BHOOT, Jharkhand— Suman Tutti, 11, a frail, shy girl from Bhoot village, around 35 kilometers, or 21 miles from Ranchi, the capital of the eastern state of Jharkhand, is one of the 100,000 girls who are trafficked from the state every year, according to the state government statistics.
On a punishingly hot June afternoon, as Ms. Tutti was returning from her school, a middle-aged woman approached her. The woman asked Ms. Tutti if she wanted to go out of Jharkhand to work. She also offered the chance to study along with work.
Ms. Tutti, who lived in stark poverty with her parents and seven siblings in a mud house, found the proposal alluring. She followed the stranger.
Her parents searched for her wherever they could. “We looked for her everywhere,” said Savitri Tutti, her mother, “but we couldn’t find Suman.”
Bhoot is a village in Khunti district of Jharkhand, which has been caught in the conflict between Maoist insurgents and Indian security forces. Ms. Tutti’s parents assumed that their daughter had been taken away by the police or the insurgents. “After 15 days of not seeing her, we assumed she was dead,” recalled Mrs. Tutti.
A UN report in July declared Jharkhand as the worst victim of human trafficking. The woman who had offered Ms. Tutti a job and an education worked for a human trafficking ring. She sold the 11-year-old girl to a middleman for Rs. 1500, or $24. The middleman took her on a train to Delhi. Ms. Tutti was made to sleep on the floor of the train for the two nights of the journey and was denied food.
“The problem with trafficking is that there can be no preventive action by the police,” explained Sampath Meena, the inspector general of police for organized crime in Ranchi. The police, Mr. Meena said, struggled with differentiating between people migrating for employment and those who were being trafficked.
Naman Tapno, an activist with Bharatiya Kisan Sangh, a non-profit organization that works with the victims of human trafficking, argued that the police can identify the middlemen and intensify policing in the rural areas of Jharkhand.
The Tuttis live in a sparsely populated area, whose luxurious greens and lazily grazing cattle create the illusion of a pastoral idyll. But the presence of a paramilitary Central Reserve Police Force camp, two kilometers or a little more than a mile from their house, is a reminder of the lethal insurgency and counter-insurgency in the region.
Ms. Tutti partly took up a stranger’s offer of work in a distant city because of the violence engulfing her home. “We were always told to be home before dark, the Naxals [Maoist insurgents] wanted my friend to join their cause, while another friend of mine was threatened by the police,” she said.
On her arrival in New Delhi, Ms. Tutti was kept in a house near the New Delhi Railway Station for two days. Then she was taken to a house, where she worked as a domestic help. She cleaned the house, cooked, washed utensils. “I had no energy to study after that,” she recalled. “They didn’t send me to school or help me with studies.”
“The main problem is that 67 percent of young girls that are trafficked are tricked into it by someone they know,” said Sanjay Mishra, the coordinator of Jharkhand’s State Commission for Protection of Child Rights (SCPRC).
Jharkhand is home to a significant population of India’s indigenous tribal communities, who are among the most disenfranchised citizens of the country. According to official statistics, around nine million out of 32 million people in Jharkhand are from tribal communities. Mr. Mishra claimed that more than 80 percent of the girls, who are trafficked belong to the tribal communities.
Jharkhand’s tribes have a tradition known as “mehmaani” where parents send children to live with their uncles for a few months to foster better familial ties. “Many families sent their children for “mehmaani” and didn’t expect them for several months,” said Mr. Mishra. “After a substantial amount of time, they realized that their children had been trafficked.”
Some of the girls who get trafficked to India’s big cities find their way back home but many families refuse to accept them into the fold. Neela, a girl from a Jharkhand village, who goes by only one name, worked as a domestic help at the residence of a top government official in New Delhi. She was often beaten up and kept locked in the house for several months. Himendra Narayan, a former journalist, who is now based in Ranchi, found out about her from his own domestic help. Mr. Narayan confronted the bureaucrat, who reluctantly admitted to having abused Neela, and allowed Mr. Narayan to take her back to Ranchi.
A week after her arrival in Ranchi, Neela disappeared. Mr. Narayan found that she had run away after being taunted by her family. They had considered her “impure” as she had returned from a big city.
Ms. Tutti is one of the few fortunate girls who returned home and were accepted by her family. After a month of working at her employer’s house in New Delhi, Ms. Tutti got to know another girl from Jharkhand. On a July morning, when their employers sent them to buy vegetables, the girls escaped. They boarded a train to Ranchi.
The police in Ranchi sent the girls to a shelter for the destitute. A week later, with help from non-profits, the girls returned to their homes. The Tuttis were overjoyed to see their daughter again. “I just didn’t want anything more,” said Mrs. Tutti.
The real challenge begins after the girls reach their homes. “They need psychological help and counseling as 72 percent of the girls who are trafficked are sexually exploited,” said Mr. Mishra.
After several weeks of conversations, Ms. Tutti told the volunteers from the State Commission for Protection of Child Rights that she had been sexually assaulted, although not raped, by her employers. “What could I do? I couldn’t run away,” said Ms. Tutti, as her eyes brimmed with tears. “I was kept locked in a room, in the basement.”
The social and economic indicators of Jharkhand are amongst the worst in the country. Even though the state is rich in minerals, the inequitable distribution of wealth and the lack of political will plague the state. “If there were livelihood opportunities provided in this state, why would people go outside in search of jobs?” asked Mr. Meena. “We have set up anti-trafficking cells in 20 districts of the state, but they do not have the required resources or man power,” he added.
On their annual visits home, the girls of Jharkhand, who get decent jobs in Delhi and Mumbai, describe the big cities as promised lands, where people have uninterrupted electricity, running water, and sufficient food to eat. “Those stories entice many young girls to leave,” said Mr. Tapno.
Ms. Tutti has returned to a school near her village. Her teachers have been kind and encourage her to work harder on her favorite subject, Hindi. Yet she measures the terrible scars of her experience against the weight of poverty and lack of opportunity. “I will not leave home again,” she said. “But if there is no way to earn money in the village, I wonder what we will do.”
Raksha Kumar is a freelance journalist based in Bangalore.
Raksha Kumar is a freelance journalist based in Bangalore.