Thirteen-year-old Sanjay Mahili (me changed), along with his brother Rajesh, aged nine years, in one fine October morning went to a market in Golaghat town but did not come back home. After waiting in vain for two days, Maheswar Mahili, the father of Sanjay and Rajesh, approached the sardar (head of the garden workers) who advised him to go to the ‘baba’, a local tantrik, seeking his advice to trace the missing kids. Maheswar is a worker at Govindapur Tea Estate, located at Daigrung, around 40 kilometres from Golaghat town. Maheswar’s fellow workers also supported the tantrik’s advice. Accordingly, when Maheswar met Baba, he said that the two kids will come back within a week if he sacrifices a goat in a temple. A convinced Maheswar, without wasting any time, bought a goat and offered puja in the local temple and sacrificed the goat. Other workers in the labour line helped him with some cash for this. And to the utter surprise of every worker in the tea estate, both Sanjay and Rajesh came back one afternoon to their home. All workers, besides Maheswar, were convinced that the children filly came back because of sacrificing the goat.
The two children, who were in fact kidpped by suspected human traffickers when they were on the way to market, maged to escape from a house, somewhere close to Dimapur in galand, where they were kept confined with some other kidpped kids. Two traffickers took them on a vehicle, promising to drop them at the market, when the bicycle they were riding on developed some glitches on the approached road to the tea estate.
Interestingly, when the two children went missing nobody bothered to inform the police and under the influence of superstitious beliefs they preferred to approach the tantrik. There is widespread prevalence of deep-rooted superstitious beliefs among the tea garden workers in Assam due to lack of education and their isolation from the mainstream society.
Superstitious belief among tea garden workers is so strong that on May 28, in 2015, a five-year-old boy was ‘sacrificed’ during a Kali puja at Rangapara Tea Estate in Sonitpur district while in November last year, a four-year-old girl was allegedly beheaded and offered as sacrifice by a ‘tantrik’ to trace a lost mobile phone at Ratanpur tea estate in Charaideo district of upper Assam.
The victim, daughter of a tea garden worker, was beheaded by the tantrik to be able to retrieve the lost mobile phone of one Hanuman Bhumij’s daughter. Bhumij, a worker of the tea estate, had approached the ‘tantrik’ to recover his daughter’s mobile phone.
Illiteracy, superstition and poverty of the workers have given perfect opportunity to the traffickers, who have been time and again exploiting the situation flawlessly. According to Union Home Ministry, Assam recorded the highest number of human trafficking cases in the country in 2015. As many as 15,576 children have been trafficked from Assam between 2009 and 2014. Most of the trafficked children are from tea garden and minority domited areas of Assam, said an official of child rights organization, Bachpan Bachao Andolan (BBA).
“The tea plantation workers have turned out to be the most vulnerable to trafficking because of their illiteracy. Missing children from the tea estates make up a large chunk of the total figure of those who have vanished without a trace,” he said.
The chairperson of Assam State Commission for Protection of Child Rights, Runumi Gogoi said that Assam had become a major source area for human trafficking to the rest of the Country.
“Most of the trafficking takes place from the tea estate areas of the State and widespread poverty and illiteracy among tea workers are primarily responsible for it,” Gogoi said.
“The school dropout rate in the tea garden areas is as high as 75 per cent. Because of lack of education and economic backwardness, it becomes easier for the traffickers to lure children and youths from these areas,” she said.
The BBA official said that agents, both local and a few outsiders, in the guise of the ‘placement agencies’ lure girls and boys of the tea gardens with offer of better jobs in metro cities like Delhi and Mumbai.
Harmuti railway station in Lakhimpur district, Rangapara station in Sonitpur district, Chaparmukh station in gaon district, Rangia railway station in Kamrup district, besides Bongaigaon and Kokrajhar railway stations are some of main transit points in Assam for trafficking from the region. Most of the trafficked girls and boys are forced into a lifetime of bonded labour or end up in brothels. Many trafficked children from tea estate in North Assam are forced to work as bonded labourers in rubber plantation in Aruchal Pradesh.
Besides luring the youths with a promise of better jobs in metros, children are kidpped as well from tea garden laobour lines by the traffickers when their parents go out for working in the garden. Tea workers’ children normally stay at home alone during the daytime as their parents go for work in the morning and come back only in the evening.
Implementation of the provisions of Right to Education (RTE) Act, which ensures free and compulsory education for children till 14 years and the Plantation Labour Act, 1951, which recommends measure to improve condition of the tea garden workers, is the need of the hour to curb this mece.
(This article is based on a study done by the writer on Education of Plantation Workers’ Children as part of tiol Foundation for India (NFI), New Delhi’s Media Award Programme, 2016.)