Savi,14, her sister Sonali, 17 and their friend Rashmi, 17 were in a bus bound for Motihari, 450 km from Siliguri, West Bengal. It was Savi’s first trip outside the state and the girls were excited about it. Savi’s parents didn’t approve the journey, while Rashmi’s family was unaware of the trip.
Anti-Trafficking Network’s (ATN) timely intervention saved the three minor girls from the clutch of potential traffickers in Siliguri. The girls were lured by the false promise of good jobs and salaries as orchestra dancers at weddings in East Champaran District, Bihar.
“In Bihar, weddings normally end with orchestra dancing and it goes on till early morning. It is not a good place for children. It can lead to sexual abuse,” said Amos, a World Vision India Staff who was also responsible for initiating the Anti-Trafficking Network at Siliguri in 2011. At present 17 NGOs are part of ATN.
The girls accompanied by one Papiya Manna, 28 and Santosh Kumar, 27 both from Bihar were at the Bihar Bus Stand in Siliguri. The minor girls wore make-up and short dresses in spite of the cold weather.
“It is uncommon for girls from the hills to travel with people from the plains and because of their young age it raised our suspicion,” said Vinay, a social worker who apprised Amos. Savi, Sonali and Rashmi are young and pretty girls belonging to the Nepali community. Fair girls like them are in high demand as orchestra dancers in Bihar, said Vinay.
“The girls were laughing and smiling unaware of the dangers. They didn’t realise they were being trafficked. They had make-up on and were trying to look like adults,” said Amos. Various NGOs belonging to the ATN keep vigils at major bus stops and railway stations in Siliguri.
Vinay kept an eye on the girls and potential traffickers and summoned Amos. They walked up to them and started small talks. A short conversation was enough to convince them that the girls were minors and victims of trafficking in some way or the other. Police were called and the potential traffickers were arrested for further interrogation.
“Siliguri is a transit point for Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan, even Darjeeling and Eastern Bihar (India). Human trafficking is common and a major problem here. Traffickers target minors from the poorest and dysfunctional families. We work closely with the NGOs to get information and to stop trafficking,” said Inspector Pankaj Thapa, In-charge of Pradhan Nagar Police Station. According to him, the station alone receives 5-6 minor missing cases each month.
Savi, a 5th standard student, dived in at the invitation from her sister Sonali. Her parents couldn’t stop her as they couldn’t provide enough for her education. Savi’s father works as a security guard at a warehouse, while her mother is a housewife. Her mother didn’t mince words when she said, “They wouldn’t listen to us. We asked them not to go but they wouldn’t listen.”
Rashmi studied management in Siliguri and lives in a shared rented house away from her family who lives in Darjeeling. Her father had passed away and her mother doesn’t earn enough to support her. She is looked after by her maternal grandparents, who had no idea of her outings. “I thought I would quickly earn some money, I didn’t think much,” said Rashmi, who came to know of the job from Sonali.
According to National Crime Reports Bureau 2016, West Bengal has the highest cases of human trafficking. The state alone accounts for 44.01% of the National human trafficking reports. “Who knows what could have happened to them. A lot of children go missing each year and most of them don’t return,” said Amos.
An FIR (First Information Report) was registered against the potential traffickers and they were produced at Siliguri court. Nearly three months after the arrest, no one has come forward to meet them or bail them out, which further affirms their status as traffickers. The case is ongoing, and at the order of Child Welfare Committee (CWC), the minors were to be placed in a shelter home for 3 months. The Social Investigative Report will determine the outcome of the verdict. “Traffickers can serve sentence of up to 7 years in jail,” said Inspector Pankaj Thapa.
World Vision India helped find shelter for Savi, Sonali and Rashmi and they are currently placed at a shelter home run by Children in Need Institute (CINI).“At the shelter home we counselled them and help them recover from the shock and trauma they might have gone through. We also do various learning activities and get in touch with parents and set up opportunities for them to meet the children,” said Rohini, caretaker of the shelter home.
World Vision India spearheads the Anti-Trafficking Network in Siliguri. “We meet once every month. The network is very strong here. We have a WhatsApp group and we update every information there,” said Amos, standing outside the New Jalpaiguri train station, after receiving another lead of trafficking from the police in the neighbouring state of Sikkim.
In Darjeeling, World Vision India is working in 2 Blocks, under 3 village councils. More than 1200 girls are part of the Girl Power groups in 42 villages. The module is for 6 months and each group meets once a week. Here the girls are sensitised on many issues like trafficking, evils of child marriage, child rights and so on. World Vision India has also set up Village Level Child Protection Committee (VLCPC) in all 42 villages.
At the shelter home, Savi’s innocence remained intact. “I just wanted to see new places with my sister,” she said. Savi’s was the most cheerful of the three. The gravity of the situation began to set in only after they were sensitised and counselled. She wants to go back to school. Sonali wants to become a beautician. Rashmi felt a great sense of guilt for betraying her family’s trust and wants to do justice for the support she receives by finishing her studies and getting a good job.
According to the 2016 NCRB report, only 32.9% of trafficked victims (67.5% are girls) were rescued in west Bengal. Many victims don’t get second chances. But these girls do.
(Names changed to protect the identity of the girls)