There’s something almost eerily Nazi about this. Not in terms of formal politics, of course. Only ordinary people are involved here. But their actions speak of a rarefied universe of cruelty—elevated to an organised, clinical, coldly amoral enterprise. At the heart of it is the idea that one can exert absolute control over another’s body. The terms of abuse go beyond even sadism; the human body here is just a device and also its product. The stories offer no great cause for optimism, but avoiding the dark dramas, and pretending they don’t exist, is precisely what allows them to grow.
The first story. We’ll call her Soni, as many of them are indeed called—an adivasi name that contains resonances. She is at an undisclosed location in Bihar at present, in hiding, fearing for her life, recuperating from the injuries to her soul. She breaks down often over the phone as she narrates her story. Of how she came to Delhi as a minor and, in stages, passed through a dark mirror—to enter an unreal world of slavery that awaited on the other side, a tiny house, where unknown men set in motion a whole cycle of sowing and harvesting on her body. And that of other girls like her.
As the story starts, life looked cheerless but sufficiently normal. Soni was 15 in 2010 when she, along with four friends, moved out from her village in Jharkhand, joining the tide of humankind flowing out from that immiserated state. Volitional, but only to a degree. For there was an agent, as always, and then a sale and transfer of ownership to an agency, and then the drudgery of housework in a typical Delhi home. She lost track of her friends. Six months on, a man came to see Soni, and said he was from the “office”. He said nothing else—just saw her and left. Days later, another agent came, took her along to a new house. The people at the first house were nice, relatively. They slipped her Rs 10,000, which she concealed in her salwar.
The new house was tiny and surrounded by narrow lanes. Soni was made to sign papers she couldn’t read, something written in English. Then a strange routine started—regular check-ups at a hospital, blood tests and, most importantly, strange injections. She didn’t understand why she needed them. There were other girls at the house, all secluded. The curtains were always firmly drawn. There were guards, agents, staff members and a caretaker, a woman from Jharkhand she called ‘didi’. The rhythms of life seemed regular—sleeping, waking, cleaning, eating. “I would want fish and they would get me fish. Nobody refused me anything. They were nice to me, I didn’t know why,” she says.
“Girls who get pregnant, their children are kept in the agency office and sold after they are around one year old,” Rashmi said, recounting what she saw in Delhi.
One day a girl whispered to Soni in the bathroom that a baby was growing inside her. She had never heard the English word “baby”, so she didn’t catch on. “I just didn’t have the brains to know what was happening. I was 15 or 16,” she says. After three months of regular hospital visits—always in a curtained vehicle—Soni was taken for an ultrasound. “Back home, I pestered the caretaker, ‘Kya hai didi, dikhaiye na, dikhaiye na’. And she showed me. There was a photo of a very small child—ekdum chhota sa bachcha tha.”
It was like a pane of glass getting shattered inside her. The news would have come as a profound shock to any woman, but it was natural for a girl her age and level of emotional maturity to be thrown totally off-kilter. The coldness of the system relies on their naivete—underage girls are especially vulnerable to this exploitation because, by the time they realise they are pregnant, it’s often too late for abortion. Soni managed to stay on her feet, though. The caretaker told her to win the confidence of those running the house. She found enough steel inside her to play along, hoping to run away one day. She stayed in the house for another three months—in all, around six. They took her for walks at a local park or to buy vegetables. “Other girls would run away to try and abort the child but they were caught, brought back and beaten. I used to get scared but kept quiet, as if I was fine,” she says. Slowly she won their trust and one night she slipped out at 3 am. Where she went, how she went, is a blur. She asked a taxi driver, “Bhaiya humko station chhod dijiye—please take me to the station”. Using some of the Rs 10,000, she finally escaped the city with that grey moral smog hanging over it, and reached Ranchi.
Back in her village, still pregnant, Soni wandered alone in the forest, trying repeatedly to kill herself. By hanging, by pouring kerosene…but always survived. “I knew there was a child inside me but didn’t know how to tell anybody, how to explain how it happened,” she says. Girls in her situation, Soni realised later, often end their lives—as a friend of hers did recently. In her own case, a male friend finally arranged a doctor. An abortion ensued, at almost four months.
The village was where it started. Soni recalls, through tears, leaving her mother crying at the bus stand, asking her not to leave for Delhi. “I didn’t listen—meri zidd thi—I was set upon going. The agent was from my village so I believed him,” she says. Her father had filed an FIR when he found her gone, but there was no police investigation. Now she registered a case, and promptly started getting threats to her life. “The agents tore up my FIR and threw it away,” she says. She did not mention the pregnancy in the FIR. “My FIR was only about agents selling girls for Rs 40,000-50,000 but the police didn’t probe even this. Nobody supported me,” she says.
“If the pregnant woman returns home, agents try all means to take her baby. If she stays back, the agency keeps the child anyway,” says activist Baidnath.
From a sense of sheer isolation, a sense of community began growing in her. The pattern started sinking in. Soni met another girl from Jharkhand who told her of having given birth six times, until her body gave way. “She got Rs 50,000 per child. It is such a sad thing. I believe her. Nobody can live with a lie this big. I cry so much. Why did this happen to me? Why does it happen to unmarried girls? I didn’t love anybody, had no friend. Why does god do this to us—how have we ever harmed anybody?” Depleted of her inner resources of vitality, it was a slow recovery—and a vague apprehension about the future kept Soni silent in public. “Tell the police? What will they do? They will only ridicule me and I’ll never be able to marry. My parents will be defamed, that’s all. What choice do I have? What can anybody do for me?”
The second story has overlaps with the first—the same points on the physical and social map—but this time it’s an eye-witness. Her account helps us map out the territory from the outside, as it were. Rashmi is only about 20 but solemn-faced, as if the weight of years has worn her down slightly. She was all of 13 when the system smoked her out of her village home up on the Simdega plateau in southern Jharkhand, bordering Orissa. One day in September 2014, Rashmi escaped from seven years of domestic slavery. The placement agent who had lured her to that city back in 2008, put her on a train back to Ranchi. Rashmi travelled another 100 km by bus, crossing jungle and river to reach familial territory. A house in the town of Gumla. Her own people at last.
It was the house of her sister and brother-in-law. Soon after, the two of them accompanied Rashmi to the Child Welfare Committee (CWC) office in Gumla. Yes, it was a child’s story—a tale about the lost years of childhood—that she had to relate. The CWC is the only government body authorised to hear and record such testimonies. But its officers were away that day. “Our team was attending a UNICEF function in Ranchi that day so we didn’t meet Soni,” says Targen Panna, CWC’s Gumla chairperson at the time. Nice touch that…UNICEF. Anyway, outside the CWC campus, Rashmi bumped into news reporters and activists. One of them brought her to Shashi Kant, an anti-trafficking activist who heads an organisation of his Chik Baraik tribe and is a journalist for a district paper. In the nondescript, white-walled courtyard of his house, Rashmi recorded, on videotape, what she had witnessed in Delhi.
“Bachcha bechne waala kaam,” she called it. Baby-selling. A racket that’s evolved in the shadow-zones of modern life to cater to demand. Or rather, many demands. For, baby-selling is only the last link in the chain. Baby production is a necessary interim stage. The laws of the market dictate that supply will rise up to meet demand. And that latter is a primordial word that can encompass many meanings. To reveal the full variety of exploitative practices, throw in a form of slavery. The video conversation with Rashmi, roughly five minutes long, is one of the rare testimonies of what was always suspected happens in Jharkhand but has not been acknowledged so starkly—adivasi girls are trafficked, then raped, compelled to conceive, and finally their children sold in the flourishing adoption black market. A whole assembly-line of organised cruelty.
The price of a child secured through forced conception ranges between Rs 1-4 lakh, say activists. Besides the desperation of those seeking a child, the fluctuation is on account of the money the agents invest in adivasi women and the risk and problems encountered to have them conceive—the cold chain logistics, essentially. The commodification of the human body is abject, merciless and complete. In this economy, the adivasi woman and her womb are turned into money-making devices.
When reports about Rashmi were splashed in the papers, it was initially assumed she was a victim too. One news report talked of a “rescued girl who had had six babies”. Another said she had been asked, and she refused. Indeed, some tell-tale signs fit the pattern, but Rashmi herself denies it. Anyway, all the buzz spurred the CWC into action—but even then, not much of it. “We didn’t visit her village but we kept ask-ing her to come to us. Rashmi never responded,” says Panna. “Tell me—you are a victim, you have a problem, shouldn’t you at least tell us about it? She is also over 18, so what could we do? Yes, even if such a crime occurred, she should have come to us.”
In a tangential way, the episode cuts to the nub of why this phenomenon is hard to track down, let alone establish. The traumatised women often don’t want to talk—and for a variety of understandable reasons. Victims feel vulnerable in surroundings alien to them—and revisiting rape in front of strangers can be akin to a second violation. Two, they may simply not want the fact of rape or pregnancy disclosed. The stigma is overpowering, and thoughts can turn to mere survival. A testimony such as Rashmi’s, therefore, is valuable in the extreme, and likely reveals just the tip of the iceberg.
But in contrast to the lackadaisical CWC, Shakti Vahini, an NGO, sent a fact-finding team to meet Rashmi at her home. “We heard of a rescued girl going to her village and telling people she was forced to have a child in Delhi so we went to meet her,” says Rishikant, who runs Shakti Vahini. He and Baidnath, a Ranchi-based activist who was also in the fact-finding team, pieced together Rashmi’s story and the NGO later publicised the facts in a report. The essential elements go thus:
An agent named Chayin Singh delivered Rashmi to Delhi. Not to any ordinary placement agency but to the Moti Nagar office of Manpower Bureau, run by Naina Kumari, allegedly one of Jharkhand’s three most notorious traffickers. Whenever she visited that office, one thing struck her as odd: the number of babies and pregnant women. On one such visit, she met four girls, two of them pregnant, who explained things to her. As Rashmi recounted even in her video, “Girls who get pregnant, their children are kept in the agency office and sold after they are around one year old.”
From here on, the trail goes hazy. As Rishikant admits, “We could not verify her claims.” The NGO recommended an official investigation, which never took place. Trouble is, the complaint Rashmi later filed with the police (FIR No 08/15) in Basia, near Gumla, also does not mention the allegation she made before the media, activists and the fact-finding team. “Rashmi’s case is only about recovering dues under labour laws and accuses Chayin Singh and Naina Kumari with trafficking and keeping bonded labour,” says an officer who investigated the case. Naina, of course, denies involvement and claims a witch-hunt. “Some journalists and the CWC coerced three girls to give statements against me, but they backed out before the SP,” she says.
How does one square these blurred circles? “The police should have investigated the allegations when she first made them. We keep hearing of such cases but the victims are poor tribal girls. They recant under pressure from agents,” says Shashi Kant. It seems too coincidental that Rashmi’s actual testimonial reached everybody’s ears except the CWC and the police. At any rate, there’s a pattern in the testimonials—an initial burst of candour, then reticence, even retractions.
Similar graph was marked out when, three months after Rashmi, another woman, Vinati Bhuiya, approached the Basia police’s AHTU (Anti Human Trafficking Unit) and also complained before the CWC. Her daughters, aged 15 and 17, had gone to Delhi in October 2013 with an agent and her older daughter, Mamta, was forcibly impregnated, she said. “The mother told us this in a written complaint, filed before me,” says Alakh Narayan Singh, then a CWC member. “She wanted her daughters returned but her allegations were not confirmed,” says Panna.
Strangely enough, the CWC soon received a letter signed by the two girls saying they were well and the rumours about pregnancy were untrue. “Two barely educated girls could not have written such a long, articulate letter. We demanded they be produced before us and then the girls returned,” says Panna. Alakh Narayan says the agency wields inordinate power over the girls—“they were simply afraid to speak”.
The FIR (No. 38/15, May 6, 2015) once again omitted the most serious charges. Instead, Vinati only charged the agent, Anita Devi—also related to Manpower Bureau—of “spreading a rumour in the village that her daughter is pregnant.” Anita, her husband and son were chargesheeted, the police say, on December 27, 2015, for keeping bonded labour and trafficking—charges softer than rape and impregnation of minors. The case is still on trial.
After the FIR, Vinati’s daughters returned to Basia (through an agent), visited the police station and were taken to the SP’s office in Gumla. “I myself took the girl (Mamta) to the SP’s office. After the mother’s allegations of pregnancy appeared in the news, the DG, IG, everybody took notice. But the girl denied being forced to have children,” says a police officer.
The flurry of attention did not escape Naina Kumari either. It was three months after Rashmi’s FIR that Vinati’s daughters were sent back home from Delhi—another sign that she too could have been a victim. “Naina became afraid after the FIR,” says Alakh Narayan. In September 2016, she came down to the CWC office in Gumla straight from a court appearance. “She created a ruckus. She accused us of harassing girls, of pressurising them to make statements against her,” recounts Alakh Narayan. “Naina is very dabang—bold. She’s young and looks innocent but don’t be fooled; she can kick up a storm, trick anybody.”
It was clear that the FIR had had its effect—but the crucial gap in incrimination remained. Without a high-level inquiry into placement agencies, the sheer enormity of the phenomenon escaped notice. Meanwhile, the driblets of information kept coming. Other girls have returned pregnant to Jharkhand. Some had their children taken away at birth. All stories have the same depressing arc.
On April 27, Baba Bamdev Ram got 10 years from a Delhi court, which found him guilty of raping minors, among other serious crimes.
It was in 2010 that Ritu, all of 15 then, left Latehar’s Mahuwatand village with agent Savita. Deposited at ‘Kapil Dev Chaudhary’ Placement Agency in Punjabi Bagh, Delhi, she worked without pay for almost three years. She then approached Baba Bamdev Ram, a self-styled godman from Jharkhand, for help with recovering wages. He took Rs 1,500 from Ritu and promised help, which never came. Ritu didn’t know, as she says in her police complaint, that Bamdev co-owned the agency that owed her money. In fact, Bamdev was the flamboyant overlord of Jharkhand’s placement industry those days. He actively participated in a Christmas-eve jamboree held every year in Delhi to which adivasi domestic helps were invited. Food and drink, peppered with speeches by him and Jharkhand’s other placement magnates such as Pannalal Mahto, were the usual menu.
In an FIR she filed in 2013 in Ranchi, Ritu accused one Lallan Pandit, who she described as an agent of ‘Kapil Dev Chaudhary’, of rape and illegal confinement—also alluding to the money Bamdev took. After legal proceedings started, she returned to Mahuwatand, pregnant. Her brother refused to let her in. A Ranchi NGO called Diya Sewa Sansthan intervened, securing her a job serving tea at the SP’s office in Latehar and helping her pursue the case.
Ritu’s child was born that year…“but vanished right after birth,” says Sita Swansi, who runs Diya. “By then, the rape accused was out on bail too. A case, then, where the victim made bold to approach the law, but met the same fate. Her baby was sold off and she withdrew the rape case too.”
Baidnath, who was at the time with Diya and had assisted Ritu, says: “This happens every time. If the pregnant woman returns, agents use financial or muscle power to take her baby. If she stays back in the city, the agency keeps the child anyway. The girls have no choice but to compromise.” The NGO got custody over Ritu but Sita rues her inability to track down most victims. “We have simply no way to do it. The girls keep moving in search of work. Their families are never in one place.”
Stray successes punctuate the gloom. On April 27 this year, Bamdev got 10 years from a Delhi court, which found him guilty of raping minors and other serious crimes. “Ritu’s was one of the cases that contributed to the groundswell of charges against him,” says Swansi. But where there’s an established market, the individual players are dispensable; others take their place. In all stories, there are common threads: of women reporting love-trap, conspiracy, betrayal, confinement, rape, pregnancy, escape, abandonment and, ultimately, the loss of a child. This is so prevalent that Jharkhand police have a phrase for it—“forced surrogacy”. Yet, only a few victims—perhaps two or three—have ever registered cases that mention specifics. And these mostly pass unnoticed.
The broad economic asymmetry under which all this happens is well known. “Girls are trafficked from Jharkhand largely to feed the demand for domestic workers in big cities,” says Sampat Meena, who heads Jharkhand’s AHTU. Adults are of course free to work where they please but that’s no guarantee against sexual exploitation. “We do get such cases,” concedes Meena. “Most of them are against agents who initially promise girls high-paid jobs but later take advantage of them.” And then that disclaimer. “We have not got cases of agents forcing women to conceive children for sale.” A similar tamped-down version is what Hazaribagh DIG Bhimsen Tuti has to offer. He was SP, Gumla, when the Rashmi case came to light. “I questioned the girl in person, hers was just a hearsay version—she was not a victim. It could not be substantiated. We didn’t have any other clue or hint to follow so the matter was dropped.”
But a different kind of corroboration comes from Sister Mamta, a missionary from Jashpur in Chhattisgarh, not far from Gumla. “Girls do get pregnant and come back to the village. She keeps the child with her—what else will she do? Sometimes she gives the child away, or it goes to an orphanage. Villagers create problems…they rarely accept the child because she has brought it from outside.”
Ajeeta, who escaped from a Delhi placement agency this March and filed a rape case, said “the agency had offered her money to become a ‘surrogate’ mother”.
Yet, one such case surfaced recently in Delhi. With details that can curdle the blood. Two women escaped from a Delhi placement agency just this March. Something called Arti Enterprises, in the urban desolation of northwest Delhi. The agency owners, a Simdega couple named Arti Ekka and Baburaj, accidentally left a door ajar, and the two slipped out—a woman from Bengal and a Jharkhandi named Ajeeta, from a village near Kurdeg in Simdega. They sought out a social worker who called the Delhi Commission for Women (DCW), and the group went to file an FIR at Nihal Vihar.
News reports said Arti and Baburaj had illegally confined Ajeeta, the Bengali woman and four others who had been raped and made pregnant. Ajeeta told the police “the agency had offered her money to become a ‘surrogate’ mother. She has filed a case of rape,” says Nihal Vihar SHO Sarath Chandra. But, but, but. “We went and interviewed the other girls. They all said they’re perfectly happy. They are all adults. How could we check if they are pregnant, on what ground?”
Just before dawn on March 23, the police got cracking and arrested Arti Ekka for illegal confinement. But she got bail the same day. Rape accused Mahali, Baburaj and agent Virender Sahu (who Ajeeta said had brought her to Delhi) absconded. Then again, the usual equivocation. “We differ with the DCW on this. There was no raid, no rescue. None of the women were minors. None had complaints. It wasn’t a raid but a routine investigation,” says Pankaj Kumar Singh, a DCP rank officer in Outer Delhi who monitored events that night.
Two different kinds of voices subvert that. One comes from Swati Maliwal, DCW chairperson. “If the police and DCW go without warning, on the basis of a complaint, and arrest someone at the crack of dawn, is that not a raid?” she asks. “Whatever it is, the charge of forcible impregnation needs thorough investigation. The police should not assume it is a case of forcible pregnancy—but they should also not assume it is not.”
The other comes, strangely, from DCP (Outer) M.N. Tiwari, with a chilling piece of information. “During investigations, Ajeeta revealed that the agent Mahali kept track of her monthly period. That he would tell her, ‘I will make you a child-bearing machine.’ But so far, we only know this as a case of rape. We are concerned with the charge of rape, in which we have an accused. Now she (Ajeeta) should be more clear to us, so that we can catch the person.” Yes, a rape, in which the rapist is keeping track of the victim’s periods.
Official reluctance creates grey zones where they may be none. True, “surrogacy” is not mentioned in Ajeeta’s FIR. Police officials declined a copy of the FIR citing ‘sensitivity’. Outlook nevertheless secured a copy of it. It says: “The placement agency owner Baburaj told me I have only one job in Delhi, which is to have a child. Then Baburaj asked agent Baratu Mahali to rape me. Mahali did rape me, on 6 and 7 March 2017 and now I fear I am pregnant.”
Ajeeta came to Delhi seeking work but never got placed. Arti, who has since disbanded her agency, spoke to Outlook on the phone from her village in Simdega. Her words are dry, and seek to put a cap on her crisis, but they confirm the deep cynicism. “Who would want a 30-35-year-old like Ajeeta, who has three children of her own, to bear children, that too forcibly,” she asks. She says all the girls who were living with her in Delhi have left. “I have left Delhi too.”
Ajeeta has been lodged at the Nari Niketan in Delhi’s Tihar complex since March 23. There’s a ring of virtual barbed wire around her. No channel opens up access to her. Her sister Vineeta tried twice to meet her, in vain. “I don’t know much about what happened. My sister injured her hand in a fire long back. She only has two fingers in one hand,” says Vineeta, seeking to make light of everything. But the implications stare at you in the face. “At last we have an actual FIR in a matter concerning trafficking girls from Jharkhand for children. I think if the police investigate it properly, this case can open a Pandora’s Box,” says Rishikant.
But with the police still coy about joining the dots, it’s a tough, lonely battle—especially for the victims. There’s no activist, no media, at the moment of their desolation. Rape is regularly used as a weapon to threaten and subdue tribal women and their families, and that naturally dampens feelings for justice. Even when, in the uncrowded landscape of a village, things are not hard to pin down.
On August 1, 2016, 12-year-old Rani disappeared from village Pantha. “Shobha and Mamta sold my daughter in Delhi,” says Sanju Lohra, Rani’s father. The two he names are residents of a nearby village. Shobha would propose the idea of taking young Rani to Delhi often. Lohra always refused. But he lived and worked in Ranchi, and meanwhile the girl grew close to Shobha. “I wanted to go to the police right after Rani left but Shobha threatened me that she will have Rani raped and never be able to return,” he says. Last month Lohra picked up courage and registered an FIR. The Pantha police kept Shobha in custody for 24 hours, then let her go. “Shobha accepted at the thana that she will bring my daughter back. So she knows where Rani is. But the police let her go and now I don’t know who to turn to,” says Lohra. “They haven’t let me speak to Rani since August.”
Jharkhand has two varieties of placement agents, ‘local’ and ‘national’. The ‘national’ type—Baba Bamdev, Pannalal Mahto or Naina Kumari—emerges after a long climb up from ‘local’ or intra-state placement. But the lesser agents wreak no less damage. Arti Kachap would know. A native of Itki, near Ranchi, she was married to a brick kiln worker who left town. Four years ago, she moved to Ranchi with Raju Munda. Munda and his father, Arti says, first put her to work in a Varanasi construction site. Thereafter, they returned to Ranchi where both raped her and confined her to a dark room when she was pregnant—twice over roughly four years.
“They sold my son Ashu for Rs 40,000,” says Arti, who was beaten up when she resisted the next child’s sale, leaving her invalid waist down.
One of the children born this way went to a Punjabi businessman. “They sold my son Ashu for Rs 40,000,” she says. When Arti resisted the next child’s sale, the father-son duo beat her, leaving her invalid waist down. In what must count as the most cuttingly direct allegories, she started begging at the court premises, dragging herself on a sackcloth and pleading to lawyers for help. A lawyer, Chandni Srivastava, helped recover the sold child with police assistance and set Arti up as a vegetable-seller. Before the police, Mahto claimed he is Arti’s husband, which she denies. Ashu went into an adoption agency for over a year and, on March 28 this year, Chandni took him in. “I meet my son on weekends. I can’t care for him as I’m invalid—Munda lives nearby, he’d snatch him again,” she says.
“Their methods are getting worse,” says Baidnath about the baby mafia. He helped rescue a child recently, one sold off by his own destitute mother on a Rs 20 stamp paper. “I remember rescuing the baby, the only such case we got at the time,” says Jaya Roy, former SP, Ranchi. But the activist is livid at how far back the law is. “The police and government are in fact proving ineffective. They fail to see the connection between adoption, slavery and placement,” he says.
The grinding wheels of this economy are too huge; they dehumanise everyone, and there’s no easy separation of victim and aggressor. This April, Baidnath came across the case of Pratima, a 25-year-old widow, trafficked to Rajasthan from Ranchi by her own younger sister, Renu. The family found out that Pratima went to a man in Neem Ka Thana in Rajasthan’s Sikar district, and Rs 60,000 was paid to her sister. “Renu works in Jaipur. We didn’t know what she does. She visited us in March and took Pratima away saying it was for a few days’ holiday,” says Pratima’s sister-in-law Bharti, who has registered a case with the AHTU.
The family collected donations from neighbours to go looking for Pratima, a widow with three children, after they received a desperate call for help from her. “We are in Rajasthan to look for Pratima. We paid for a Bolero taxi and the Rajasthan police sent a policeman with us. They located her. We were shocked to find Pratima dressed in Rajasthani clothes. The moment we reached we were surrounded by a group of men. Our police escort said Pratima cannot return with us because these men are too powerful,” says Nirmala, Bharti’s mother. “As we left, terrified, Pratima begged us to save her or she would die.”
“The agent would tell Ajeeta, ‘I will make you a child-bearing machine.’ But so far, we only know this as a case of rape,” says DCP M.N. Tiwari.
On the other side, Shravan a.k.a. Sonaram Gujjar says he has actually married Pratima. “It is the girl’s family that took money from me, to meet wedding expenses. Pratima is perfectly happy here,” he says. He refused to put Pratima on the phone. “I’m not at home for ten days so you can try later.” He says he is away for work, cooking sweets at weddings before he returns home to his fields. “That part of Rajasthan is infamous for trafficking,” says Baidnath. “The woman will be kept and her children sooner or later abandoned or sold.”
Rashmi called back after several days of trying different numbers. She works in Delhi now, and stands by what she said in the video. “I didn’t just see it once. Many times the agents were bringing in pregnant women. I saw one girl come to the agency and leave her child behind. I saw girls coming there to have the child.” Eventually she fell silent, as did Soni about her experience. “Even years later, I haven’t told anybody. This is the first time I am speaking out,” Soni says. She now wants to set up an office in Jharkhand to help fight trafficking. She has already helped a few—but always in secret, for she herself lives in fear. “People ask me what happened in Delhi, why I get so angry—I tell them nothing. My anger goes out of control when I think my life has been ruined.”
Soni sits alone in her room and cries. Even for unknown girls she sheds tears, wondering about what they will go through. “I don’t want to talk about it,” she says. When you keep something from your family, from everybody, you can only try to run forever, for what you are running from is inside you.
(All names changed to protect identities.)
By Pragya Singh in New Delhi & Ranchi