In a third-grade classroom bustling with laughing children, only the teacher knew that Tara was a trafficking victim.
"Instead of helping me, he asked me if I had any female friends my age back at the village, so that she could work at his house. I refused," said Tara, who asked to use a pseudonym as she does not want to use her real name for safety reasons, during a recent telephone interview with VOA.
After returning from school to the house where she lived and worked, Tara sometimes slipped away to the terrace when no one was looking. She said she would watch cars driving across Ranchi, the capital of India's Jharkhand state, and wish they would take her away; it didn't matter where they were headed.
"I was 8 when a lady came to our village, Jonha, and told my mother that she would fund my education if I went to live with her family in Ranchi," said Tara, a member of India's Munda tribe. "My parents were poor and had three other children, so they readily agreed."
According to India's National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), over 6,500 human trafficking victims were identified in the country during 2022 ─ 60% of them women and girls. Experts believe the actual numbers are much higher, due to acute underreporting.
Anurag Gupta, director general of the Crime Investigation Department (CID), Jharkhand, declined VOA’s request to comment on the targeted trafficking of tribal girls, citing a dearth of statistical data regarding the issue.
However, Gupta said it is protocol for Jharkhand police to assume abduction or trafficking in every case of a missing child, following a Supreme Court order in 2013.
“We have also established Anti-Human Trafficking Units in different districts of Jharkhand,” Gupta told VOA. “We often refer human trafficking cases to the Directorate of Enforcement, who are responsible for handling money laundering cases and seize the properties owned by traffickers."
Ruchira Gupta is an anti-human trafficking activist and journalist and the founder of Apne Aap Women Worldwide, an organization that empowers girls and women to resist sex trafficking. She said the majority of India's trafficking victims are girls from oppressed castes and marginalized tribal communities.
"Traffickers take advantage of their [[tribal women and girls’]] intersecting vulnerabilities like food insecurity, unstable housing and lack of legal protection to seduce, trick and force them," Gupta told VOA.
With a tribal population of almost 9 million and the highest percentage of outgoing migrants in the country, Jharkhand is one of the primary spots in India targeted by human traffickers, according to the Economic Survey of India of 2017 and the NCRB.
Like many other victims of human trafficking, Tara, who was 8 when she was trafficked, had no idea what awaited her when she entered a city for the first time in her life.
Her parents were told that Tara would have to "help around with some household chores," which did not seem unusual to them at the time.
"I would wake up at 6 a.m., clean the house, do the laundry and cook food for all the members of their joint family before leaving for school," said Tara, who is 18 now.
"I could not focus at school because they used to practically starve me. By the time I returned, they would have finished off everything I had cooked, leaving the utensils for me to wash. Then I had to cook dinner and look after their toddlers,” she said. "I felt so hurt that I would lock myself in the bathroom to cry. They would yell if I shed a tear in front of them.”
Rashmi Tiwary, founder of the Aahan Foundation, a nongovernmental organization that works to prevent human trafficking in Jharkhand, told VOA that over 60% of the domestic workers employed in New Delhi are from Jharkhand.
"Several of these are women and girls who are trafficking victims. Intergenerational domestic slavery is almost a socially accepted norm among Jharkhand tribes now — many girls who are trafficked have mothers who have faced the same fate," she said.
Betrayed by their own
Most of these victims are taken to cities by "placement agencies"— a euphemism for organized trafficking groups.
Rishi Kant, a co-founder of Shakti Vahini, a New Delhi-based NGO involved in human trafficking rescue operations nationwide, told VOA that India desperately needs a "placement agency act" to protect vulnerable groups like tribal migrants and hold their exploiters legally accountable.
"These 'agencies' lure tribal girls from remote parts of India with the promise of a better life. They sexually exploit these girls, before forcing them into domestic slavery with little to no pay at a stranger's residence. Sometimes, their last resort is suicide," he said.
Vinod Kumar of Shri Ram Placement Service, a New Delhi-based placement agency, told VOA that they are aware of the role played by several placement agencies in the human trafficking of vulnerable communities.
“We ensure that we are not giving employment to any trafficking victim by contacting at least three members of the immediate family of every person we employ,” Kumar said. “Furthermore, we have refused employment to girls below the age of 18 who have come to us seeking work. We are also registered with the District Court in Saket of South Delhi.”
Tribal girls and women are usually trafficked by other members of their own tribes who have already settled in cities — people they implicitly trust, Kant and Tiwary have said. They added that, more often than not, these victims do not have the means to tell anyone about the abuse they face.
"They don't know the local language, have never been to a big city and are often told that these traffickers paid their families a huge sum for them,” activist Gupta said. "They believe that they must allow themselves to be exploited to repay their families' loans."
Laws in place
Bhopal-based Indian Police Service Officer Veerendra Mishra told VOA that a decade ago, Indian law enforcement's attention was not as sharply focused on human trafficking as it is now.
"Earlier, the training meted out by the Bureau of Police Research and Development to combat human trafficking was limited to the police forces directly dealing with investigations,” Mishra said.
"Now, vigorous training is given to a much wider array of personnel in the criminal justice and social justice systems, because it is being realized that trafficking occurs in areas beyond those stated in its conventional definition, including adoption trafficking and clinical drug trial trafficking," said Mishra.
He is the founder of the Research, Advocacy and Capacity Building Against Exploitation (RACE) Lab, India's first anti-human trafficking lab. The lab produces evidence-based research regarding human trafficking and advocates for policy and systemic changes in India.
Gupta, of the Criminal Investigation Department, said that in cases involving sexual abuse of trafficked minors, the POCSO (Protection of Children from Sexual Offences) Act has been a boon.
“The POCSO Act ensures stringent punishment for offenders. In fact, the Jharkhand High Court monitors every POCSO case very closely,” he told VOA.
Kant, of Shakti Vahini, said, "The recent interventions by the Jharkhand Police in human trafficking cases have been successful. … However, the 'suicide' cases in particular must be investigated more thoroughly, instead of being swayed in favor of the economically privileged."
At age 11, Tara returned to her village in Jharkhand during a summer vacation and found new hope in a Child Rights Awareness workshop at Aahan Foundation.
Tara convinced her reluctant parents to let her remain at home, breaking a rigid intergenerational cycle. Now a youth fellow at Aahan Foundation, she loves the Bollywood singer Shreya Ghoshal and wants to preserve the traditional Sahadri dialect through her own singing.
The recent high-school graduate said, "To anyone reading my story: do not send your daughters to a new place without being well-versed about how exactly they are going to be treated there. I do not want anyone else to experience the loneliness I felt."