Seven people were killed by tribal mobs following rumours they were child-lifters, near Jamshedpur recently. From an area known for its lost children, The Indian Express tells a story of rampant trafficking, helpless parents, indifferent government, and growing anger
BUDHI Sandil has been waiting for her 12-year-old daughter for nearly a year now. “A person I knew in my village approached me and said he would take her to Delhi for a year. That she would get proper education there and work as a domestic help. They promised me Rs 40,000 at the end of the year,” says the 32-year-old widow, a mother of three.
Showing the photo of a slender girl, in short hair and a school uniform, her only photo of her daughter apart from the one in her Aadhaar card, Budhi remembers the date she left home. It was February 16, 2016. But she no longer remembers what the 12-year-old was wearing. Budhi accompanied her from their Latarshahi tola to the edge of their Nagaon village.
The tribal girl was first taken to Goelkhara in Chaibasa district, and then to Delhi. For the first couple of months, Budhi says, she was allowed to talk to the family. “She said she did not like the place. Call me home, she would cry.”
Then, the calls stopped. “In August, they said my girl had gone missing from Delhi. I asked them to find her, they did not respond and instead asked me to keep shut,” claims Budhi. “We informed other villagers, we planned a meeting. I received phone calls from persons who claimed to be police officers who threatened me,” says Baldeo Sandil, the girl’s uncle.
Scared, Budhi says she didn’t go to police but approached the local unit of Childline, which is supported by the Union Women and Child Development Ministry. Finally, last week, after The Sunday Express visited her home with Childline officials, a complaint was lodged in the case. “We are looking into it. There are many such cases in Chaibasa and other areas of Jharkhand,” says Anish Gupta, Chaibasa police superintendent, who has managed to successfully trace many of the “missing” children from here.
Latarshahi tola is located around 100 km from Shobhapur and Nagadi villages, near Jamshedpur town, where seven people were killed on rumours of being “bachcha chor (child lifters)” by a tribal mob over the night of May 17-18. The rumours against the seven had no basis. The tola has 150 houses, most of them of daily wage labourers or small farmers. Budhi’s husband died four years ago and she works in the fields earning Rs 120-150 a day.
Hundreds of children have gone missing from tribal-dominated areas of Jharkhand over the years. There are no records of others as parents, such as Budhi, rarely lodge a complaint. On March 29 this year, replying to a question in the Rajya Sabha, Minister of State, Home, Gangaram Ahir said 109 trafficking cases had been reported in Jharkhand in 2016, the fifth highest in the country in a state that ranks 16th in size. In April this year, 29 girls from Jharkhand were rescued in Delhi alone.
In Chaibasa, Childline receives 30 cases of missing children and trafficking on an average in a month. In 2016-17, 231 such cases were either registered or referred to it. That was a lucky year as they were able to retrieve 228 of the children. Most children were rescued from Delhi and adjoining areas. Says Chaibasa SP, Gupta, “We have rescued girls from factories and from areas where they work as domestic helps.”
Officials say the racket is spread across the interior villages, with girls taken to Delhi, Punjab, Haryana, Mumbai and Kolkata, where they end up in brothels, sex rackets or as domestic workers. “Poverty and unemployment are the main cause for parents sending their children away. Traffickers offer Rs 5,000 a month, which is a very big sum for the tribals,” says Rajesh Pati, who is associated with Childline.
Rishi Kant of Shakti Vahini, which has been helping the administration rescue the girls from different parts of the country, says, “Though police have cracked down on some gangs, others operate freely. Apart from Gumla, Khunti and other areas, child trafficking is on the rise in Simdega and Chaibasa areas… Children are mostly lured through placement agencies, with tribals who are trusted in the villages acting as middlemen. The kingpins are based in Delhi. For instance last year, one Pannalal Mahato who is suspected to have trafficked nearly 30,000 girls from Jharkhand was arrested by the police from Delhi. Mahato made crores and owns huge properties in Delhi and Jharkhand.”
Gupta says he arrested the kingpins from Delhi as well as middlemen and women while he was posted in Khunti. “From 2005 to 2014, the state government data shows 3,838 missing children, of whom 1,177 are yet to be found. 675 FIRs were lodged in this period. On the ground, the numbers are much higher,” says Baidnath Kumar, a child rights activist in Jharkhand.
Jharkhand’s 32 tribal groups together constitute 26.2 per cent of the state’s total population. More than 91 per cent of them live in villages. Districts such as West Singbhum, Gumla, Ranchi, Lohardanga, Pakaur have a high tribal population. Most tribals are engaged in agriculture or work as artisans, while a small section are hunter-gatherers. Lack of irrigation restricts them to one to two crops a year, while there is almost no agriculture in most areas during the summer months.
This has led many tribals to migrate for work. According to NGOs in the state, while over 5 per cent of the state’s population migrates in search of work to other states every year, this figure is 15 per cent in the tribal-dominated districts such as Dhanbad, Lohardanga and Gumla. Over 80,000 people travel from Dhanbad to Howrah in West Bengal every year for jobs, say NGOs.
“Work is available here, but people are migrating out. In the process, children are being trafficked. Tribal society is particularly vulnerable and scared. There is a need for awareness. Not only government agencies but NGOs also need to play a role,” says Nilkanth Singh Munda, the state Minister for Development, Panchayati Raj and Rural Work.
Baldeo of Latarshahi tola, whose niece is missing, says that in lean months, it is difficult for them to earn anything. At most, he says, they get work for two to three days in a month under the MNREGS. “Receiving payment is another ordeal. To collect the Rs 780 weekly payment, we have to spend Rs 300. The bank is far away and we have to make two to three trips to get the money. And then there is a middleman too.”
As per the 2011 census, at 57.1 per cent, the literacy rate among the Scheduled Tribes in Jharkhand is far below the national average of 74.04 per cent. Apart from the low literacy rate, high unemployment and poverty, what also makes the tribals vulnerable is the presence of Naxals in these areas. The districts with a high rate of missing children and trafficked children are also the ones affected by Naxal violence. Villagers say the Naxals are looking for children to join their ranks, and many of them send their children away so that they can be “safe”.
Gupta says that more than Naxals, the region now has the presence of the Peoples’ Liberation Front of India (PLFI), a splinter group. “The PLFI survives on extortion and, with development coming to these areas, they are trying to spread their base. The PLFI provides shelter to the traffickers in exchange for money,” the police officer alleges. The Naxal fear is another reason the tribals keep away from police, afraid that they might be branded as informers by the insurgents, a fact confirmed by the police officer.
According to police and NGOs, tribal girls are most sought after because their parents agree to offers of even small wages due to poverty. Their parents are also generally scared of approaching police, a point repeated again and again by tribals in the wake of the lynchings.
Archana Singh, a celebrated police officer who headed the anti-trafficking unit in Khunti district and retired early this year, agrees that the fear of being turned away makes most tribals reluctant to approach police. “Initially, the parents did not come to us. However, when we started to rescue girls from Delhi and other areas and brought them back, they started coming to me in groups whenever I visited the villages. They would ask, ‘Will you bring my child back?’. It was emotional for us too, reuniting the families, in the small way we could,” says Singh.
“From 2014 to early 2017,” she adds, “we were able to arrest 80 traffickers, including kingpins from Delhi. It was hard since traffickers wielded dabang-like powers and were very well connected. We rescued hundreds of girls from Delhi and other parts who hailed from Khunti district. But this is one district and just the tip of the iceberg.”
Gupta says they are trying to sensitise police officers towards the concerns of tribals. “But old habits die hard. It is true that a section of officers in police stations do not make it a priority to heed trafficking cases of children.”
At the fag end of 2016, the state passed The Private Placement Agencies and Domestic Workers (Regulation) Bill to regularise private placement agencies on the initiative of Chief Minister Raghubar Das. The bill makes it mandatory for placement agencies to register themselves and keep records of the women they find jobs for and their work location. It also makes it mandatory for all transactions to be made through banks. It is awaiting the Governor’s nod.
“It is true that many of our girls are trafficked outside. But hundreds of girls are being rescued and handed over to their families. We are tracking placement agencies. Traffickers both in Delhi and other areas, the middlemen in Jharkhand, are all being arrested. It is taking time but we will tackle this,” says Louis Marandi, Minister for Social Welfare, Women and Child Development.
The rumours of child-lifters being on the prowl in the tribal areas began circulating around a month ago, and quickly spread. Even the most interior villages in Jharkhand now have mobile connectivity, and the recent offer of cheap data and voice calling by Reliance Jio has prompted many to buy smartphones and join social media. As the rumours passed from phone to phone, the government was caught completely unawares.
A WhatsApp message in Hindi, that sounded like an official release, warned people against child-lifters and listed three fictitious incidents of child-lifting on May 9 and May 10 in different areas of East Singhbhum. Many of the messages even included images of the children.
“In my village, almost everyone now has a cellphone. The youth now spend all day huddled together, watching something or the other,” says Govind Murmu, a 60-year-old from Shobapur village. The messages also coincided with the leanest season for agriculture in these parts, leaving many youths unemployed.
Tana Murmu, 19, sitting with his friends at a Shobhapur chowk, says the phones have brought the world to them. “You are from Kolkata. I have been to Dumdum in Kolkata once. We listen to Santhali and Hindi songs on the phone, watch dances, see movies.”
Ramesh Hansda, tribal leader and BJP state committee member, says social media has become a “curse” in spreading the child-lifting rumours. “Social media is new here and the youth are attracted to it. They believe what social media says is true. When the messages and images of ‘child lifter’ started circulating, they believed them.”
Tribals say they approached police soon after the rumours first spread, but were turned away. On May 9 and 10, they claim, some “child-lifters” were even caught near Nagadi village, but police still didn’t listen. However, they could not give details of these alleged child-lifters. Soon parents started keeping their children indoors, and many stopped them from going to school.
Gurucharan Mahato, headmaster of Govindpur middle school, located just a kilometre from where the lynchings happened, says, “Parents were scared. Some of my students also told me about the rumours.” About 15 km away Govindpur, in Uttar Kamardi village, tribals talk of spending nights on guard for the past month with bow and arrows and lathis, to keep away child-lifters. Uma Murmu, a mother of three, whose husband works as a daily wager, says she takes her children along even when she goes to the village well.
Pratibha Murmu, the mukhiya of Govindpur village, says rattled by the rumours, they had planned a gram sabha on the issue on May 18, which got scrapped when the lynchings took place hours earlier. “There is fear and anger among the tribals,” she says. “In my area and most others, children have either stopped going to schools or are being escorted everywhere by their parents. During afternoons, mothers don’t want their children to play or loiter around.” Murmu adds that they are now holding regular meetings with villagers.
On May 12, two people, including a tribal, were killed by angry tribals on fears of child-lifting in Jadugora and Asomboni. Still, the police did little apart from recovering the bodies. Sini Soren, the mukhiya for two consequetive terms at Uttar Kamardi village, rues that all this could have been avoided. “Police and administration should have taken the matter seriously from the beginning.”
The child-lifting rumours also fanned anger that had already been building among tribals over changes to two land laws by the BJP government. At the end of 2016, the Das government had tabled Bills to amend the Chotanagpur Tenancy Act (CNT Act) 1908, and the Santhal Paragana Tenancy Act (SPT Act) 1949, despite massive protests.
The state government has said the amendments are meant to only allow acquisition of tribal land for building infrastructure such as roads, hospitals and educational institutions, while keeping the landholders’ ownership intact. Tribal groups and the Opposition, however, say the dilution of laws will pave the way for the government and private parties to gradually take over tribal land.
There have been rallies in various parts of Jharkhand on the issue. Even without the Opposition backing, restive tribals have been holding silent village meetings. “The flame is spreading in villages over the amendment of CNT and SPT. The government said the land will remain with tribals, but how?” says Ratan Tirkey, a tribal leader and member of the state Tribal Advisory Council. “I asked the CM to call all traditional tribal leaders to explain their initiative to the public. There is a lot of confusion, anger and insecurity among tribals.”
BJP leader Ramesh Hansda, however, accuses Opposition leaders of misleading the tribals. “The state is witnessing development and the Opposition has no other issue. Some leaders are giving provocative speeches where they are saying that the government will snatch tribal land and that IPC and CrPC is not for tribals. Some youths are getting brainwashed,” he says.
Since the lynching, Shobhapur and Nagadi villages are deserted, with police hunting for the seven accused in the May 18 lynching. However, it hasn’t diminished the fears of the tribals. “So many children have been stolen from our villages,” says 70-year-old Barsha Murmu, among the few left behind in Nagadi. “We never let our children out of our sight now, even during the day. No child has gone to school from here in the past month.”
Talking about May 18, she adds, “Everyone was so scared, the youth would patrol every night. One such evening, the outsiders were spotted and killed.” Anta Tudu, the tribal headsman of Shobhapur village, says he tried to stop the lynching. “In the wee hours, everyone shouted bachcha chor. We ran to the spot to find a few hundred people already there.
Everyone thought the rumours were true. I tried to make them understand, but failed. More people came from other villages within minutes because they too were wide awake. And then they killed the outsiders.” About 100 km away, in Nomail village in West Singhbhum district, Humdo Banding and his wife Monica are celebrating one happy ending. Last Tuesday, their 17-year-old daughter was restored to them after four years. In a repeat of Budhi’s daughter’s story, and of stories of countless girls like her, the teenager had been taken to Delhi to work as a domestic worker before she was reported “missing”. “We had trusted a neighbour, who told us she would get good education and even earn in Delhi.”
Monica says they left no stone unturned to find her. “Earlier this year, the Delhi Police rescued some trafficking victims and sent them to Ranchi.” One of them was their daughter. Jaideo Kardi, the centre co-ordinator for Childline in Chaibasa, says they got her back to her parents on May 23. “We had almost lost hope,” says Monica. The 17-year-old remains in shock and hardly wants to leave home now. Neither do Monica’s other five children.