Trafficking in Overdrive

The International Organization for Migration has estimated that 700,000 women and children globally are enmeshed in trafficking networks, involving US $8 billion a year. This is now considered the third- largest source of profits in organized crime, behind only drugs and guns. It is said that India has more than half a million children in prostitution and most of them are trafficked in one way or another.

That the state of Orissa too is involved in this trade, growing in scale and complexity, was highlighted after the super-cyclone in 1999, though studies indicate that it could have begun by 1997. An exploratory study in 12 districts by the Task Force on Women and Violence (TFWV), an OXFAM-backed forum, provides some organized data on the dynamics of trafficking and prostitution in this eastern Indian state.

An earlier study by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai, in 1999 estimated that Orissa had 1,15,333 commercial sex workers. But there is no consensus either on the number of women involved in the sex industry or on the number who are trafficked within and beyond the boundaries of Orissa.

The TFWV study found that people living within the community are the first links in the chain that takes the recruits to the sex trade. They know exactly which families to target. They know which family is poor; which has too many daughters for whom dowry arrangements are not possible; the family that has suffered the death of the breadwinner, is in debt and simply cannot cope. They also know which woman is deserted by a husband or lover; who is pregnant; a widow; or whose image is tarnished. They know the family that cannot or is indifferent to protecting its daughters.

A study by the Institute for Socio-Economic Development (ISED), an NGO in Orissa, says 80 per cent of the victim families are landless; and 70 per cent of those trafficked are illiterate. Dowry-related problems lead more and more poor girls into getting duped by false promises to marry; 49 per cent of the women victims were deserted by men after being sexually used. Families refuse to take them back for fear of social approbation and spoiling the marriage prospects of younger sisters. The study also showed that times of hardship are the 'best season' for recruitment; and for Orissa, hard times seem endless. Nearly half the population is under the poverty line.

The economics of the trade, too, seem well-defined. The local victim identifier is paid between Rs 3,000 and 5,000 (US$1=Rs 47.5). The local collaborator, usually a relative of the trafficked woman, a panchayat (local self government) member or village leader/tout, is paid Rs 1,000 to 3,000 for motivating the parents and mobilizing local support to get the victim married to the fake groom. Unscrupulous railway policemen too, the study says, get Rs 500 to 1,000 for ensuring safe passage or looking the other way.

While the parents get about Rs 5,000 for marriage expenses, the final buyer - usually a landowner or brothel owner in the states of Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Punjab or Chhattisgarh - is paid Rs 25,000 to 30,000 for the woman. The buyer could also be a chilli farmer or brick kiln owner in Andhra Pradesh, or a brothel owner in the metropolises of Mumbai, Delhi or Calcutta. Age, looks and marital status determine the price of the woman. Within Orissa, Puri and Bhubaneshwar are a seller's haven. The most vulnerable women are in the age group 21 to 30 years. Though a risky deal for the middlemen, girls who have barely entered their teens are a lucrative catch.

The end-buyers recover the cost in one year. Even when the woman is employed as a field-hand - saving her buyer daily wages of Rs 50 and doubling as sex worker in the evening - daily earnings of Rs 100 for 300 days a year are assured. If she is trouble, she is simply sold to another man who could be in another city. Her whereabouts are thus lost. Having been taken from a remote village, illiterate and with hardly any money, she cannot find her way home. At home, there's little concern - few parents cooperate with NGOs or file complaints with the police.

And they may have other reasons too. The TFWV study found a clear involvement of the police and politicians in trafficking. In June 2002, the lynchpin of a busted sex racket in Rourkela (Orissa), Kalpana Panda, named three policemen who were in cahoots with her.

Investigating trafficking reports after the 1999 super-cyclone, the Orissa State Commission for Women found that in five coastal districts, each had its own established marketing destinations, determined by road and rail connections. Today, 21 of the 30 districts in Orissa have been sucked into the criminal vortex. The sourcing districts now include the coastal districts of Bhadrak, Jagatsinghpur, Cuttack and Jajpur as well as tribal-dominated border districts of Koraput, Rayagada, Nuapada and Mayurbhanj.

For a society slow and too poor to discard the traditional facade, the sharks set a calculatedly reassuring trap. They arrive at the village in pilgrimage buses; get married in temples; some print wedding cards for good measure. Instead of demanding dowry as any Oriya bridegroom would, these fake grooms pick up tabs up to Rs 10,000 for village feasts, and present new clothes to the bride and her parents, humbly saying it is customary in the community they come from. Why do they come this far to pick up wives? They say that girls in their community are not given to widowers or that girls from Orissa make good submissive wives.

To instill more faith, these men return with their wives, sometimes a newborn in tow, to present a happy family picture. The purpose is to lure more girls. At other times, the 'married woman' is sent alone with tales of the good life to lure her friends into the trap. To keep her from revealing the truth, her baby may be kept hostage with the 'husband'. This modus operandi having been exposed in the local media, the traffickers are now dangling the employment lure, the carrot of a 'good' life.

Besides poverty and illiteracy, natural disasters and their wake, unemployment, an adverse impact of the electronic media and consumerism are some of the other factors responsible for the increase in trafficking of women in Orissa.


More by :  Manipadma Jena

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