Evening is descending over Ichhamati, the river flowing serenely along the border between India and Bangladesh that cuts through North 24 Parganas district in West Bengal. Along the bank, on the winding dirt path, two schoolgirls, 16-year-old Nandita and 13-year-old Mita, have stepped up on their bicycles’ pedals. “We have to rush home before it gets dark,” says Nandita.
In North 24 Parganas, this is more than just routine--it’s a standing instruction from parents worried about their daughters’ safety. It is also part of a lesson taught in almost every school in the vicinity, a mandatory special subject—a course on “how to identify and stay away from human traffickers,” says a girl. Absent in other parts of Bengal, it is unique to both North and South 24 Parganas districts, and points to an upsurge of girls from villages being kidnapped.
In fact, these two districts have a grim distinction—they are the source of the most number of girls trafficked into the sex trade in India. “Out of every ten girls rescued from brothels and red light areas across the country, six are from Bengal’s 24 Parganas districts,” Rishi Kant of Shakti Vahini, a pan-India anti-trafficking NGO, tells Outlook. “While Bengal is number two in the country after Assam in terms of trafficking, South 24 Parganas is the number one district, followed closely by North 24 Parganas.”
The common practice is to lure girls away with the promise of jobs. Their families don’t complain.
So grave is the menace that the West Bengal government has, since March 10, 2017, set up a separate police district that covers the Sunderbans area, which is said to be the most affected. The region, which shares with Bangladesh a vast deltaic border, streaked with crocodile-infested streams and covered in dense mangroves, has been identified by anti-trafficking NGOs and the police as also being the favoured zone of cross-border traffickers and smugglers. It bore fruit instantly—Tathagata Basu, the superintendent of police in charge, busted a trafficking racket operating from South 24 Parganas to the brothels of Delhi and Agra during which six girls from the district were rescued. The incident pointed to the burgeoning rackets that traffic local girls.
The busted group’s kingpins were a brother-sister duo from South 24 Parganas’ Dadpur village. They dipped into the desperation of the area’s poverty-stricken families for jobs and money, the raw material for their horrible racket being the countless illiterate girls—often, shockingly, their own neighbours.
“The commonest practice is to lure the girl away to distant places with promises of jobs,” explains SP Basu. “The families don’t object because they are in dire need of the promised money.... The family is regularly sent money and it serves as an incentive for other girls to follow suit. This is how the traffickers thrive. Most families don’t even lodge a complaint unless the money dries up. Even when they realise that their daughters have been forced into prostitution, they don’t always speak up.”
When Zubeda’s husband, a labourer, was accused of murder and jailed, a local young man who travelled across India for jobs suggested that the 20-year-old take up a job in Delhi. On his advice, she left her children with her mother and boarded a train to Delhi. “Once there, he took me to the house of a woman who gave him a bundle of cash. Next thing I know I was waking up from a stupor in a brothel. I had to serve 20-25 customers a day. If I refused, they beat me; they burnt me with cigarettes. Eventually. Zubeda was rescued and sent home.
This and other methods were used by Pinki and Faraq Ali Gayen, the aforementioned duo arrested by the police with help from Shakti Vahini. Pinki, born into a poor family in Dadpur, was abandoned by her first husband and was sold to a brothel in Delhi by her second husband. Following the age-old custom in this business of sleaze, she came to run her own brothel and roped in her younger brother, Faraq, to supply young girls. Faraq lured girls from his village by showing them photographs of Pinki’s purportedly flashy life in Delhi.
The father and brother of Faraq and Pinki
“My children were not like that,” their mother Sonia Bibi weeps, while speaking to Outlook. Their father made sweets from the juices of palm trees (nolen gur) in winter and hawked them. It was tough to make ends meet. Neighbours, therefore, were surprised by the sudden spurt in their income. As time went by, their modest hut grew to be a two-storeyed building. One of Pinki’s brothers opened a mobile recharge shop. The police say Faraq used to source numbers from him to contact, and later trap, girls. After the racket was busted, enraged neighbours vandalised their house, the shop and all but drove the family away.
But a neighbourhood rickshaw-puller smirks and says, “They are caught, that’s why they are being punished by neighbours. They can’t be the only ones running these rackets. Every day there are girls missing from our villages. And every so often some family or another is getting inexplicably rich.” His remarks also point to the trafficking of local women, by local criminals.
But what makes the 24 Parganas districts the highest in terms of trafficking, explain NGO workers, is the proximity to porous borders with Bangladesh through which infiltration takes place.
Sanjay Raj, programme manager at Argobbhawva Humanity Development, an NGO working for children’s rights and rehabilitation in Bengal, points out that “Infiltration (from Bangladesh, for a better livelihood in India) and the resulting poverty force families to resort to the promises of employment made by traffickers, many of them known to them.”
Many of the hapless girls are also trafficked from across the notoriously porous border, from Bangladesh, and then sent off through an intricate and well-oiled criminal network to red light areas across India. Both North and South 24 Parganas shares borders with Bangladesh. “Girls are pushed in through the porous border at Darjeeling and Siliguri from Nepal too, making the north Bengal districts figure high on the list of places from where girls are trafficked in India,” points out Rishi Kant. “But unlike Nepal, Bangladesh’s close linguistic and cultural ties with Bengal make it easier for Bangladeshi girls to be integrated, making them less conspicuous when they are moved around.”
Once the girls are smuggled in, they are sold to local pimps and are subsequently housed in local brothels and red light areas, then shifted to other parts of the country, especially Delhi, Mumbai and Agra. In India, their status as ‘illegal immigrants’ make them completely dependent on their traffickers for protection from police. Early on itself, their traffickers put the fear of god into them—if they raise an alarm, they are warned, they would be beaten, tortured and jailed. The fear of prison and police custody is so great that even after being rescued from their sordid fate, many girls would not admit to being from Bangladesh. “Their plight is worse, because unlike girls who have families in India, they have no option but to remain where they are,” Rishi Kant points out.
What makes infiltration relatively easy is, according to border security officials, the maddeningly irregular nature of the India-Bangladesh border. It is fiendishly difficult to monitor the vast stretches of the border which doesn’t just run through rivers and jungles where wire fencing cannot be installed, but also cuts through houses and buildings. “Some parts of the Indo-Bangladesh border darts through areas where, say, one part of someone’s home falls in Bangladesh and the other is in India,” a top officer of the BSF, which guards the border, tells Outlook. “There are instances where in remote regions a kitchen is in India, while the front yard is in Bangladesh,” he adds, thereby giving credence to an old Partition trope. Replying to allegations that the BSF is not able to contain cross-border smuggling, including human trafficking, he argues, “Our jawans cannot be expected to monitor such fluid borders.” The lacuna in the drawing up of a proper demarcation between India and Bangladesh is British oversight, he claims, and attributes the menaces of smuggling to that.
Petrapol, on the India-Bangladesh border in North 24 Parganas, along with Benapol, situated a few miles west, in Bangladesh, are the main crossover points between the two countries. At these high-security land ports, the two nations are separated with high wire-meshed fences and guarded by gun-toting BSF personnel. Sentries and checkposts dot the river banks too, but local villagers ask, “How can they watch the whole of the terrain all the time?” Indeed, the vast expanse of marshy lands, paddy fields and water bodies on all directions, unmarred by border fencing, make it difficult for a anyone to figure out where India ends and Bangladesh begins. An on-duty BSF jawan holds out an outstretched hand, pointing an index finger at the line of demarcation. But he doesn’t look very sure—the line his expansive gesture delineates fades into the horizon in the gloaming.
Bangladesh lies across this bridge on Ichhamati
Village girls are trafficked, and girls are also brought in across a porous border from Bangladesh.
No wonder then, in spite of official claims of a foolproof system in place to check infiltration, locals tell Outlook that almost every day people come into their villages from across the border. “Sometimes they swim across,” says a woman, a farmer’s wife, “and steal vegetables from our fields and go back. Sometimes they simply slide through the wire after creating a gap into it.” The villagers will not disclose much else. They would readily talk about petty thefts by Bangladeshis, but say that they know nothing of smuggling or trafficking. Living next to the border, in areas crawling with miscreants and criminals of all shades, their lips are sealed.
“See, smugglers and criminals have powerful police and politician connections in both countries,” a 20-year-old son of a farmer finally ventures boldly. “We don’t really deal with them or have anything to do with them.”
A picture emerges then of a two-pronged trafficking activity—girls brought in from Bangladesh across porous borders, and, within that subculture of rampant exploitation, of locals being kidnapped by criminals who are from the same community.
Every girl and woman that Outlook speaks to in the villages of 24 Parganas—from Arpita Mandal of Ghonaar Maat village on the banks of the Icchhamati to Shefali Biswas, the wife of a local grocery shop owner in Kaliani village—has this revealing line to say: “After sundown, we don’t go out.” They are aware of regular reports of missing girls and women from the area’s villages and towns. “I know of a girl who was kidnapped while on her way back from school,” says Trisha Sarkar of Putkhali village, as she herself hurries back home from school. “I didn’t know her personally,” she says, “but I heard about it.”
The sun has set over the Icchamati and there are only a few shadowy figures silhouetted against the evening sky. None of them are women.
By Dola Mitra in North & South 24 Parganas