A 13-year-old girl sitting alone on the bench of a railway platform with a male adult hovering around – how many would stop to think twice?
Must be her father or uncle, we might reason and go our own ways.
But Kaleshwar Mandal stopped, looked twice and foresaw trouble. His intuition told him to swing into action, and so, he did.
Three hours later, the 13-year-old was safely in the custody of the Child Welfare Committee (CWC), and the “male adult” was behind bars for attempted trafficking.
The incident at Ranchi railway station on a wintry evening is an eye-opener in more ways than one. Despite concerted efforts by governments and civil society organisations, trafficking of children remains a harsh reality in many states.
While long hours are spent on debating the causes and reasons, the role of individuals and institutions that address the problem on the ground often gets shoved into anonymity.
Had Mandal not sensed trouble on seeing the girl sitting alone on a bench, the story could have had a different and a rather scary end. Another name would probably have been added to the long list of girls ‘missing’ from their homes.
Kaleshwar Mandal is the state coordinator of Campaign for Right to Education in Jharkhand (CREJ), a state-alliance supported by CRY (Child Rights and You).
He shares, “I knew that something was wrong the moment I spotted the girl. She said she was headed to Delhi but had no idea about the identity of the man she was with.”
He continues, “I took her to the ChildLine office at the station and alerted the railway police. The accused was nabbed and interrogated extensively. Eventually, he admitted to his crime.”
Subsequent interrogations revealed that a woman from Chhattisgarh’s Jashpur district had handed over the girl to the man, Gurucharan Singh, a resident of Sangam Vihar in South Delhi. He was all set to board a train to Jharkhand’s Barkakana with the girl in tow. From here, he would take the girl to the national capital.
The following day, the accused was produced in court, and the girl was presented before the members of the CWC in Ranchi, who arranged for her to be sent home to Jashpur.
According to a CWC member in Jashpur and the DCPO, a close watch has been kept on the girl and her family since she returned home. Efforts have also been boosted to track the movements of the so-called “agents” or “middlemen” in Jashpur to prevent recurrence of such incidents.
Mandal’s eye for detail and intuitive nature can be attributed to his career in the development sector, one that has taught him to keep his eyes and ears open. A purported trafficker will never look like one, he states.
In other words, one has to look beyond the face and read the mind. The CREJ state coordinator did just that and his efforts saved a girl from being lost, possibly forever.
Over the years, hundreds of children have gone missing from tribal-dominated areas of Jharkhand.
According to data from the National Crime Records Bureau, around 679 children were “officially” missing from Jharkhand in 2016. Experts feel that this number is much higher on the ground as many parents do not lodge a formal complaint with the police.
Abject poverty, illiteracy and lack of awareness are the reasons for this, feels Mandal. In many cases, the parents are not aware of what exactly they have to do to file an FIR. Some of them do not have the time or the money for multiple visits to the police stations, which are often located far away from the remote villages.
“The need of the hour is to create a safety net around vulnerable children and their families so that they do not fall prey to the lure of traffickers. Also, people should be sensitised about the issue and trained to keep their eyes and ears open and remain alert,” says Mandal.
He attributes the worsening trafficking situation in Jharkhand to the extreme poverty that shrouds the lives of the tribal population.
Repeated droughts, loss of agricultural land to mining, and acute unemployment have forced families to send their children to other states, with the ‘middlemen’, in search of jobs. The fate of most of these children is doomed forever.
“The rackets are spread across remote villages with children and young girls taken to Delhi, Punjab, Haryana, Mumbai and Kolkata, where they end up in brothels, sex rackets or as domestic workers,” Mandal informs.
He has been in CREJ for around a decade, actively working to bring about change in the lives of vulnerable children regarding child marriages and child trafficking. Lack of awareness among people about child trafficking is the biggest stumbling block in any constructive work, he shares. The locals seem to trust the ‘agents’ or ‘middlemen’ more than the campaigners or activists.
The campaigners also do not always receive the required help from the administration, making it easy for the ‘agents’ to slip out of the monitoring radar, says the CREJ state coordinator.
According to him, a state-level awareness campaign involving the people, the campaigners and the government can go a long way in mitigating the problem. Bal Panchayats need to be trained to keep a watch on vulnerable families. The Anganwadi health sub-centres too can play a vital role in creating a safety net around poverty-stricken families so that they do not fall prey to the ‘middlemen’.
CRY and CREJ have been working tirelessly to raise awareness about child trafficking in Jharkhand.
“We hold regular consultations with the government on ways to address the grave situation. Closer to the ground, we meet the Mata Samitis, Gram Sabhas and School Management Committees to ensure that a working system is in place to keep the middlemen at bay. Talks are also on to track the movements of children and young girls in and out of villages,” said Mandal.
Trina Chakrabarti, Regional Director (East), CRY, concludes, “The story of the 13-year-old could have been different had it not been for a person/citizen who could recognise the signs and gather courage to report the incident, a state machinery that was receptive and prompt and also an active network of CRY-supported partners across states.”
The emphasis, she adds, should be on boosting general awareness about child’s rights and also counselling parents in vulnerable families to be on their guard all the time.
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She concludes, “ As per the mandate of the Integrated Child Protection Scheme (ICPS), state Child Protection Committees (CPC) set up at the village and ward levels, should strive to build community awareness and consciousness on child rights, promote behavioural change among parents and the wider community and also prepare a Child Protection Plan covering each child.”
(Edited by Shruti Singhal)