Are we eating sugar which small kids are producing as bonded labour?
FOURTEEN-YEAR-OLD Mahendra Singh used to live with his parents and two siblings in the Jahangirpuri slum area of New Delhi until the morning he was abducted, trafficked and then callously ‘sold’ to a sugarcane farmer of Haryana’s Karnal district. Mahendra was made to work as a bonded labourer in the sugarcane fields for three-and-a-half long years, until he finally managed to escape from his ‘owners’.
On the fateful morning of 7 August 2008, Mahendra went out at 7 am as there is no toilet in his settlement. His father Ram Ratan Singh’s memory of that day is still fresh. He says, “We looked everywhere. We went to the nearby fruit market, to the milk booth and to the bus stop. We kept looking madly for him for the next three years but couldn’t find a trace of him anywhere”.
Mahendra suddenly reappeared on 16 May 2012. His mother Shyam Kali’s eyes brighten up as she looks at her long-lost son now sitting by her side. “I was sitting at the door as it was very hot. Suddenly he came with a big basket of mangoes on his head. For I moment I was not able to recognise him, he was so weak and dark. There was no flesh on his body and he looked liked a ragpicker. My neighbours said that he looked like some beggar or bonded labourer.” Which indeed he was.
Before moving on with Mahendra’s story, let’s take a look at some figures that are haunting everyone involved in the missing children issue. During a recent disclosure, the Ministry of Home Affairs put the figure of Delhi kids going missing at a shocking average of 14 per day. The investigation shows that besides the regular and predictable endpoints of being forced into prostitution, used for organ trade and injected into the vicious beggary cycle, there is a completely new trafficking racket in place. This packs children off to the sugarcane fields of the neighbouring states.
This trend of abducting, trafficking and selling children is more rampant in the ‘sugar bowl’ of India, particularly in districts like Saharanpur, Muzaffarnagar, Baghpat and Meerut of western Uttar Pradesh along with adjacent districts of Haryana.
A report tabled in the Rajya Sabha by the home ministry in May portrays a grim picture of childhood in India. In 2009-11, around 1,77,660 children went missing in India. A simple application of mathematics draws this figure at a daily average of 162 missing children. The saddest part is that around 32 percent of these kids never reach home. Figures show that despite starting huge awareness programmes and investing funds worth crores in building websites like ‘Zipnet’, the situation of Delhi police is dismal. Delhi cops registered a huge 1,146 cases of missing children by 15 April this year. Out of these, there is still no trace of 529 kids. Moreover, Delhi lost 5,111 of its children in 2011, out of which 1,359 kids never resurfaced.
Back to Mahendra’s story. As we ask our first question about the abduction, the boy becomes fretful. We try to win his confidence. After an hour, as he shows us the blisters on his scalp, palms and feet, silent tears roll down his cheeks. As he starts narrating his ordeal, he stammers frequently.
“While walking towards the open field, I saw five boys coming towards me. They made me smell something and I lost consciousness slowly. I remember being put in a big jute bag. When I woke up, I was at old Delhi railway station.”
Mahendra found himself and one more boy in the custody of a strange Sikh man. He further says, “He gave us samosas. Then he told us we would have to go to Karnal with him. When I said no and started crying, he started screaming with rage and told me to shut up. Then he forced both of us into a bus and took us to Karnal. Whenever I asked him about going home, he shouted and told me that now I will have to live in Karnal only. We reached a village called Sandgaon where he has a house and farmland. He straightaway took us to the sugarcane fields. He briefed us about the work and told us we will have to wake up at 4 every morning, clean up the dung and prepare fodder before sunrise. Then we were to work in the sugarcane fields the whole day.”
Trapped in a distant village of Haryana in sugarcane fields cordoned off by vigilant family members, Mahendra was not able to find a way out of those killer fields for years. He learnt they were sold to the Sardar for Rs 4,000 each.
Mahendra tells us there are many children like him working in the fields of Karnal as bonded labourers. When we ask him about the name of his ‘owners’, he suddenly looks frightened. Then, hesitantly, he mumbles their names, “Sardar’s name is Gijja Singh. His son’s name is Dilbagh Singh. His sister’s name is Preeti Singh. They have a Tata Sumo, jeeps, motorcycles. Sardar made me plough fields, do the weeding and look after his buffalo and horses. He always spoke to me in abusive language and use to beat me whenever I talked about going home. We used to sleep in the hut with the water-pump. Forget about any kind of money, we were even not given enough food to fill our stomachs. Sardar used to say that we will grow fat and lazy if we ate more”.
One May afternoon, Gijja Singh handed over Rs 1,500 to the two boys to buy seeds. They seized the opportunity and ran towards the nearest bus stop. Mahendra says, “We took the first bus to Karnal and then another one for Delhi. I bought a basket of mangoes to keep on my head so that the locals would not recognise me. Sardar had bought a new boy before we fled away. He was younger than me, around 12 years. Sardar’s son told me before leaving that he has bought a new bhaiya. In this region, it goes on like this only. These rich sugarcane farmers buy orphaned or abducted poor children like me and then make them work like animals in those sugarcane fields and buffalo sheds.”
Mahendra’a father Ram Ratan works in a tobacco factory. He says that it took him over one year to convince the cops to register an FIR and he never got a copy of it. He adds, “I ran to the Jehangirpuri police station the same day. But the lady in-charge asked me to give her sweets. I gave her all Rs 200 that I then had in my pocket but she only made a diary entry. Other officers present at the station asked me to look for my child myself.” The cops also told him that they would investigative only if I provide them a vehicle for going to Karnal, he says.
This is the story of many of those 14 children who go missing every day from Delhi. These poor children are picked up from the remotest slums of Delhi and sold to the sugarcane farmers of western Uttar Pradesh and Haryana.
This story began as an enquiry into the reasons behind Delhi becoming the new ‘missing children capital’ of India. It seems that with a scattered but efficient network, these middlemen abduct children from poor settlements of Delhi and then sell them off to sugarcane farmers working in numerous fields surrounding Delhi. Every child clearly mentions names of villages and owners who had made them work as bonded labrourers. The cases of all missing children mentioned in this investigation are already registered in their corresponding police stations.
We are in the dusty slum settlements of the south-eastern tip of Delhi, Badarpur. After crossing numerous foul-smelling settlements, nullahs and open grounds filled with rags, we reach a small market. We wait for Deepak Kumar Sahu, sitting at his father’s cloth shop in the market. One March morning when he was 15, Deepak went out with his friends. When dusk fell, he turned towards home but was abducted by four men on motorcycles. He ended up in Muzaffarnagar, a western UP district known as the ‘sugar bowl’ of India, in Pandit Ram Kumar’s house in Khidadiya village.
His chores were similar to Mahendra’s. A married man who also worked with the boys said that agents had sold them to the farmer for Rs 3,000-4,000. They were unable to escape even after seven years, and were threatened with a gun. He managed to run away on 26 February 2012 but the middle finger of his left had got sliced off during his work.
But a worse revelation was yet to come. He says in the Jat and Gujjar-dominated villages, children from Bihar and Delhi were chained so that they could not run away. He further says, “The police are also with the rich farmers. If any child runs away, the constables bring them back.”
Mahendra and Deepak’s parents had to do numerous rounds of police stations to the FIRs of their missing children registered. And when these abducted kids returned, their parents again went to their respective area police stations and urged the cops to investigate the matter. If the local police had behaved in a vigilant and active manner, they could have not only caught the traffickers, but could also have saved many other children from eventual abductions. Remarkably, right from Delhi High Court to Ministry of Home Affairs, all important central agencies are repeatedly issuing guidelines for deep investigations in all cases of missing children.
Another boy, Pawan, tells us, “Those village people are very harsh. If a child tries to run away, they let dogs loose on you. And where could we go even if we run away? You run away from Fatehpur Chak and the people of Ibrahimpur Manjra will catch you. There is no escape. In these villages, everybody is looking for boys.” As his ordeal of bonded labour extended over months, Pawan eventually forgot his father’s mobile number. After five months, he suddenly recalled it. His father Hanuman says, “He told us to come to the school of nearby Ibrahimpur Manjra village. First we wanted to go to the police. But Pawan told us to stay away as they are dangerous people. So we quietly went to the school and waited for him. He came as decided and we all ran away from there. While coming back to Delhi, we were thinking that police will punish the criminals but nothing has happened till date. ”
THE DISTRESSING stories of Mahendra, Deepak and Pawan lead us to a larger question. Why are the farmers of Muzaffarnagar, Saharanpur, Baghpat, Karnal and Meerut becoming a part of this unholy racket of child abduction and bonded labour? We travelled to the sugarcane fields of western Uttar Pradesh. The selection of districts and villages for this tour was done on the basis of the statements given by Mahendra, Deepak and Pawan. We went as researchers working on sugarcane crop. The ground visit revolved around Fatehpur Chak, Ibrahimpur Manjra and Jodhi village of Baghpat district while in Muzaffarnagar, Khindadiya, Tejalheda and Simrati districts were toured.
Work in the sugarcane fields starts in October-November and ends by February-March. The abducted children do the extra manual work of the final months. In around seven villages, we spotted around 30 children in bonded labour. We recorded conversations and photographs. Children of 14-16 years are old enough to carry sugarcane piles and clean them but not old enough for loud protests.
Bachpan Bachao Andolan’s Kailash Satyarti squarely blames the police. He adds, “The local beat officer and the immediate investigating office is to blame. If this is the condition of missing children in Delhi, you can imagine the situation in the rest of the India”.
These sacred children were easily distinguishable from the assertive, aggressive and healthy lot of Jats and Tyagis living predominately in this region. Most of the local farmers complained about the severe shortage of agricultural labour leading them to bring labour from other states. During a conversation with the farmers of Bandheda Khas village of Saharanpur, the farmers accepted that there is a network of agents and middlemen at place in their village. They also said that these agents take a sum of Rs 4,000 as commission for bringing one labour, confirming the boys’ testimony.
Deenanath Chauhan works with Bachpan Bachao Andolan on the issue of missing children. He got to know about such cases around one-and-a-half year back. He adds, “This was the case of Sonu. He was a resident of Prem Nagar, Nangloi in Delhi, while his original family roots were in Gorakhpur. He was kidnapped from a street of his colony. When he regained consciousness, he was in a village called Badla-12. This village is in Meerut. He could escape imprisonment only after 16 months of bonded labour. After coming back, he told the local cops that many more children like him are suffering in the confinements of these farmers. But the police did nothing in the name of investigation.
When we spoke to Ashok Chand, the Commissioner of Police (Crime) and the anti-trafficking unit head of Delhi police, he tried to wrap up the matter by saying that law will take its own course. But when we told him about the stories of Mahendra, Deepak and Pawan, he added, “Your investigation is very important. Such kind of stories should be done. I believe that the higher police officials of related police stations would have looked into the cases. And if not, they would be given the orders to do so.”