seek refuge in the government relief shelters and live there for five or six months," Chandrashekhar Jha, the founder of Gramyasheel, a non-profit based in Supaul, told Gaon Connection.
"And, they become easy targets for those who see them as a potential to make money. Under the guise of empathy and compassion unscrupulous agents persuade family members that their children will be better off at work and they would be well looked after and well fed. And, it would ease the burden on the family as they would be given money too," Chandrasekhar told Gaon Connection.
According to him, the middlemen keep a sharp look out especially for children who are separated from their parents in the chaos of escaping from the fury of the floods, and the relief camps are their hunting grounds, he added.
Recurring floods contribute to increased child labour
Poverty is rampant, with Bihar being one of the poorest states in the country, according to NITI Aayog. "People spend half the year in the government relief camps. The men folk usually leave the villages to work elsewhere in other states leaving the women and children more vulnerable to traffickers," Manoj Paswan, a 62-year-old inhabitant of Musarniya village in Supaul district, told Gaon Connection.
The flood affected who are forced to live in these relief camps are easy targets as there are neither government officials nor police who do the rounds here, the villager pointed out.
Criminal activities centred around human trafficking include sex work, bonded labour and procuring people to work as domestic help. The numbers, according to data from the central government's NCRB, are disturbing.
In 2017, the registered cases of human trafficking in Bihar were 121, which rose to 179 in 2018. This was informed by the minister of state (home ministry). While 2019 data was not available on the NCRB website, in 2020, despite the fact that movement of people was restricted due to the COVID-19 pandemic, between July 2020 and September 2020, about 250 children hailing from Bihar were rescued. Gaon Connection had reported on this rescue operation.
But these numbers are just the tip of the iceberg, say sector experts.
Gram Vikas Parishad, a non-profit is known to have done tremendous work against human trafficking, child labour, and child marriages post the infamous 2008 Kosi floods. Hemlata Pandey, who heads the organisation, told Gaon Connection: "Between 2017 and 2019, I have personally got 33 people arrested who were luring minor girls and taking them away to Uttar Pradesh and Haryana. But they figure nowhere in any government data," she said.
"The data available to us is just the tip of the iceberg. What is happening on the ground is far, far worse," she added.
Not just child labour, trading in human organs and sex trafficking is rampant in the Kosi belt of Bihar, say local activists. Villages on the India and Nepal border are particular hotspots.
In July 2021, Ranjit Malik from Fulwariya village in Purnia district allegedly sold his 11-year-old daughter Kajal to a 20-year-old male from Gonda in Uttar Pradesh.
Journalist Brijesh Singh from Purnia, who covered this story, told Gaon Connection: "Kajal's mother was given Rs 50,000 and two sacks each of rice and wheat for her daughter." While the matter was reported to the police station, Kajal has not been found yet. The head of the police station refused to speak to Gaon Connection on the matter.
Forty-seven-year-old Gudiya from Pakdi village in Supaul, who has six daughters and two sons, told Gaon Connection about one of her daughter's 'marriage' in 2018. "I was paid seventy thousand rupees by the wedding party for improving our living conditions," she said.
The money exchanged hands and the 'marriage' took place. But, someone in the village tipped off the police who intercepted the 'bridal party' and rescued the 15-year-old girl while the 33-year-old man from Jind district in Haryana was taken into custody. The girl has returned to her mother.
"There is a huge network of human traffickers in this area. Poor girls from Simanchal, Mithilanchal and Kosi are frequently targeted," Anurag Gupta, a social worker and businessman from Kunoli village in Supaul, told Gaon Connection. "They are lured by offers of employment and then bought and further sold for sex work. The menace of human trafficking, especially of women, young girls and babies in these border areas is growing into a serious problem," he pointed out.
"The traffickers identify the most vulnerable of parents of young girls, tempt them with the prospect of a good groom for their daughters and money, and take the girls away," she said.
Addressing child labour and human trafficking
In 2009 a plan was set in motion by the Bihar government to rescue, reinstate and educate children who were rescued from child traffickers, said Rakesh Kumar Mishra, former IPS officer, who has worked for many years in combating human trafficking in Supaul.
"Along with the education department of the state, the social welfare department paid a thousand rupees a month to families to look after orphaned children," he told Gaon Connection. "There are as many as seventeen departments involved in rescuing and rehabilitating the victims, and in spite of this poverty and unemployment continues unabated, and innocent lives are sold for money," he said.
However, according to Hemlata Pandey, nothing much is being achieved by this. "The government has opened ten to twelve child friendly centres in Supaul for the rescued children where they should be educated and nurtured. But nothing is really happening in these centres," she said.
Social worker Amod Kumar from Babanghama village in Supaul said that after the 2008 Kosi tragedy, an effort was made by the government to draw up a plan that included clamping down on human trafficking.
"The police set up an anti-human trafficking unit. It is not that no effort was made to stem the rot. But without more awareness on the evils of human trafficking and a social and behavioural change, schemes and plans will come to nought," Amod Kumar told Gaon Connection.
In many cases, children run away from their homes to escape from poverty, maybe physical abuse by their parents, or from not being able to cope with studies," pointed out Amal Kumar, coordinator of Bhagalpur Childline Organisation. "It is imperative that while the human traffickers be dealt with severely, it is also necessary to make parents and society need to take a more empathetic and sympathetic approach to children," he said.
"It also becomes the responsibility of every citizen to report any suspicious activity around children immediately to the helpline 1098," he said.