'Poverty-stricken and drought-affected families in Bundelkhand and Marathawada are selling their children for as little as a few hundred rupees.'
Rashme Sehgal reports on the shocking rise in human trafficking in India.
The latest statistics provided by the National Crime Records Bureau are chilling -- the trafficking of minor girls has increased 65 per cent in the last decade.
From 3,000 cases of trafficking registered in 2009, the numbers have gone up to 4,950 in 2013.
Over 50 per cent of those being trafficked comprise minor girls while women comprise another 30 per cent of the trafficking cases.
Shockingly, the NCRB data released highlights that the conviction rate for such cases has gone down 45 per cent from 1,279 in 2009 to 702 in 2013.
Most of these young girls are being sold for prostitution in brothels or being exploited for purposes of pornography and sex tourism.
More and more girl children are being pushed into prostitution and slavery with a hapless government not taking adequate steps to reverse this trend.
NCRB officials admit the data is only the tip of the iceberg. The numbers of girls being trafficked would run into thousands of girls every month but since this multi-million dollar trade operates in a clandestine manner, breaking into these highly organised crime networks remains an uphill task.
"Human trafficking cases in India rose 92 per cent over six years between 2009 and 2014. This is in contrast to the period between 2005 and 2009 where trafficking cases actually declined by 55 per cent," says one official.
Human trafficking in general has expanded to almost every state in the country.
Tamil Nadu heads the list with the largest number of trafficked girls and women, having reported almost 8,000 cases in these two categories in the last ten years.
West Bengal is now emerging as a hub, having reported 669 cases in 2013 alone.
West Bengal is also the centre of trafficking of girls from both Bangladesh and Nepal. The other three states with high levels of trafficking are: Andhra Pradesh (5,861), Karnataka (5,443) and Maharashtra (3,628).
Most of these girls are being brought to the red light areas of Mumbai and Delhi.
Such is the clout of the traffickers that the United Nations reports that women from countries as diverse as Ukraine, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Chechnya and Kyrgyzstan, Nepal, Thailand and Malaysia are being trafficked with many of these women being brought into India as well.
"The numbers of trafficked girls and young boys is ten times the figures revealed by NCRB data," says Mirzapur-based Shamshad Khan, founder-secretary, Centre for Rural Education and Development Action, which he has been running for three decades.
"Poverty-stricken and drought-affected families in Bundelkhand and Marathawada as also from Bihar and Karnataka are selling their children for as little as a few hundred rupees," he adds.
"My own city of Mirzapur has emerged as a sex market for sex trafficking. Eastern UP has been witness to large numbers of child migration in search of work," says Khan. "Once children leave home, being forced into the sex trade is the next step."
Swami Agnivesh, who has also been active in this field for over four decades, is especially upset at the large numbers of women traffickers who have gained a monopoly in this field.
"Unemployment and drought have created a situation where families are being forced to migrate from their villages," says Swami Agnivesh. "Most of these women traffickers are now using social media to maintain contact with the kingpins of this racket."
"Don't forget that after arms and drug sales, human trafficking has emerged as the third largest industry with a turnover running into billions of dollars," he adds.
"Unfortunately, we have not come up with any sustained campaign either at the district or state level to address this issue," he says.
Swami Agnivesh is trying to create awareness about this issue by setting up a youth network which presently has 1,000 members on its rolls. Its members visit schools and madrassas to highlight the problem.
"The Modi government has talked about the need for corporates to allocate funds for social upliftment, but trafficking has been given no importance in CSR financial allocations," he emphasises.
Ram Chaurasia, chairperson, Bachpan Bachao Andolan, believes part of the problem lies in the fact that India's trafficking laws are extremely weak.
"Thousands of trafficking cases are pending in the courts," he says. "Procedures are so lengthy that it can take 30 years for a case to reach summation. We need summary trials so that convictions on trafficking cases take place in a time bound manner."
Most trafficking cases are first registered under the missing children category. Between 2011 and 2013, more than 105,000 children were registered as missing in Chhattisgarh from an estimated 135,000 kids registered as missing in India every year.
Many of these children enter the domestic market. Some are picked up by those in the organ trafficking trade while others are sold in brothels.
"The traffickers earn so much money and work closely with criminal gangs," says Shamshad Khan. "Even when local NGOs file cases against them, they are able to wield pressure on the families to change their statements. Poor families are very vulnerable to these pressures."
There is also a problem of perception. The police do not seem to regard trafficking as a crime. Rather, they perceive it as a case of poor children migrating from their homes in search of livelihood.
The ministry of home affairs has finally woken up to this problem and is in the process of setting up Anti-Human Trafficking Units to be located in 335 vulnerable police districts. Already, 225 such Anti-Human Trafficking Units are active.
The ministry of women and child development has launched Ujjawala, a comprehensive scheme for the prevention, rescue and rehabilitation of trafficked women and children.
According to the ministry, there are over 3 million sex workers in India with almost 40 per cent of them entering the trade before they turn 18.
A large number of these are trafficked girls whose lives could alter dramatically if the Ujjawala scheme is well implemented.
The ministry released a draft bill on human trafficking on May 31 which has been projected as the first comprehensive anti-human trafficking law in the country aimed at rehabilitation of survivors as also to ensure speedy justice in these cases.
The draft bill, Trafficking of Persons (Prevention, Protection and Rehabilitation), has several lacunae including the fact that it does not have a comprehensive definition of the term 'trafficking.'
The bill is open for objections from NGOs till the end of June, but the main issue to be addressed by the ministry is why although cases of trafficking are on the rise, conviction rates continue to drop.
The United States State Department has estimated that trafficking of Indians entering forced labour is between 30 to 65 million people.
The most frightening aspect of this statistic is that a large number of these are young, vulnerable girls.
A few days before Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrived in Washington, DC earlier this month, Rediff.com's Aziz Haniffa reported that the powerful US Senate Foreign Relations Committee pulled up India for everything from human trafficking to gender violence and discrimination and persecution of minorities and religious freedom issues to slavery. Yes, slavery.
Committee chairman Senator Bob Corker fired the first salvo, saying 'I would say that while this committee has been unanimously supportive of an end modern day slavery movement, the United States also believes that India has the largest number of slaves.'
'I am not talking about people working for $1 a day, I am talking about people who are enslaved,' the senator said.
'India,' Corker said, 'has 12 to 14 million slaves, more than any country in the world. There are 27 million slaves in the world. How does a country like this have 12 to 14 million slaves in the year 2016? How does it happen?'