Every day on an average, four children are disappearing in Assam. In the last three years, at least 4,754 children in the State have gone missing, with 2,753 of them being girls. These are figures furnished by the CID, showing clearly that Assam continues to be a hot spot for child traffickers. The districts of Baksa, Kokrajhar, Lakhimpur, Sonitpur and Kamrup are the worst affected by their depredations. The conviction rate in child trafficking cases in the State remains abysmally low at 2 percent. But then the police administration, directly under Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi holding the Home portfolio throughout in his three terms — has its priorities set elsewhere than go searching after missing children. The Assam State Commission for Protection of Child Rights has been blaming the laxity of authorities as the reason why so many missing children are not being traced. The situation is so bad that an exasperated Supreme Court in November last year had to specifically direct the governments of Assam, Bihar, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh to trace by December 11 the whereabouts of 12,591 children missing since 2011. This order by the apex court shook up the Assam Police, with Chief Minister Gogoi asking the DGP and Chief Secretary to implement the court directive. Instructions were issued to the 14 anti-human trafficking units in the State, as well as to the missing person squads in the districts. The CID was told to regularly upload details of cases related to child trafficking and missing children. But all that scrambling was only due to prodding by the apex court, with hardly any consistent follow-up after the deadline passed.
There has been much finger pointing at the Central government for providing insufficient funds to barely five of the 14 anti-human trafficking units by this year, when the official request to the Union Home ministry has been for at least Rs 5 lakh for each district. Meanwhile, poor parents in the State are sending their children far away with traffickers promising them lucrative jobs. Children from Assam are winding up as domestic help across the country, as bonded labourers in the zari-embroidery and garment trade in Southern states, as workers in hazardous industries, as under-age brides in states like Harya and Punjab where the sex ratio is skewed against girls, as sex workers in brothels in metros including Delhi and Mumbai, and as petty crimils or beggars controlled by organised gangs. The CID report has pointed to massive interl displacement caused by floods and ethnic violence as the major reason behind child trafficking in Assam. In many cases, children have been trafficked from relief camps set up for flood and violence victims. But anti-child trafficking activists have pointed to tea garden areas in the State where middlemen and ‘placement agencies’ are particularly active. Taking advantage of endemic poverty and lack of awareness, they induce parents to part with their children. The near absence of policing in tea garden areas as well as lax security in bus depots and railway stations allow such child traffickers to move out easily.
The State government needs to help build up a community-based intervention system in which the garden magement, the village panchayat, the nearby police outpost and various other local stakeholders can be roped in. A programme run by the Assam Branch of the Indian Tea Association (ABITA) in partnership with the UNICEF in tea growing areas in Dibrugarh, Tinsukia and Sivasagar has been cited as a possible model by some activists. Groups have been formed within tea gardens to keep a close watch on the activities of unknown people in the villages; help build up awareness about child labour, child marriage and the need for educating children; and in particular, reach out to adolescent girls vulnerable to the wiles of traffickers. Surely such a system can be adapted suitably to tribal villages in backward areas of lower Assam and North bank districts. This will need special juvenile units in police stations to be up and running with adequate manpower, a special task force to combat trafficking at major transportation points, and a system of summary trials to punish child traffickers. Many a time, police teams have to depend on the social welfare department or NGOs to carry out operations to rescue children. This process can be widened to involve anti-trafficking groups like the Bachpan Bachao Andolan (BBA), village institutions, civil society groups and the media. There must be State level inter-department coordition to keep track of all these preventive activities. The Assam government has to show backbone in combating child traffickers in vulnerable areas of the State. They are taking a very high toll on the State’s future.