The Human Markets of North East India
------Illustration by Sandemo Ngullie
Human trafficking in India’s north east is a practice that can no longer be ignored. Within this beautiful, yet tiny pocket of the world, the buying and selling of people generates a highly lucrative and seriously life-destroying trade. Here, thousands of men, women and children become entangled each year in this poorly understood and only recently acknowledged phenomenon.
Investigations into the North East’s human trafficking scene started emerging after a child labor study was conducted in 2002. Researchers from Impulse NGO, a Meghalaya-based organization, found unexplainably large numbers of missing women and children in Indian villages bordering Nepal and Bangladesh. The link to human trafficking slowly became evident, and more thoroughly explored, thanks to accounts from rescued survivors and interviews with family members.
Impulse NGO devoted the next seven years to educating vulnerable communities and trying to breakdown the factors which are enabling human trafficking. Hasina Kharbhih, founder and team leader of Impulse NGO, is a key figure in the field and has managed to develop a network of North East organizations committed to anti trafficking operations.
Over the last year, I joined Hasina and her team in order to evaluate their 3 year UNIFEM funded activities and to conduct a regional research investigation into human trafficking among child coal mine labourers. During my time in India, I was able to interview Hasina for the purpose of sharing her insights from a local perspective. Here is a transcript from our conversation -
Rachael: Hasina, why is the North East a hot spot for human trafficking?
Hasina: The problem in the north east is quite distinct from the rest of India. We share many international borders, most of which are open and unmanned. These points provide an easy passage in and out of India for organized human trafficking syndicates to operate undetected. The North East is also one of India’s most economically and politically unstable regions.
Another contributing factor is the female sex ratio decline in northern India. Resulting from the cultural male child preference, this imbalance has sadly led to many girls being trafficked for marriage.
Rachael: How are traffickers able to reach their victims?
Hasina: The highway networks in the north east connect many national and international destinations. In the state of Assam, truckers have used the highway routes to transport drugs and to traffick girls. We have seen truck drivers from all over India deceiving young north eastern children into fake marriages, child labor and sex work.
Rachael: What are the main source, transit and destination points for these victims?
Hasina: From our experience the destinations are usually New Delhi, Mumbai, Pune, Goa, Kolkata and extend as far as Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia. There are likely to be many more locations throughout India and across the globe, we just haven’t learned of them yet.
Siliguri is the main transit point. It connects many train lines and bus services. It has long been a convenient way to smuggle women and children across the Indo-Nepali border without detection.
Rachael: Who is generally targeted by human traffickers?
Hasina: People existing below the poverty line, with limited employment opportunities are the most vulnerable. However, a recent trend has emerged whereby young, educated girls seeking employment outside their local area have also been caught up in trafficking. These girls are generally duped or coerced into the commercial sex trade by ill-intentioned employers.
Women and children are also commonly deceived by offers of fake marriages.
Rachael: Are all trafficked victims used in the flesh trade?
Hasina: No, we have found human trafficking cases involved in sexual exploitation and labor to occur in roughly equal numbers.
Other purposes have included organ transplants, camel jockeys in Saudi Arabia and beer bar dancers.
Rachael: Meghalaya is home to possibly the world’s largest surviving matrilineal culture. How does this effect human trafficking?
Hasina: The matrilineal system does not control, nor even curb human trafficking in Meghalaya. Although women used to enjoy a special status within it, this system is not, nor ever has been a matriarchy. A unique aspect of the matrilineal system is that the youngest daughter inherits the family wealth and property; however she must act as its guardian rather than sole possessor. Any decisions regarding inheritance need to be passed to her maternal uncle.
Power has generally remained in the hands of men, both within the clan and within the family. It is only in the past few years that women have been allowed to participate in clan meetings and still today we can not perform rituals.
Rachael: Has armed conflict in the North East added to the problem?
Hasina: Without a doubt. Trafficking becomes more rampant in this type of environment as people are more vulnerable. Women and children are being forced to act as carriers of drugs and arms. This puts them at extreme risk of violence and exploitation.
Rachael: Are you seeing any reduction in human trafficking over the years or is the situation becoming worse?
Hasina: Impulse started addressing human trafficking in 1999, prior to this, there was virtually no understanding of the problem - though it certainly existed. The response to our work in the North East has lead to greater reporting on the issue, and with more awareness we are starting to uncover the real situation. Registered cases have also been useful in shedding light on the problem but they only give us part of the puzzle, rather than the full story.
Rachael: How useful have the police and the state government been in making arrests and raising awareness on the issue?
Hasina: Our efforts to raise awareness over the last 10 years have been persistent and gradually had more impact. The media and local organizations are cooperating to disseminate information among each other and throughout their communities. We have found this to be an effective strategy.
Police are now actively involved in rescue missions, and there is a notable increase in sensitivity. A series of trainings have taken place to form closer partnerships with the police. Impulse has managed to integrate anti trafficking curriculum in all northern police training schools and our handbook is being used in every police station, in each state and each district of the North East.
Rachael: Do you think there is adequate vigilance among north eastern communities?
Hasina: It has improved. In recent years, community members have come forward in reporting cases, but this is still very rare. People are afraid to get involved and become victimized by the police or traffickers.
More attention should still be directed at enabling safe migration. We also need to illustrate how important it is to thoroughly check the credentials of unknown employers to reduce the level of vulnerability for job hunters.
Vigilance is something that will increase with awareness. Lack of knowledge on the issue is a great barrier preventing us from moving forward with more effective interventions. Until human trafficking is understood as a mainstream term, the problem will remain an underground and relatively unchallenged crime.
Rachael: Is human trafficking a social problem?
Hasina: It’s the symptom of a social problem; traffickers are merely instruments catering to already existing demands - free labor, sexual exploitation of others, etc.
Similarly, prostitution continues because significant numbers of men are given social, moral and legal permission to buy women at will. Pimps and traffickers prey on the poverty and inequality of women and children, and this is a form of violence.
Society needs to challenge these behaviors as they harm us all and hinder social progress.
We also need to ensure legal policies are being set in place, and actively enforced. Blocking human traffickers requires a lot of political will and adding to the challenge are the many political leaders personally participating in the problem.