To Heaven and Back
As campaigning for the 2016 Assam assembly polls was gaining steam in the warm and wet spring, Sunny and his friends Hanif and Asad got caught in a trafficking ring. The three schoolboys from Kamrup (rural) district of Assam had just appeared for the Class tenth board exams and were visiting Asad’s mother in Hajo, a small town on the outskirts of Guwahati when they ran into Rabi and Khorshed, two labour contractors. The men were touring the villages on the periphery of Hajo recruiting boys, some as young as nine years old, for jobs in Shimla. The dreams they peddled were fantastic- they said that the boys would be arranged in groups of eight to ten and work in a small apple orchard, picking and packaging apples: a simple job for which they would be paid a monthly salary of 8000 rupees to remit home or dispose as they pleased. The three friends were taken in by the smooth talk of the older men, the dream of adventure and the lure of quick money. Five more boys from Hajo constituency joined them and on 19th March 2016, the group of eight accompanied by Rabi travelled in the general compartment (or as it is popularly known, the ‘cattle class’ of the Indian Railways) of the Avadh Assam Express and reached Delhi to fulfill their dreams.
In the national capital they were sold to an ‘agent’ Kishore for eight thousand rupees a head (although they didn’t know of it just yet) and housed in a decrepit one room apartment close to the swanky New Friends Colony in South Delhi. They remained there for two days before being transported to Kashmir and left in the care of Sirji, the head of operations in Srinagar. Sirji accommodated them in his dingy office with twenty other boys (from Assam, West Bengal and Orissa) who had come before them. The boys were allowed to call home from Sirji’s number while their own mobile phones were confiscated. In Delhi they could move freely on the streets and in the alleys but here once they were herded into the dark cramped room, bolted and locked from the outside, they remained in captivity all day except for a little while in the morning and afternoon when a cleaning lady came to mop the floors and cook them a simple meal of rice and dal.
Sirji disciplined the boys with a controlled use of politeness and extreme violence so that they felt that he genuinely cared for them and were also scared to cross him. However, when he lost his temper he was a wild beast- when the children understood that they had been duped and refused to work as domestic servants, he kicked Hanif in the stomach and slapped Rubul so hard that his left ear rang all night.
After two days of darkness and confinement with only a 100 watt bulb hanging from the ceiling and a younger ‘agent’ to keep them company, the boys were sold to customers in Beerwa and other areas surrounding Srinagar for a sum of 20000- 22000 rupees each and set to work as domestic help. They were made to sign a bond saying that they would remain in employment for an entire year until they had paid off the ‘debt’. No money, either from the first or the second purchase was remitted to the parents of the children. Instead, the document they signed inflated their age- the three older ones who are sixteen years old and had just written their Class tenth board exams were made out to be nineteen and the youngest of the group, Wasim, who is nine years old was made out to be fourteen.
Trafficking in humans is illegal in India under the Bonded Labour Abolition Act, the Child Labour Act and the Juvenile Justice Act, along with safeguards under article 23 of the Constitution of India. It must be noted that the boys’ employers were educated and respectable people- Hafiz’s employers were both practising doctors and Asad’s employer was a professor of Sociology, both presumably knowledgeable of their crime. They had no moral scruples in employing the boys until nature intervened. The sudden change in weather from Assam to Delhi and then on to Kashmir had already made Hanif sick on the way to Srinagar and Sunny caught a fever during his first day of work. Fearing that the boys would not be able to cope with the weather, the employers decided to return them.
Meanwhile, the boys’ parents maintained regular communication with Sirji and their employers and finally managed to negotiate their release. On 28th March Asad, Hanif and Sunny’s parents transferred Rs. 10,000 to Sirji as penalty for his ‘losses’ and Sunny, Rubul and Wasim were allowed to leave. They arrived in Delhi on 29th March and caught a train to Assam the same night. Persistent phone calls to Sirji and the employers over the next week finally persuaded them to release the remaining boys. On the morning of April the seventh, Asad and Hanif reached Delhi and on 8th April they left for Assam, reaching home on the 10th, one day before the second and final phase of the assembly elections.
As in most instances related to trafficking, no cases have yet been filed against Sirji, Kishore or the two agents who brought the boys from Assam to Delhi. An NGO that specializes in rescuing and rehabilitating trafficked children also offered help but the parents refused, repeating over and over again that they only wanted their children back. This is not an isolated incident. Every year, especially after the floods, poor parents in Assam send their children to work in other states where they unwittingly get trafficked. Most of the children never return home and in case they do, illiteracy, lack of legal awareness and the fact that the parents themselves are partially culpable mean that no cases are filed. At the time of writing this report, three boys from Hajo are still employed as house-servants in Kashmir along with many others from different parts of Eastern India. Hanif’s parents are sharecroppers. They had a decent crop this year but since the absence of their son, the paddy has been left standing in the rain and is now utterly damaged. Their means of livelihood for the next six months is gone but at least they have their boy back and only that matters.
Shalim M Hussain
( Shalim M Hussain is a Research Scholar, Department of English, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Names have been changed to protect the children )