Monisha Behal

On April 23, 2021, came the shocking news that a 12-year-old girl in Raha, in Assam’s Nagaon district, had been murdered and her body burnt. The minor girl, who was from the Karbi community and hailed from West Karbi Anglong district near Nagaon, was allegedly killed by the Assamese family with whom she had worked as a maid.

This tragedy, which is far from being an isolated incident, throws a spotlight on a problem that is rampant in this part of Assam. Poverty forces villagers from Karbi Anglong to send their minor children to more urban areas, in Nagaon and elsewhere, as domestic help: this means one mouth less to feed, perhaps some extra income, and the possibility that the family taking in the child will educate her/him (something that is often promised by host families). Living in a village with minimal infrastructure, the parents of this young girl sent her away four years ago in the hope of a better life for their child; in fact, sources say they’ve sent two other daughters to families in Nagaon with this same hope.     

In the absence of studies or surveys of this illegal practice of minors of this region being trafficked for domestic labour, we can only rely on newspaper sources. There are apparently several hundred young girls (and boys, we assume) working as helpers/domestic servants in Nagaon town and neighbouring areas like Raha. Similarly, there have been reports of minors from Meghalaya being sent to the south of India, children of tea workers to Nagaland, and young girls from the plains of Assam to Arunachal Pradesh.

The recent horrific incident needs to be dealt with and the culprits punished. But such trafficking of minors is likely to continue even if the accused, in this incident, are booked by the police, unless we address the contributory factors. Keeping young, vulnerable children as domestic workers is common across North East India. It is important to take a close look at why the movement of young children trafficked into servitude occurs. Even as we strongly call for action against the perpetrators of the recent child murder and for a stop to the trafficking of Karbi girls, it is important to take cognisance of the those families who are using young girls for their domestic chores. The insidious and double standards of our middle class communities must be addressed among themselves with careful introspection.

Karbi Anglong is an Autonomous District Council. The Census data of 2011 shows the population of Karbi Anglong as 1.4 million people of whom 557,214 are literate. With such low levels of education, human resource and productivity levels are low as well, and the lack of infrastructure blocks avenues for the local population to grow economically or even in their social constructs. The youth are also denied access to arts, sports and other progressive interests. While the Council being governed by local people is politically correct and seemingly the right approach, it appears that good governance is lacking. This observation may upset some, but organisations and activists working in the area are aware that the fate of the community is in the hands of a few who allow sand and stone mining and illegal logging to go unchecked, permit small animals to be trapped/killed and sold to nearby states, and encourage women to brew alcohol for ‘business’ and trade their medicinal herbs/plants to unknown agents. These are the glaring facts of the District Council.

We have to think of the current state and future of Karbi Anglong, a district with considerable natural resources. A positive sign is the emergence of youth groups that are addressing the issues of animal–human conflict and crusading against social ills. These groups are working with like-minded organizations dealing with the environment, filmmaking and social development. It is important to synergise these positive forces, and for CSOs, progressive thinkers and the academia to strategise about the development of the Autonomous District Councils in a concerted way.