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|September 10, 2002|
The Rediff Special/Syed Firdaus Ashraf
Poverty and ethnic conflict, combined with the attraction of glamorous careers in modelling, are driving hundreds of girls from India's northeast into prostitution in Mumbai. The past year has seen at least 27 girls in the 14 to 19 age group rescued from various locations in Mumbai and three women traffickers arrested. This, activists working in the field warn , is only the tip of the iceberg.
The Mumbai-northeast flesh trade racket was discovered recently when the Shillong-based non-governmental organization Impulse NGO Network began networking with groups throughout India under the banner of ATSEC -- Action against Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation of Children. Impulse is the nodal agency for ATSEC in the northeast.
Impulse President Hasina Kharbhih told rediff that the arrested traffickers, all based in Shillong, had informed the police that at least 300 girls from the northeast were lured into prostitution in the past six years. "A very efficient and organized network is behind the racket," she said.
Impulse rescued three girls last October while 24 girls -- 10 from Assam, 10 from Meghalaya, and four from Mizoram -- were rescued in May after a routine "alert" on the ASTEC network had tipped off Mumbai-based NGOs working in this area.
The rescued girls are quoted as saying they were sold to pimps by the three women at prices ranging from Rs 35,000 to Rs 45,000. Kharbhih said most of these girls were either school or college dropouts, who fled their homes because of poverty. Thus, said Kharbhih, when "recruiters" offered them salaries of Rs 3,000 to Rs 4,000 to ostensibly work as nurses or front-office attendants, these girls willingly accepted and walked into the trap without any suspicion.
Besides girls from the northeast, girls hailing from poor Bangladeshi families staying in India are also lured into prostitution, according to the police.
The National Human Rights Commission has written to all the northeastern states to appoint nodal officers in their respective states to monitor trafficking and crimes involving child sexual abuse.
The recent rescues notwithstanding, many more young women from the region are still reportedly missing. "We have been getting information that some girls were also smuggled into Nepal and other neighbouring countries to ply the prostitution trade," said Kharbhih. "The northeast is turning into a big supply zone for such rackets involving the trafficking of teenaged girls."
Activists in Assam blame the new craze for careers in modelling among teenagers in the northeast, fuelled by television and newspaper advertisements, as responsible for luring young girls into the traffickers' net.
Neeru Sharma, probation officer, Woman & Child Development, Government of Maharashtra, said, "The pimps who traffic the girls generally glamorise Mumbai and promise the girls a job in Mumbai, saying it is a happening city with many opportunities."
Mumbai Senior Police Inspector Shirish Inamdar, who is attached to the police's social service branch, says poverty is a key reason. "Most of the rescued girls in the last year were from the lower strata of society. Their basic wants are not fulfilled and pimps take advantage of the situation and trap them. The pimps tell the girls they will get all kind of jobs to sustain themselves while sending money to their families also."
But poverty and the lure of Mumbai's bright lights are not the only reasons. The ongoing militancy -- most of the northeastern states face a variety of insurgency movements, some of which have been going on for decades now -- and the resultant harassment, especially of young girls, has helped the trafficking.
Priti Patkar, a director at Prerna, an organization working on the issue of commercial sexual exploitation and trafficking and rehabilitation, said the girls were among the worst sufferers due to the ethnic wars. "One rescued girl told me that young girls were sometimes forced to have sex with the militants and therefore they felt that going to Mumbai would solve their problems. When they found out they were operating as sex workers, they were disappointed but were at least getting paid for it," she added.
Despite many reported cases of trafficking from the northeast, there is little coordination between the police of Mumbai and the northeastern states. According to Inamdar, this is due to the huge distance involved (around 3,000 kilometres) and also the fact that many girls come from small towns and villages in the northeast which is difficult for the police to reach, given the poor infrastructure in the northeastern region.
One reason why pimps in Mumbai seek girls from the northeast is that they tend to be fair complexioned, which is important in the Indian flesh trade. "It is well known that Indian men who go to commercial sex workers are willing to pay more for fair complexioned woman, which is why northeast girls are in such high demand," said Patkar
The reason why so many girls caught in the prostitution racket are being now discovered is that besides the increase in numbers, the police and non-governmental organisations are also carrying out more raids to unearth the trade. "The non-governmental organizations are more active now in helping the police rescue innocent girls from brothels," said Patkar.
One of the tragedies of the rescue operation is that when the courts free the girls, most of them disappear. The only girls that are kept track of are the ones who stay at rehabilitation centres.
Inamdar acknowledges the problem but points out this is beyond the police's domain. "Today, we are a faceless society. Anybody can come to Mumbai and do anything. Therefore, I feel society has to play a bigger role to tackle this problem rather than put the responsibility on the Mumbai police alone."
Design: Uday Kuckian
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