The 16-year-old has a recurring nightmare: Two strong hands tightening around her neck, followed by a kick to the groin and the pain of a hot iron rod being pressed on her arms.
“It keeps coming back to me… the violence, the screaming. They would have killed me,” she said, seated inside a women’s shelter home in Faridabad, six months after she was rescued from a house in Gurgaon where she was working as a domestic help.
In 2016, she left her town in northeastern Jharkhand with an agent who promised her big city dreams — “studies, TV, jeans, and some jhaadu-pocha on the side”.
It took 24 hours to reach Delhi by train, and then an auto led her to an office in Faridabad, where the cycle of abuse and violence started. She was initially placed with a family in Sonepat, working 19-hour shifts for 11 months, until her contract ended and she asked for her salary.
Instead, her agent took the money, and allegedly assaulted and raped her over two weeks. She was then placed with a new family in Gurgaon, which turned a blind eye to her distress. A neighbour heard her crying one night and called Childline — 1098 — to have her rescued.
In January, a 16-year-old from Jharkhand was rescued from a doctor’s home after she was allegedly assaulted with a weighing machine, burnt with boiling water, and starved by her employer. In May, another 16-year-old was killed, allegedly by the owner of a placement agency, after she demanded her salary.
Amid a spate of cases wherein girls trafficked from Jharkhand have alleged assault, rape, or have been killed, The Indian Express spent two months tracking 13 girls — all, according to authorities, underage — who had been trafficked to Delhi-NCR from Jharkhand, placed as domestic helps, and eventually rescued by the Delhi Police, Jharkhand Police or NGOs. The Indian Express also filed RTIs, and responses by eight units of the Delhi Police showed an abysmal rate of conviction when it comes to such trafficking cases.
Lost and found
“There are 24 districts in the state and on an average 1,000 girls leave each one — either on their own or as victims of trafficking — every year, to look for work in Delhi, Haryana, Rajasthan and Punjab. “That’s 24,000 girls every year on an average,” said Arti Kujur, chairperson of the Jharkhand Commission for Protection of Child Rights. Data provided by the Delhi Commission for Women (DCW), in a reply to an RTI query by The Indian Express, stated that 750 rescue operations were conducted by it from July, 2015 to May 1, 2018.
Delhi-based NGO Shakti Vahini stated that “62 minors from Jharkhand working as domestic helps in Delhi-NCR were rescued in 2017, with the help of Childline (working at railway stations), DCW and Delhi Police”.
The Indian Express also filed RTI queries with the Delhi Police seeking details of cases registered under IPC sections pertaining to trafficking, 370 and 370-(a), between January 2014 and July 2018. Typically, this section is invoked when a girl or woman is rescued from an employer or a placement agency. According to the RTI response, 189 cases under section 370 and 370-(a) were registered in the last four years. Chargesheets were filed in 84.
Alarmingly, only seven people out of the 269 arrested over the four years were convicted. RTI data also revealed that the Crime Branch, with its anti-human trafficking unit (AHTU) in Delhi, registered only 10 cases from 2014-2018. Chargesheets were filed in two cases.
Speaking to the 13 girls revealed a pattern: eight alleged they had been physically and sexually assaulted by employers or agents. Three said they had received an education, and none had studied till Class X.
Almost all spoke of how poverty, pressure to support their families, and lack of opportunities back home prompted them to make the over 1,200-km journey from Ranchi.
A 13-year-old from a Naxal-hit district, who had seven siblings to take care of, said, “An aunty I met at the village fair brought me here ‘for 2-3 days’, but then left me to clean a house.” She worked from 5.30 am to 11 pm, with a brief lunch break in the kitchen. “I spoke Mandori at first, picked up Hindi later… my employer would beat me when I wouldn’t understand her.”
While the Child and Adolescent Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986, prohibits “engagement of children (under the age of 14 years) in all occupations”, middlemen and unlicenced placement agencies give little thought to a girl’s age. According to Kujur, maximum cases are seen from Gumla, Godda, Dumka, Chaibasa, Khunti and Singhbhum.
First stop: Shakurpur
All stakeholders agree that while migration opens up a wealth of opportunities, the lack of regulation leaves many women vulnerable to exploitation.
A 20-year-old, married off at the age of 13, now works as a help in Delhi. “Sab kuch pass mein hai Delhi mein. Yaha paida hote toh padh-likh lete,” she said. Back home, drinking water was an hour away, and seeing the doctor required a train journey to Rourkela in Odisha.
Another 22-year-old, from a hilly hamlet in Jharkhand, said the move to Delhi four years ago has meant a comfortable life for her parents and three brothers back home. “My brothers are studying, we have a pucca house and less stress for my father,” she said, adding that every Sunday, she takes the Metro to a nearby church, where others from her state join her.
“Six out of 10 women say life has become better by working as domestic helps outside Jharkhand. Stopping migration is not the solution,” said Kujur.
Delhi government’s Delhi Private Placement Agencies (Regulation) Bill, to be tabled before the Cabinet early October, could help. Advocate Ravi Kant said, “The Bill will lead to more accountability as we propose that a tripartite agreement is signed between the employer, employee and the agent; minimum wages ensured; and only those above the age of 18 years are employed.”
Few places exemplify the perils of lack of regulation like Delhi’s Shakurpur area, where hundreds of placement agencies have flourished, many without licences. The lanes of Shakurpur don’t advertise what’s on offer — no flex boards or business cards. The Indian Express visited seven placement agencies in the area, and found that only two claimed to be registered with local police and the labour office. At one, owner said he places women “only through reference” because he has heard “many tales of torture coming out of kothis”.
Rules don’t mandate cross-verification by the government as placement agencies have to register and verify themselves online as per the Delhi Shops & Establishment Act, 1954. A total of 155 domestic help placement agencies have been issued registration certificates in Shakurpur, as per the Labour Department.
The certificates are then sent to the owner of the agency with a disclaimer saying that it was not cross-verified. “This was done for ease of business and for the sake of data. We are trying to add additional security verification like submitting Aadhaar card to the website,” said a senior Labour Department official.
Shakurpur is also where alleged trafficking kingpin Panna Lal’s house now remains locked. Aradhana Singh, former officer in-charge of AHTU, remembers arresting him in 2014. “When Lal moved to Delhi 22 years ago, he realised it was a city of labourers. During every visit to Jharkhand, he would take a few girls with him to Delhi. Parents would beg him to… They didn’t know this was trafficking… even police didn’t,” Singh said. By the time the law caught up with Lal, he had, according to police, trafficked “5,000 girls from Jharkhand”.
Train to Delhi
Like Lal, middlemen who operate between the two states start by convincing the girls and their families. DCP (west) Monika Bhardwaj cited the recent arrest of a 37-year-old woman trafficker, who had set up a trust and a placement agency, and would organise trade fairs in tribal areas, where she would zero in on girls.
Next comes the train journey. Narrating her first visit to Delhi with two other girls and an agent last year, a 16-year-old girl said: “He told us not to talk to anyone. I was anxious but happy to reach Delhi… I wonder why no one did anything when they saw young girls in a train with a man.”
The Indian Express visited four railways stations in the capital, of which New Delhi and Anand Vihar stations have the maximum trains arriving from Jharkhand. At each one, Railway Protection Force (RPF), Government Railway Police (GRP) and local Childline volunteers are perpetually alert. But nabbing traffickers has become harder, they say.
“It was different till 2017… now the traffickers de-board at smaller stations like Aligarh or Ghaziabad. They prefer road travel, as vigilance is minimal there,” said inspector OP Rawat, RPF in-charge at New Delhi Railway Station.
In many cases, women who are ‘rescued’ tell officials they have travelled on their own volition. “From March to July this year, 75 women were rescued, of which 15 were from Jharkhand. All of them told CWC they came to Delhi on their free will,” said a Childline official.
A similar problem crops up when charges against the accused are framed. Earlier, Delhi Police would earlier invoke sections of the Immoral Trafficking (Prevention) Act, 1956, which had provisions for punishment for taking and procuring of persons for prostitution. Introduction of section 370 and 370-(a) has widened the definition of trafficking to involve child labour, forced marriage, organ trade and trafficking through adoption.
“Proving sex trafficking is easier and the probability of convicting the accused is high. Under Section 370, it is difficult to pin the middlemen, who are in many cases supported by the parents. When victims claim they came to Delhi on their own will, the only thing left to do is to rope in the Labour Department and make sure they get their due wages before being sent back to their families,” said a senior officer with the AHTU.