; dna explores a dark underbelly of modern day slavery

Thursday, 22 January 2015 – 7:35am IST | Place: Ranchi | Agency: dna
In a three-part series, dna explores a dark underbelly of modern day slavery and the trade in humans from some of the remotest and backward areas of Jharkhand that is India’s very own ‘slavery belt’. In the first of the three-part series, dna reveals the chilling confession of a master trafficker who alone has admitted to having trafficked over 5,000 tribal kids

It is estimated that every tribal hamlet in the naxal-affected Simdega-Gumla-Khunti region of Jharkhand has at least one missing child. All of them trafficked as unpaid domestic helps or sex slaves across India that has earned it the notorious tag of being the country’s unofficial ‘slavery belt’. dna travelled to remote villages meeting rescued tribal slaves and parents whose kids have never returned. Behind the tales of horror, is a network of human traffickers whose way of functioning the police are yet to decipher.

The Jharkhand Police nabbed Panna Lal Mahto in October 2014 from a house in Delhi’s Shakurpur locality. He is one of the 35 kingpins who operate a heinous network supplying Delhi homes with tribal kids who work unpaid for years. dna studied witness accounts, hand-written police notes, confession statements and documents recovered from Mahto’s residence in Delhi to deconstruct his modus-operandi and of others like him.

Mahto states that he started off in 2003 with four girls from his village of Ganoliya who he placed as domestic helps for a sum of Rs 1,000 per month in Delhi. He earned his first commission of Rs 8,000 for the job. After 11 months, he sent them back instructing each girl to bring back three more from their neighbouring villages to Delhi within a month. “I also got in touch with people at churches and villagers who were willing to become my agents for little money,” says Mahto in his confession.

One of the girls who was brought back was Sunita, who soon became his wife. “I got her employed as a domestic maid. I felt attracted to her and married her that year,” reveals Mahto. With a rapidly growing portfolio of tribal girls who were getting even more girls from the slavery belt every year, Mahto struck it rich.

Delhi was an ideal place for his business to flourish. “Almost every household in Delhi, from that of judges and politicians to bureaucrats and MNC executives, employ domestic helps. Working couples barely have time to do household chores. All they want is a placement agent who can supply them a maid at the lowest cost,” says Rishi Kant of Shakti Vahini, an NGO.

According to the research carried out by vocational institute, Kamalini, the demand for domestic helps, mainly women in 16-30 age group, would grow to six lakh in Delhi NCR over the next five years.

Business boomed for Mahto, and in 2005, within two years of opening an agency, he had enough money to buy a 25-square yard plot in Delhi’s Shakurpur Colony. “I built a four-storey house. Whenever my agents come with kids, they stayed there. I supplied them across Delhi and to places like Jaipur, Chandigarh and Bangalore,” says Mahto. “For 150 kids, I used to earn a commission of anywhere between Rs 70,000 to Rs 1 lakh,” says Mahto in his confession statement.

Even as Mahto was making a killing, the young tribal kids he employed through his web of over 400 fake placement agencies were going through hell.

Documents recovered from Mahto’s residence show that his commission from supplying domestic helps ranged from Rs 10,000 to Rs 30,000 per head. The tribal kids meanwhile were being employed on wages of Rs 1,000 to Rs 2,000 a month. Copies of contracts recovered show that the wages were to be paid to Mahto’s agency.

Statements of domestic helps, who were recovered in raids from some of his agencies, reveal that many of them were not paid wages for their work. But the police have not found any records or receipts that show that the wages collected by Mahto were being paid to the domestic helps. Most of the victims dna spoke to said they had never received any money even after many years of work.

Mahto was a frequent visitor at Jharkhand Bhawan in South Delhi’s Vasant Vihar. He would land with bouquets in hand whenever an MLA from the state came visiting. On tribal festivals like Karam and Sarhul, Mahto was a regular at Jharkhand Bhawan.

His networking paid off in 2013 when he met Congress MLA and then Jharkhand’s agriculture minister, Yogender Sao, during an event on the day of Karam festival at Jharkhand Bhawan.

“We belonged to the same tribe. I liked his (Sao’s) ambition to become an MP. I gave him my car to visit big politicians in Delhi. He took me to the homes of leaders like Subodh Kant Sahay, Rahul Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi,” reveals Mahto.

Sao is a Congress politician of dubious credentials. He was arrested at Mahto’s Delhi residence in October 2014. He was arrested from the trafficker’s residence after his links to an extremist extortion organisation, Jharkhand Tigers, were revealed. He is also one of the politicians named in the FIR of the 2010 cash-for-votes scandal.

“I saw on Doordarshan News that the Hazaribagh police were looking for Sao. He called me up and I picked him from the railway station. I drove him to Jharkhand Bhawan. But after seeing a media contingent outside, I drove him to a hotel in Paharganj. From there we went to my house in Shakurpur,” reveals Mahto.

During interrogation, Mahto revealed to the police that his main agents keep in touch with young men and women in most villages of the Simdega-Khunti-Gumla slavery belt. These young men and women act as ‘sub agents’, who lure kids, mostly tribal girls in the villages, with a promise of better life in Delhi.

According to Mahto, they are paid a sum of Rs 15,000 to get the ‘consignment’ to Ranchi railway station from remote villages in the slavery belt. At the station another agent takes possession and is entrusted with the task of transporting them to the placement agency in Delhi. At the New Delhi railway station, another agent waits for the arrivals. After they are taken to the placement agency, the Ranchi agent gets a commission of Rs 40,000. “Rescued girls we spoke to said that many of them were forced to have sex on the night of arrival,” says Sita Swansi of Diya Seva Sansthan.

Upon arrival at Mahto’s placement agencies, most girls were given new names.

In their identification documents, the minors were shown as above 18 years of age. “From the files recovered from Mahto’s home, I saw one case where the identity of the girl had been changed four times in one year,” says the investigating officer, Aradhna Singh. Mahto has confessed to having trafficked over 5,000 tribal kids. That number might be just the tip of the iceberg.

The Jharkhand CID and the Delhi Police have a list of 34 other traffickers.

Most are known criminals in Jharkhand but operate in India’s capital. The police are yet to crack this web that supplies tribals to Delhi from India’s unofficial slavery belt.