Guwahati, India – Draped in a loincloth and ankle deep in mud, Kandana Mormu stood in front of his house, confused by the mention of Sukurmoni Mormu, his 14-year-old daughter. It took some time before he admitted that he had last seen her seven months ago.
Mormu and his family live in a small village in the Kokrajhar district of Assam in northeastern India. They had spent 10 years in a relief camp after their house was burned down in a violent ethnic riot in 1996. Mormu took on odd jobs to feed and educate his children during that time, before returning to his village in 2006 and picking up farming again. Poverty, however, continued to plague the family.
One evening in June, he returned home to find his daughter missing.
“I searched for her everywhere and eventually learned that a guy from the neighbouring village, who has also since disappeared, had lured her and a friend of hers away to Delhi with the promise of a good job,” Mormu said. “What could I do?”
“I’ve just been waiting for her to come back ever since,” said the father.
Video: Violence in Assam explained
According to the Nedan Foundation, a local NGO working to prevent the exploitation of women and children, Mormu’s daughter was rescued about a month ago from a household in Uttarakhand state in northern India, where she had been working as a domestic servant.
The child was placed at a rehabilitation centre in Delhi waiting for the authorities to safely send her back home.
Poverty and child trafficking in Assam
According to the various national statistics, between 40,000 – 45,000 children are reported missing in India each year. In Assam state, hundreds of similar incidents of child disappearances are a daily reality.
According to a report from Assam’s Crime Investigation Department, released during a seminar on children’s rights in October, at least 4,754 children in Assam have gone missing since 2012, of whom 2,753 are girls. Child trafficking for labour and sexual exploitation are among the main reasons. The report said that in the past year alone, at least 129 girls were forced into prostitution by traffickers.
Assam’s history of economic underdevelopment and ethnic tensions has made a large section of its population vulnerable to trafficking.
As a result of ethnic violence as well as annual flooding in Assam, which have led to widespread internal displacement, millions are left homeless and made to live in decrepit relief camps, often indefinitely.
Assam tea, the cost
Another reason for the endemic poverty is the failure of the government to strictly implement the Plantations Labour Act of 1951 in Assam. Action Aid, an NGO working against poverty, has reported that labourers in many of Assam’s tea estates work for low wages and lack access to proper healthcare and education facilities.
Atuwa Munda, the tea tribes welfare minister of Assam, has explained that despite the regulations, the tea plantation companies are largely responsible for failing to implement the act.
“Even when they don’t provide medical and education facilities, the legal system fails to penalise them strictly for violating the act. There are many loopholes in the act that the companies are taking advantage of and we’re trying to amend it to ensure that the situation in the tea gardens improve,” the minister told Al Jazeera.
In addition, according to Hasina Kharbhih, an award-winning human rights activist who has been working in the field for 18 years, during the past decade a large number of tea estates, especially in Lakhimpur district, have shut down leaving the labourers without an income and unable to feed their families.
Child labour in Assam
In such circumstances, families willingly send their children to work, unaware that they will not only be exploited but will be unable to send money back home.
Through middle men and illegal placement agencies,children are sent to different parts of the country, often to cities such as Mumbai and Delhi, and made to work as domestic servants or in factories, or are forced into prostitution.
“In the last few years, we’ve even found children migrating to the neighbouring state of Nagaland and working as domestic help in the homes of government officials,” said Kharbhih.
“They say that they’re paying and treating them well, but child labour is still a criminal offence,” she said.
Another worrying factor, she added, is the demand for brides in the states of Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan, which have a poor sex ratio.
According to Kharbhih, young girls are trafficked from Assam to be forcibly married off to men there.
Often, these husbands exploit their wives further for money. After they’re married, the wives are forced into prostitution or made to work as maids for money directly by the husband or through placement agents. Often, these girls become untraceable or are resold to be married to another man after a few years.
In addition to being the source of so many child trafficking victims, Assam serves as a major transit point for such trafficking. The state connects northeastern India to the neighbouring Southeast Asian countries of Bangladesh, Bhutan and Myanmar. Implemented after a pact between India, Myanmar, and Thailand, to strengthen regional cooperation and economic ties, the India-Myanmar-Thailand Highway, is scheduled to open in 2016.
According to Miguel Queah, a social activist based in Guwahati, the largest city in Assam, this will dramatically increase child trafficking.
“The Government is failing to look at the bigger picture. While development is necessary, it is equally important to be aware of the problems that are going to emerge owing to better communication, and work against them proactively,” Queah said.
Protecting child rights in Assam
While there are a number of laws protecting child rights in India, they are seldom enforced strictly.
According to one activist, who spoke to Al Jazeera on the condition of anonymity, the police do not adequately follow up cases that fall under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act 2012. The act casts the police in the role of child protectors during investigations.
“They’re unwilling to send their team to the area where the crime was committed. Even worse, the local police often prevent me from filing a case report in my area because the crime was committed elsewhere. I’ve had to contact authorities in higher positions to ultimately get them to file it,” the activist said.
Mukesh Sahay, the director-general of police in Assam, disagreed with the activist, saying that these were isolated incidents.
“We’re trying to build our capacity and have been training our officials about the laws with the help of a number of organisations like UNICEF, but there might be a few police stations which do not have trained officials. We’ve been working extremely hard to combat child trafficking and have even taken cognizance of the text messages and emails that we receive about children related crimes,” Sahay said.
But Digambar Narzary of the Nedan Foundation, questions the capacity of the police to act.
“It’s a known fact that only five of the 14 anti-human trafficking units in the state have been receiving funds of a mere $1,495 a year. How much can we expect them to do when they have no money to carry out rescue operations?” he added.
According to the National Crime Record Bureau, only 18 cases were registered under the Immoral Trafficking Prevention Act in Assam in 2013. The NCRB also revealed that despite the fact that 501 people were arrested for sex trafficking between 2010 and 2012 in Assam, the state recorded the lowest convictions rate at one percent.
Education in Assam
Runumi Gogoi, the chairwoman of the Assam State Commission for Protection of Child Rights, thinks that child trafficking is directly correlated with the poor implementation of social welfare programmes and their inaccessibility in most areas of the state.
“In parts of Kokrajhar which lie close to the Bhutan border, people live in reserved forest areas with no provisions from the government,” Gogoi said.
“In these remote parts, religious organisations … [traffic] children to cities with the pretext of providing them with an education and a better life,” she said.
Children in India, between the ages of six and 14 have the right to a free and compulsory education in accordance with the Right to Education Act. However, government schools in rural Assam fail to meet the needs of children. They exist in conditions that are in violation of the act.
A large number of teachers in Assam have not been paid their salaries for months. Furthermore, “90 percent of the schools do not have boundary walls or toilets for girls, and the teacher-student ratio is poor”, Gogoi said.
Corporal punishment is common and midday meals, which government schools are obliged to provide under a national programme, are seldom served.
“For a child who has already experienced ethnic riots or a natural disaster, living or schooling in an insensitive environment can be extremely damaging,” Miguel Queah added.
Phoolmoni Hemrom, 15, has recently returned to her home in a relief camp in Kokrajhar from Delhi, where she worked as a house servant for two years. She is scared by her experience and physically ill. She refused to speak too many words. “I’ll go back to school now”, she mumbled.
Hemrom is one of hundreds of children who were rescued after being trafficked, but do not receive any counselling or compensation to help them deal with the trauma they have experienced. They often end up trafficked again.
“We can keep rescuing children, but unless the government makes a considerable effort to educate and empower them, the problem will continue to persist,” Kharbhih said.