“Be watchful! This virus is even more dangerous. The only vaccine is awareness.” 53-year-old Raju Nepali ends his impromptu speech to a group of men with a flourish before proceeding to *Sunaina Oraon’s house in the labour lines of a tea estate in the Dooars region of India’s West Bengal state.
A notebook in hand, he settles on the ground by the fireside in the yard outside, listening to her narrate the excesses of her abusive step-father. “If it goes on like this, I am afraid we will have to approach the police,” he advises the 17-year-old. “I will check again in a few days.”
A a patient listener and flamboyant orator, Nepali is an anti-human trafficking activist, and a local hero of sorts, in the Dooars region. In the past 13 years or so, he has been able to bring home over a hundred trafficked children, mostly tribal girls, from various parts of India. Sunaina is one of them.
Sunaina, the daughter of a tea plucker, was 12 when a paedophile kidnapped her. He had introduced himself to her family as a priest and was “very friendly” with the children in the labour quarters. “He picked me up from home when no one was there. I was drugged,” Sunaina recalled to VICE World News. Nepali—he is often the first point of contact when a child goes missing in the area—got suspicious of the priest on discovering a fancy magnetic toy in Sunaina’s house that he had given her. Nepali’s contact in the criminal investigative department began tracking the tower location of the priest’s cell phone. As feared, the phone was out of the state already and moving, westwards, along the railway line. When the phone’s location remained unchanged for days at Azamgarh, a city in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh (UP), he swung into action. He contacted Tapan Kumar Das, then commandant of Siliguri Frontiers of the Sashastra Seema Bal (SSB), the paramilitary organisation deployed along India’s borders with Bhutan and Nepal. Apart from guarding the borders, SSB combats human trafficking, both internal and cross-border. The very next day, a team of SSB personnel, Nepali and his volunteers were on a bus to UP. After a joint raid with the help of the local police, they were able to rescue Sunaina and arrest the culprit.
“I was locked up in a room when they came to look for me,” said Sunaina. “The man used to torture me, beat me up and abuse me sexually. Thanks to Raju uncle, I could come back home to my mother. I had given up all hopes of ever seeing her.”
She’s now trying to find a solution to her step-father’s abusive behaviour.
Historically marginalised, tea labourers, most of whom are women, have had it particularly bad since the turn of this century, coinciding with the decline of the sector.
In north Bengal region—home to Darjeeling and Dooars tea—several estates closed down over the years, rendering thousands jobless. Deaths due to starvation and malnutrition became commonplace. Even in the operational estates, the daily wage —INR 172 ($2.3) per day, currently—became irregular and fringe benefits almost non-existent. The verdant plantations turned into a hunting ground for traffickers trying every trick--from marrying unsuspecting girls to offering them jobs--to finally sell them off into bonded labour or sex work.
North Bengal shares borders with Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh, and Indian states like Bihar and Assam. It is well connected by road and rail, making it easy for traffickers to operate.
According to the latest National Crime Records Bureau data of 2016, WestBengal recorded 3579 cases of human trafficking, amounting to 44 per cent of the nation’s cases. The state sees some of the highest numbers of missing women and children in the country every year.
Fighting trafficking is not what Nepali had set out to do initially. The Darjeeling-born had dropped out of school and was “pretty aimless” for much part of his youth before he got interested in religion. Then he was ordained as a pastor with the Assembly of God Church, a job that took him to the neighbouring country, Nepal, in 1997.
The turning point, Nepali said, came in 2003 when he discovered that a friend of his with whom he had lost all contact was at a brothel in the western Indian city of Pune sold off by her husband. She became the first person he rescued—quite dramatically, in Nepali’s own narration of events—though she died of illness later on.
“That was the first time I came across the word ‘trafficking’, understood what it was and realised I had to tell people about it,” Nepali told VICE World News.
After returning from Nepal in 2005, he resigned as pastor to spread a message of a different kind. His skills in networking and public speaking helped him in his new role too. To learn about trafficking, he approached Rangu Souriya of Panighata Tea Estate near Darjeeling who was until then the only person in the region working on the issue. He began organising awareness camps, one tea garden at a time, in the far-flung areas where development is still a far cry.
In 2007, he set up the NGO, Duars Express Mail.
“As more and more people got aware, they came forward with news of their missing wards,” a senior SSB official told VICE World News, requesting anonymity.
“Until then, even they were silent, unaware of the fact that their children with whom they hadn’t communicated for a long time could have got trafficked.”
Individuals like Nepali, Souriya and Nirnay John in Darjeeling town, and a couple of NGOs were able to build a concerted movement against trafficking in the region.
Awareness led to the discovery of cases, rescuing of victims of trafficking and arrest of traffickers. “Some of them were successfully convicted, after which trafficking has reduced significantly, though the menace persists,” said the SSB official.
In January 2015, before Sunaina’s case, a team of Nepali’s volunteers, SSBpersonnel and local police persons rescued 17 tea garden girls from Kalyanpur in the eastern Indian state of Bihar, and also got two traffickers arrested.
“The rescue and arrest of traffickers was a landmark incident; traffickingbecame a high-priority issue for us since then,” said the SSB official. “Now, SSB has established regional anti-human trafficking centres in vulnerable areas. It consists of a dedicated team with female personnel. So, our anti-trafficking work got more organised.”
In 2015, Nepali started a WhatsApp group called Stop If You Can, a pan-India network of 252 activists, lawyers, journalists and law-enforcers.
Members in the groups share information on missing persons, coordinate rescue operations. Sometimes, there are tip-offs on movements of traffickers. It is like a dashboard of short, cryptic messages, usually looking for contacts.
“Trafficking is not confined to a certain geography,” said Tshering, said Amos
Tshering, an anti-trafficking specialist with World Vision India “There are sources, transits and destinations. The WhatsApp group has helped link people working in all three, bringing about better coordination.” By Nepali’s estimates, in the last five years, the WhatsApp group has helped various NGOs and government agencies to trace and rescue over 500 missing children, many of them trafficked, from all over the country.
Nepali is largely funded by donations from individuals. “Every time I need anything, someone or the other pitches in,” he said. “I don’t need big donations. To meet my own needs, I get paid by our partner NGO, for whom I am a local coordinator.” His frequent SOS requests are for recharging mobile phones of victims.
Duars Express has only two staff members on the payroll and enlists the service of volunteers. “Despite our size, we have been able to reach out far and wide, and also rescued over a 100 girls,” said Nepali. “But, the numbers are not important. What matters to me is that I can devote everyday of my life in the service of children like Sunaina.
*Name changed to protect identity.
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