During his morning walks in the Hauz Khas enclave in the posh South Delhi neighbourhood in the mid-2000s, a retired civil servant always observed that many young girls, engaged as domestic help were taking out the pet dogs for a morning round. To his amazement, he came to know that almost all of those girls serving the households in the locality were from tea plantation areas of his home district—Lakhimpur in Assam. It was after a considerable time that he was told that the girls were trafficked to Delhi from Assam.

In 2006, Magdelena Kulu (name changed), then just twenty years old from Junu Basti, close Koilamari Tea Estate in Lakhimpur district of Assam, was taken up by one Samel, an agent of a New Delhi-based placement agency and was brought to Gurgaon. She was promised a monthly salary of Rs. 7,900 by the agency for work as a domestic help in a household. But even after labouring hard for her job in a household for a year, where she also faced physical abuse, Magdelana was not paid a penny by Samel.

She could return home only after convincing Samel that she had contacts with Adivasi student leaders of Assam. She was paid only Rs. 1,500 by Samel and sent by a train to Assam in 2007. Now in her forties, Alberta lives a single life with economic hardship at her home. The same agent, Samel who also hails from Junu Basti, took another young girl Matilda from the same village to New Delhi in 2006. Matilda returned some years later, got married and left Junu Basti for good. The villagers say that Matilda was forced to take part in pornography by her captors in New Delhi. A placement agency named Sri Sai Enterprise of J.J. Colony, New Delhi was the office of Samel.

In nearby Balijan village, a six-year-old girl Carmella was taken to New Delhi as domestic help by one Rafael Kujur from Ujjwalpur, Lilabari in 2008. According to Jawney, Carmella’s mother and a casual worker at the Koilamari Tea Estate, her husband sold her daughter to trafficking agent Rafael during her absence as she (Carmella) was preparing for her school. Jawney met Rafael several times later on but each time he denied his involvement. For almost fifteen years, Jawney has received no information about Carmella. She even does not have a single photograph of her daughter.  

On 6th March 2013 the upper house of the Parliament, the Rajya Sabha was rocked by the report of four hundred cases of missing girl child from Lakhimpur district alone as reported by Bachpan Bachao Andolan, an NGO working on this issue led by Nobel Laureate Kailash Satyarthi.

In June, 2015, Lakhi (name changed), a 12th passed girl in her early twenties returned home in Koilamari Tea Estate in Lakhimpur district from a household in Delhi where she had been engaged as domestic help. Lakhi was promised a job with a decent salary by Ursula Tete of No. 2 Labour Line of the same tea estate and sent to Delhi after taking her educational certificates and the PAN card. But in reality, Lakhi was forced to work under inhuman conditions in Delhi and not allowed to speak to her parents back home over the phone. Her parents were only intimated by Ursula when Lakhi fell in six months later. Lakhi’s parents rushed to Delhi only to find her in critical condition. They took her back home without getting any salary for her work as domestic help. Ursula also has not returned Lakhi’s educational testimonials and her PAN card after her return. Lakhi’s mother, who went to Delhi to rescue her, tells about trafficked girls from various parts of the country kept in a house of a woman from Jharkhand in Delhi. She also alleges that the trafficked girls, who were promised good jobs, were actually put in the flesh trade in Delhi. For her, Ursula is solely responsible for the plight of her daughter.

Lured to the Blue Hills:

Trafficking of young girls from Assam to outside the state is reported mostly from the tea plantation areas spread over the inter-state boundary with Arunachal Pradesh. The traditional movement of men and local products across the inter-state boundary has emerged as the gateway to the world of trafficking, bondage and slavery as the socially marginalized tea plantation workers are easily lured to send their daughters for work inside Arunachal Pradesh. 

Ranee, a twelve-year-old daughter of Holy Malpahari from No. 15 Line of Zoihing Tea Estate, in Lakhimpur district was picked up by one Deepak Chetry of Banderdewa, Banderdewa from her in 2008. Since then there has been no news of Ranee for her parents. There is also no news of Nikita (12), daughter of Samra Malpahari of the same labour line of the tea estate. Nikita too was taken away by an agent to be engaged in domestic work in Arunachal Pradesh in 2008.

Roopali Barla, daughter of late Remes Barla of the Doolahat Tea Estate has the same story. She has not returned home ever since she was taken away to Arunachal Pradesh by a local agent in 2003. Her widowed mother has no idea of her whereabouts. Similarly, Hawamani, daughter of Nandalal, the sweeper of the same tea garden was taken away by a local agent named Paul in 2005. Hawamani has not returned home ever since. Tinu Karmakar, a labour from No. 20 Line of Doolahat Tea Estate is also waiting for his daughter Teresa taken away by an agent Simanta Tanti in 2006.

The No. 20 Labour Line of Doolahat Tea Estate has earned the dubious distinction of girl child trafficking in Lakhimpur district. Dozens of girls are found to be trafficked by a local agent named Monica. Chiragjyoti, daughter of Baha Lohar, Bhani, daughter of Lal Dhan and Arati, daughter of Rubul Tanti are some of the unfortunate girls from this labour line who might still be languishing in some unknown places in Arunachal Pradesh.

Ursula Kulu, daughter of Santosh and Monica Kulu of Akarabasti near Seajuli Tea Estate, has been missing since 2011 when she was 12 years old. She was taken by Tarsiers Carla and Sylus Belung to a person from Sector-C in Naharlagun, Arunachal Pradesh for work as a domestic help on 28th September, 2011. On 30th September, 2011 Ursula’s mother Monica was informed about her missing from that home in Naharlagun. Monica went to the home in Naharlagun in search of her missing daughter on the next day and was told about Ursula’s disappearance. A report in the local police station and a missing advertisement on a local newspaper was also shown to Monica by Ursula’s employer. Since then Ursula has been untraced. Unfortunately her parents could not remember the name of the person from whose home Ursula went missing nor do they have the copy of the newspaper advertisement.

Carmela Sawra (7), daughter of Tarsiers and Burtela Sawra was given to a person from Itanagar, Arunachal Pradesh in 2007. Since then they are receiving no news from their daughter Carmela. Mangal Bhumiz, a fellow villager gave his daughter Munni Bhumiz to his friend who took her to a person in Banderdewa, Arunachal Pradesh. For the last twelve years, Mangal is searching his daughter in vain. The employer of his daughter in Banderdewa also told him that Munni had been missing from his home since a long time.

Mohiram Gonju from Halem Tea Estate in Biswanath district went to see his daughter Karmi in 2009 in Ganga, Arunachal Pradesh. Karmi was taken by one Techi Budu in 2005 to be engaged as domestic help. Mohiram was roughed up by Karmi’s captors during that visit and since then the whereabouts of Karmi is not known to him. His compatriot Thaneswar Top also had an abortive attempt to rescue his trafficked daughter in 2002 from Hapoli, Arunachal Pradesh. Since then Thaneswar has become dumb.

All the tea plantations stretching from Lakhimpur to Darrang covering four districts on the northern bank of the Brahmaputra in Assam are touching the inter-state boundaries with Arunachal Pradesh.  The plantations and their nearby villages are inhabited by Adivasi people, originally transported by the colonial British authorities from Central India to be engaged in the tea plantations during the mid-nineteenth century. The proximity of the tea estates to the inter-state border makes the buyers from the neighbouring state to visit and roam the labour settlements easily in Assam.

The local agents make false promises of a better life for the girls before their parents with the promise of money. The poor and mostly alcoholic fathers easily succumb to these lures and meekly hand over their daughters to the buyers coming from Arunachal Pradesh. But far from the promises, the girls never return home thereafter. The geographical remoteness of these inter-state border areas of Lakhimpur, Biswanath, Sonitpur and Darrang districts and the prevailing socio-economic conditions of the people living there make them easy prey to the predators of human trafficking. Poverty, economic hardship coupled with alcoholism has made most of the parents here vulnerable to the lure of money in exchange of their gild child to the world of slavery and abuse across the inter-state border.

The easy availability of spurious IMF liquor from Arunachal Pradesh as well as the bootlegging of local liqour one make things worse for these people who sale their most precious possessions for their drinking demands. The parents are initially paid some money by the buyers or agents and no payments are made subsequently. The strange part of all the cases is that none of the parents of the trafficked girls know fully about the names of the persons and their addresses where their girls are taken to. The parents also do not have photographs of their trafficked daughters. From Arunachal Pradesh the trafficked girls are sent outside the region as missing cases are often reported following their supply from Assam to the neighbouring state.

Trafficked to sex slavery:

Chumi (name changed), a fifteen-year-old girl from Rangapara Tea Estate in Sonitpur district of Assam was sold by her uncle to a trafficker in Pasighat in Arunachal Pradesh in 2016. She was subjected to sex abuse by her captors besides the daily ordeal of domestic chores before she escaped in 2019.

Nirmala (name changed), from Seajuli Tea Estate, was trafficked at her tender ages to Arunachal Pradesh where she worked at a cardamom plantation in Kamle district. She was kept as a sex slave by her captor by one Hagu Palang. Nirmala became pregnant at 13 and could not even breastfeed her daughter during her early motherhood. Her daughter was allegedly killed by the son of Palang by pushing her into the river from a height. Later she gave birth to two more children by 2018. In the winter of late 2019, Nirmala escaped her long captivity of sex slavery and reached her village with her two children. With no one in the family to help her, Nirmala has been sheltered by her maternal uncle.

In Boroi Tea Estate in Biswanath district, Neha (name changed), has returned to her parents twenty years after her trafficking with a seven-year-old daughter after a long ordeal of sex slavery in Pakeng, Arunachal Pradesh. She was abused by many males in the family where she was married to.

From green tea plantations to dusty deserts: The trail of bridal trafficking:  

A striking part of the unabated trafficking of girls from Assam’s tea plantations to outside the region is the coming of grooms from Rajasthan to find their brides.  

 Ram Niwas Barhoi (name changed), a primary school teacher from Koilamari Tea Estate in Lakhimpur district was met by one Anil Kumar alias Hiralal Agarwal, son of Sohan Lal Agarwal from Sikar district in Rajasthan in mid-2016 who asked to marry his granddaughter Rakhi Tanti (name changed), a young school going girl. To get rid of the menace of his alcoholic son-in-law, Ram Niwas agreed to Anil’s solicitation to marry his granddaughter. Accordingly, a marriage ceremony was performed in a local temple on 24th July, 2016 and a marriage agreement was signed between the two parties before a notary in North Lakhimpur on 25th July, 2016. After that Rakhi was taken by Anil to his native village of Garuda, Laxmangarh Tehsil under Nechchua Police Station of Sikar district in Rajasthan. Since then Rekha has not returned to her home in Koilamari Tea Estate in Lakhimpur district. She is living with her in-laws in the village as her husband Anil Kumar alias Hiralal Agarwal is working in Gujarat.

According to Rakhi’s family members, the groom from Rajasthan was introduced to them by one Milki Khodal, daughter of Phulchand Khodal of No. 10 Labour Line of Koilamari Tea Estate. Milki too was married off to one Shrawan Kumar, son of Bhanwar Lal of Baniyon Ka Mohalla, village Garoda in Sikar district of Rajasthan two years ago. Another girl, Deepanjali from the same tea garden is also married to a man from Sikar district in Rajasthan.

One wonders here how young girls from a remote tea garden in Lakhimpur district are being matrimonially connected to a Rajasthan village thousands of miles away. This has allegedly been made possible by Hanuman Prajapati, a trader from Sikar, Rajasthan who runs a grocery store in Koilamari tea estate. According to the family members of Milky, Hanuman Prajapati brought Shrawan Kumar to the tea estate to marry her. Similarly, Ram Prasad Barhoi says that Hiralal Agarwal, who married his granddaughter Rekha Tanti is a relative of an established businessman from Rajasthan based in North Lakhimpur town.

Nirmala (name changed), daughter of Subhas Sahu of No. 10 Line of Zoihing Tea Estate in Lakhimpur district was married to Prakash Soni, son of Iswar Lal Soni of Gali No. 2 of Baldev Nagar, Jodhpur in Rajasthan through an alleged bridal trafficking arrangement in 2017.

In 2021, Nirmala’s husband, Prakash Soni is now continuing harassing her by uploading obscene materials and postings on her on social media. Creating a Whatsapp group by including numbers of her guardians and extended family, Prakash has been posting obscene materials on Nirmala. For which Nirmala has been receiving endless phone calls from unknown persons with lewd gestures in the last several months. This has greatly affected her family.

As told by Nirmala she was earlier subjected to regular physical abuse and atrocities by her husband since the birth of their child. She was also forced to bring money worth several lakhs from her father in Lakhimpur for business and land purchase by Prakash in Rajasthan. Each time Subhas Sahu, the victim’s father fulfilled the demands. Despite these atrocities and violence by Prakash Soni on Nirmala continued.

“I was locked inside the house by my husband in Jodhpur and barred from talking and meeting anyone by my husband. He even installed CCTV cameras inside the house to monitor me and prevented me from making phone calls to my parents back home”, says Nirmala. In January 2019, Prakash also poured acid on her body which forced her to flee to Delhi. Four days later, with the help of Rajasthan Women Police, Nirmala took her young child and returned to her parents in Zoihing Tea Estate in Lakhimpur. The victim’s family now wants to file cybercrime complaints against Prakash Soni.

These long-distance marriages have been going on in Koilamari Tea Estate of Lakhimpur district quite secretly taking advantage of the social exclusion and poverty of the tea garden worker community. Strangers from Rajasthan come one day and lure not only the girls but the entire community of the tea garden workers who have no idea of the geographical distance of the place where the bride will be sent off. The community also has no idea about the differences in language, social set up, culture, food habits and terrain that their daughters would have to endure throughout their lives in Rajasthan. Noticeably, the grooms that are coming for their brides here are from upper caste communities in socially stratified Rajasthan and the girls they marry are from Adivasi tribes. How these girls encounter the caste divide in their in-law’s homes away in Rajasthan is a matter of concern here.

These long-distance, inter-caste marriages are conducted so secretly is not convincing so far as the dignity of the women are concerned. As states like Rajasthan and Haryana have a very low record on women’s rights and dwindling girl-child ratio, many here are apprehensive of the condition of girls married off to those areas. The gender ratio in Rajasthan for children up to six years fell sharply from 909 for every 1,000 boys in 2001 to 883 in 2011.

Society is so cruel towards girls in Rajasthan that newborn girls are abandoned daily in the state. In India 90% of the 11 million abandoned babies are girls. In Rajasthan, 674 children were abandoned between 2007 and 2011, the second highest in the country. This prompted the Rajasthan government to introduce the Ashray Palna Yojana project in 2015-2016 to install cradles throughout the state – at all district hospitals, medical colleges, and satellite hospitals for the parents to anonymously leave their unwanted babies.

Thus for a traditionally gender-insensitive state like Rajasthan the sending off of girls as brides from one of the most socially excluded parts of Assam is a matter of great concern. These girls too would be exposed to the gender-biased practices of their respective husband’s homes causing great harm to their future.

These are some of the accounts of trafficking of girl child from the tea plantations of Assam in the last twenty years. However, the apathy of law enforcement, state agencies and mainstream society are equally responsible for the existence of these activities. Living in a world of the periphery, the young girls of the Adivasi community in Assam’s tea plantations are always vulnerable to outsiders as their mothers remain busy in plantations and fathers sit in drunkard conditions at home. The world outside is always an illusion for change for these deprived girls as they easily express their consent to get married to far-off places for a change. The indifference of the tea garden management to these activities is also responsible for their plight as welfare measures are very inadequate and wages are very low despite consistent demands.

A coordinated and sustained campaign by all stakeholders is the need of the hour to bring a difference to this menace. Curbing on alcohol trade, strict enforcement of the law, encouragement of sporting activities, sensitization on gender equality and other reach-out programmes by the mainstream society could bring changes to the community from the present plight. Recently the state government of Assam has introduced model high schools in tea plantation areas to spread education among the Adivasi children. This initiative is also expected to contribute towards ending the social exclusion of this community.

Farhana Ahmed

Farhana Ahmed is Northeast Now Correspondent in North Lakhimpur. She can be reached at: farhana.ahmed777@gmail.com