Last November, 60 tribal girls from Chhattisgarh were rescued from a factory in Tamil Nadu. The episode put the spotlight on Bastar’s ugly secret: 9,000 girls have been trafficked in the past decade

2014-02-08 , Issue 6 Volume 11

Roll call Tribal girls from Chhattisgarh who were rescued from a factory in Tamil Nadu

Roll call Tribal girls from Chhattisgarh who were rescued from a factory in Tamil Nadu

Rajeshwari Salam smiles almost as a reflex action. It does not reach her damp, vacant eyes. Slightly built with common tribal features, the 29-year-old seems more a victim than a liberator who broke the biggest trafficking network of tribals in the country to rescue 60 girls from a slave factory in NamakkalTamil Nadu. Sucked into the racket by another tribal, Tijuram Korram, she was sold to a vegetable processing unit where she slaved for 18 hours a day until she developed severe skin disease and acid burns. She escaped from the factory one day but returned determinedly to rescue the other inmates last November.

To meet Rajeshwari, one has to travel to Janakpur on foot for the better part of the day from the headquarters of Kanker district in Bastar region, deep inside Maoist territory. The winter sun is too weak to penetrate through the trees. The slightest rustle of dried leaves can be heard yards away. But human greed knows no bounds as girls are being lured away from this idyllic region to be sold to far-off factories and brothels.


Safe return A group of girls from Bade Jamhri who were rescued from the Namakkal factory, Photo: Shailendra Pandey

Nowhere to hide In Bastar region, the people are caught between the Maoists and an indifferent State, Photo: Shailendra Pandey

It’s almost always someone the girl trusts who gives the final push. The domino effect that follows is also self-willed to the extent that the simpleton might construct it to be an escape from her misery in Bastar, a region synonymous with exploitation, either by the Maoists or by the state administration (or the lack of it).

In the past 10 years, tribal girls have been vanishing from Chhattisgarh at an alarming rate. Official records show that 9,000 girls have gone missing. In reality, the figure could be closer to 90,000, warn local social activists.

Some end up as slaves at factories in Tamil Nadu, working for as little as Rs 100 a month, a bar of soap and a bottle of oil. Others end up at houses in Delhi, Haryana and Punjab through a complex network of agents. The green forests, blue skies and warmth of a hearth lost forever in the acid drums and household chores. The girls are sold for anything from Rs 5,000 to Rs 50,000.


As Rajeshwari recounts her tale of horror, the contours of a major crime network built on deceit, allurement and exploitation becomes clear. A man she knew offered to take her on a trip to the Balaji temple in Tirupati and even convinced other girls to come with her. For Rajeshwari, who had never travelled beyond Kanker, the idea of going on a train journey seemed exciting.

However, the trip turned into a nightmare when she was taken to Namakkal and sold to a factory. She found other girls in captivity there and heard of several dozen similar stories of Bastar girls held captive in sweatshops all over.

The districts of Narayanpur, Jagdalpur, Kanker, Kondagaon, Jashpur, Raigarh, Koriya, Sarguja, Durg and Bilaspur have emerged as trafficking dens. Girls from here are sold off in Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Delhi, Maharashtra, Haryana, Punjab and Jammu & Kashmir.

‘The guy promised to take me to the Balaji temple in Tirupati’


Rajeshwari Salam | 29 | Jhanakpur, Kanker District

Rajeshwari Salam had never imagined that a brief visit to her sister-in-law’s house in theNaxal-hit Bade Jamhri village of Narayanpurdistrict would turn into the darkest chapter of her life. While there, she met Tijuram Korram along with a few other village girls. Korram told her that he was taking the girls on a trip to the famous Balaji temple at Tirupati, and she could join too. She was persuaded by the other girls to seize the opportunity.

Korram and a dozen girls began their journey on 4 August 2013. From Bade Jamhri, they reached Korram’s house in Nayanar and stayed for the night. The next stop was Benur village, located between Narayanpur and Kondagaon, from where a van took them to Jagdalpur. Then started a long bus ride to Namakkal in Tamil Nadu. A Bolero ferried them to Gems Agro Exports, a local factory where they were turned into bonded labourers.

“When I asked what we were doing in a factory instead of going to the Balaji temple, he said the money was all spent and we would have to work,” recalls Rajeshwari.

She says there were nearly 100 girls at the factory. They were made to sleep in a single room and share a single toilet. Her chance of escape arrived one day when Korram brought a fresh batch of girls. She told Korram that she had got an allergy from working with chemicals at the vegetable processing factory and demanded that she be sent home. After much coaxing, he agreed to take her back to Bastar, but on the condition that she would arrange for at least 10 other girls. He promised to pay her Rs 500 for each girl.

When she returned home, Rajeshwari met the Women and Child Development department supervisor, Jagmati Kashyap, and recounted her tale. Before her return, Rajeshwari had chanced upon a factory manager’s visiting card while cleaning and kept it. With the help of the visiting card, the police tracked and rescued 60 other tribal girls from the factory.

Last November, 24 girls were rescued from another factory in Erode district.

human trafficking racket of placement agencies and local agents is operating actively in the region. Initially, it was thought that poverty and a dearth of employment opportunities in the area had resulted in a rising trend of immigration, providing ground for placement agencies. But a probe by TEHELKA has blown the lid off a trafficking network that subsists on luring girls with promises of pilgrimages and even marriage to local youth, who are hand-in-glove with the traffickers.

With the help of Hari Singh Sidar, 70, a social and religious worker who has been active in Bastar for the past two decades, TEHELKA travelled to a dozen small hamlets in Narayanpur and Kanker districts to meet families who have lost their daughters, and some who have welcomed back their loved ones, recording stories of endless horror and shame. The tragedy continues as the rescued girls face an unfeeling, cold-blooded administration unable to protect them, but unashamed to steal from their rehabilitation fund. This is the first real documentation from Ground Zero of the plight of the tribal girls trafficked, abused and dumped.


In Bade Jamhri village in Narayanpur district, life revolves around the local church. Five local girls were rescued from Gems Agro Exports factory in Namakkal. Initially, they were reluctant to talk about their ordeal until the church permitted them to tell their story.

The girls fell for the machinations of an agent, a Bihari youth married to a local girl, which made him trustworthy enough. The tribal mind trusts easily and does not worry about the consequences. The girls tell their tale with such heart-wrenching simplicity that the dreadful lives they had to endure for a year seems almost pre-ordained and perhaps as easily accepted as destiny.

‘Some girls were made to sleep separately and raped’

Sigay Mandawi | 21 Bade Jamhri |  Narayanpur District

Sigay Mandawi | 21 | Bade Jamhri,  Narayanpur District

IN 2007, Sigay Mandawi passed the Class IX exams, becoming the most educated girl in her village. While she was studying at the Government Higher Secondary School inNarayanpur, she met Bijju. One day, Bijju introduced her to his elder brother Tijuram Korram, who said that he could arrange a job for her. Instead, Korram sold her to Gems Agro Exports in Namakkal along with Rajeshwari and others.

Sigay says that the girls had to pick gherkins and then soak them in chemicals to preserve them. The chemicals used in the process caused allergies and their skin began to peel off. They were not allowed medical treatment nor could they rest.

For all the hard work, the girls were paid just Rs 100 at the end of the month, which was spent on buying soap and oil. “A few girls were even made to sleep separately and raped almost on a nightly basis,” says Sigay. Some were sent back when they became pregnant.

At the factory, their job was to dip vegetables in a preservative formulation and then seal and pack them for export. They were required to cut, clean, peel and then dip them in a solution of salt first before preparing and dipping it in preservatives. The preservative caused an unusual amount of itching and skin burns for which they would be given oil and a bar of Lifebuoy soap.

“We were given two small meals and tea twice a day but the work was never-ending and no one was allowed to go out of the tin sheds where we lived for more than four months,” reveals one girl.


Most of the girls slept together but some were routinely segregated and raped repeatedly over days. This, of course, does not find any mention in the police report.

In Rajeshwari’s case, she was given an “all-clear” certificate by the Namakkal sub-judicial magistrate, stating that she does not owe any money to the owner of Gems Agro, Junaid Ahmed. The factory was raided after her escape and since then it has been closed down.

The International Labour Organisation estimates that human trafficking in India could be anywhere between 2.5 million to 90 million. Several credible international news reports and NGOs have estimated that almost 20,000 tribals vanish into homes and brothels every year.

The matter had been raised in the Chhattisgarh Assembly several times but the state government has not taken any concrete action except forming an Anti-Human Trafficking Committee. Former home minister Nankiram Kanwar admitted in the Assembly last year that, on an average, five girls go missing from the state every day.

Statistics from the past five years reveal that 9,000 complaints of missing girls have been registered with the police, of which most cases were reported from Raipur. The government claims that the police have traced the whereabouts of 8,000 girls. However, almost 1,000 girls from Bastar and adjoining districts are still missing.

‘Somebody had offered Rs 7 lakh to buy me’

Phutun Alias Phoolwant | 13  |  Jamaniyapath, Jashpur District

Phutun alias Phoolwant | 13 | Jamaniyapath, Jashpur District

Phutun fell victim to a trafficking gang masquerading as a placement agency, which brought her to Delhi in 2005. She was held captive in a room with 21 girls. They were not allowed to go out. Phutun somehow managed to escape and reached home.

She reveals that three girls were sold when she was there. “Somebody had offered Rs 7 lakh for me but the traffickers were demanding Rs 10 lakh,” she reveals. Had the deal been struck, she could have never escaped. But as fate would have it, some neighbours alerted the police, who rescued her last November.

Her family had feared the worst and was happy to see her safe and sound. Now, Phutun has appealed to the police to save the other girls too.

The matter had been raised in the Chhattisgarh Assembly several times but the state government has not taken any concrete action except forming an Anti-Human Trafficking Committee. Former home minister Nankiram Kanwar admitted in the Assembly last year that, on an average, five girls go missing from the state every day.

Statistics from the past five years reveal that 9,000 complaints of missing girls have been registered with the police, of which most cases were reported from Raipur. The government claims that the police have traced the whereabouts of 8,000 girls. However, almost 1,000 girls from Bastar and adjoining districts are still missing.


The late Congress leader Nand Kumar Patel had presented in the Assembly a list of 500 girls missing from Raigarh. He had alleged that more than 1 lakh tribal girls have been trafficked from the state.

“We consider human trafficking a serious issue. That’s why right after assuming office, I directed the police to take the strictest action against it immediately,” says new Home Minister Ramsevak Paikra. “It’s a long process but strict action is being taken to bring it under control.”

However, Paikra does not know whether the state has actively followed the cases against factory owners in Tamil Nadu or raised the issue with the Jayalalithaa government. Junaid Ahmed, the owner of Gems Agro, is still at large with no charges against him.

‘By the time I was rescued, the chemicals had completely burned my face’

Yashoda Ouike | 20 |  Bade Jamhri, Narayanpur District

Yashoda Ouike | 20 | Bade Jamhri,Narayanpur District

Yashoda Ouike is one of five sisters. Financial troubles pushed her into agent Kijuram’s trap. She had come to know that companies in south India paid good salaries to workers, more than what the MGNREGA offered. She hoped this could help ease her family’s financial burden.

Like others, she too ended up at Gems Agro Exports in Namakkal. But even after four months of hard labour, she wasn’t paid a penny. “By the time the police rescued me from the factory, the chemicals had completely burned my face,” she says.

Yashoda recalls that once while opening the chemical container, she had received burns and fainted, but no one bothered to take her to the hospital. She was offered neither compensation nor any wages.

Now, she does not want to step out of her house.

Women and Child Development Minister Ramsheela Sahu assures TEHELKA that her department will try to regulate it at its own level. “Although, the matter falls under the home ministry’s purview, it concerns young girls. So, the department will perform its role,” she says.

missing_girlsThe government has accepted that female trafficking is a reality in the state, which is why four districts — Jashpur, Raigarh, Sarguja and Korba — were marked as human trafficking hubs in 2011. Apart from these, Mahasamund, Janjgir, Balauda Bazar and Bilaspur have also been listed as sensitive areas. But some areas of Bastar such as Narayanpur, Kondagaon, Jagdalpur, Sukma, Bijapur and Kanker have been overlooked, providing traffickers and their agents a free run.

The government is taking action against placement agencies. In Jashpur alone, located near the border of Jharkhand with the largest number of placement agencies operating, cases have been booked against seven such agencies. As per the official figures, the number of missing girls appears to be greater in Raipur, but TEHELKA’s investigation reveals that in tribal areas many incidents go unreported because of poverty and illiteracy and, of course, lack of faith in the non-existent system.

For instance, social activist Sidar estimates that more than 10,000 girls have vanished from the two districts ofNarayanpur and Kanker in the past four years.

The police claims that it has been doing its bit in tracing, tracking and apprehending traffickers. Last March, two agents, Mani Ram and B Venkat Reddy, were nabbed at the Raipur railway station with 15 girls in the age group of 10-17 years, who were being taken to Nagpur on the pretext of getting them jobs. Their families had been paid Rs 1,000 each in advance. In Nagpur, the agents were to be paid huge sums by the traffickers. Both are now in jail.

Mani Ram is a resident of Bastar and knows Halbi, the language spoken in the areas from where the girls came. In these areas, Hindi or Chhattisgarhi is not spoken. Only two of the victims could understand Hindi. Harma Markami, 10, had never been to school. She believed that girls could not study. She had ventured out in order to find work in Nagpur.


On 23 January, another youth was arrested on charges of human trafficking. He was caught along with 20 locals, mostly minors of whom 14 were tribal girls. According to officials, Mrinal Nayak, 26, was arrested from Kunkuri, a tribal- dominated area located 400 km from Raipur. “We were on his trail for several weeks,” says police officer R Kaushik. “He was finally arrested from the Kunkuri bus stand. It was a case ofhuman trafficking. The agent nabbed was from Odisha.”

‘Sometimes we were woken up from sleep and made to work at night’

Satri Potai | 20 |  Bade Jamhri, Narayanpur District

Satri Potai | 20 | Bade Jamhri,Narayanpur District

Bade Jamhri, a village of 600 people, is in aNaxal-dominated area. To reach the village from Narayanpur, one has to walk down a narrow rocky path. Six of the girls rescued from the Gems Agro Exports factory in Namakkal belonged to this village and one of them was Satri Potai.

“There was no fixed time for work. We were not allowed to go anywhere. The factory in which the girls were kept had only one bathroom, which was shared among 60 of us. We finished work at 8 pm but by the time we had taken our baths, it would already be 11 pm,” she recalls.

“Sometimes we were woken up from sleep and made to work at night. We were not allowed to sleep the next day. We often had to work continuously for many hours. When we asked for permission to go home, we were told that we would get leave only after six months.”

Satri says that their employers used to converse in English or Tamil. It was only when they abused them that the girls understood they were upset with them. The girls were not even allowed to talk to each other.

On 30 December 2013, the police arrested Tarabai Chauhan, who was running a trafficking racket in the garb of a placement agency. Last February, Chauhan had sold Kishori in Delhi. She was hired as a maid in a posh colony in Delhi, from where she managed to call home and inform her family. On their complaint, the police arrested Chauhan and rescued the girl.

A careful study of the Chhattisgarh map would reveal that while girls from southern parts of the state are trafficked into Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, those from the northern districts such as Raigarh, Sarguja, Jashpur and Bilaspur are taken to Delhi. Similarly, girls from Raipur, Durg and Balod in central Chhattisgarh are sent to Mumbai and other parts of Maharashtra.

The plight of girls such as Rajeshwari, Phutun and Singay, who were rescued from a factory in Tamil Nadu, is no less pitiable as their harrowing tales fail to reach the ears of those who matter in the state capital Raipur.

The state government has announced that each rescued girl will be paid Rs 1 lakh as part of a rehabilitation scheme, but the district officials in Bastar region claim that they don’t have enough funds as it would run into crores for each district. Yet the rescued girls have been made to fill forms and applications and have been assured that they would get Rs 50,000 each. Half the promised amount has already been adjusted in their accounts by unscrupulous babus. In a region reeking with exploitation, helpless girls will continue to be traded like animals. Very few are aware and even fewer care.

Thousands of girls from Bastar have been sold off in the past five years, says Sidar. The families are clueless about their whereabouts. The worst part of this agonising tale, says Sidar, is that both the trafficking agents as well as the NGOs that offer to help are profiting from their plight. Some NGO workers who played a part in rescuing the trafficked girls, trick them into believing that the money on offer is Rs 50,000 and pocket the rest.

There is information that agents have trafficked 250 girls from Darbha near Jagdalpur to a factory in Tamil Nadu, where they are working as bonded labourers. Similar reports are coming from Jashpur, Raigarh, Sarguja and Bilaspur. Girls from these districts have been rescued by the police in cities such as Delhi and Mumbai.

“We have received information that some girls are in Hyderabad. We are going to conduct a survey at the panchayat level with the district collector’s help to find out how many girls are missing from each village,” says Visel Nag, the zila panchayat headman of Narayanpur. “Actually, these are Naxal-affected areas and we are unable to get directly in touch with the people. The agents are exploiting that. Earlier, they lured them by offering jobs. But now with MGNREGA and other such schemes, there is no dearth of employment in our villages. So, the agents have adopted different means.”


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