It Could Happen to You
Gone girls of Nepal: A journalist's diary
Traffickers along the border have become active in the wake of the April 25 earthquake.
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Lucknow, Gorakhpur, Maharajganj, Sunauli. The 389km stretch from the heart of India to its most porous border with Nepal is dotted with piles of slush, garbage, crumbling buildings and hundreds of billboards of coaching centres. With dusk turning to nightfall, that cheerless world changes into a sinister landscape of danger: not a single human figure in sight, no electricity, no flickering lights from far-off villages. Just jagged shadows of deserted construction sites and vacant hotels in the glare of headlights. Sudden disquieting billboards zoom past: "Stop Human Trafficking."
"Don't go to Nepal. They have predicted another earthquake there." A police woman took me aside. We were at a restaurant - the worst I have ever seen in my life, with rats running around - in Gorakhpur. But you can never predict an earthquake, I pointed out. "Well, they are expecting very bad weather," she insisted. That was the final piece of discouragement I faced for the story I was chasing for India Today magazine: an alarming rise in human trafficking in the wake of the killer earthquake in Nepal ("Gone Girls of Nepal". August 10, 2015). Everywhere we went, every governmental institution we knocked on, we heard the same story: "Nothing is happening in Nepal. It's all nonsense."
Our trip to Nepal on June 27 had started with news from one of our local reporters in Uttar Pradesh: traffickers along the India-Nepal borders have become active in the wake of the Nepal earthquake. Was it true? There was no data to support that claim. Although the UP Police said that they had identified 17 trafficking gangs, why was not a single gang busted? Why wasn't any trafficker caught?
What was new? My editors pointed out that trafficking had a long tradition in Nepal, even before the Rana Regime in the 19th century, when girls were recruited from surrounding hills to service Kathmandu palaces. As the Ranas settled down in Indian cities, especially in the wake of the democratic Revolution of 1951, most of these women were released. And they had set up brothels across India, procuring more and more girls from Nepal to Indian metros over the years. With the rise of internal armed conflict in the 1990s, as thousands of young women and children left their remote rural homes, trafficking got a new fillip.
Who would know about it more than three brothers Nishi, Ravi and Rishi Kant, who run anti-trafficking NGO Shakti Vahini? Although it's tough to get in touch with them (they are forever in and out of risky raid-and-rescue operations across brothels in the country) it's a pleasure to hear them talk about the ways and means of the underworld. Rishi had just finished a raid at a Kotha in Delhi's infamous GB Road, where a call for help was sent out by a young captive girl through her customer. His team had also discovered how the kothas were building hidden chambers, to hide girls during a raid: "Unless you tap on all the walls, to figure out the hollow sound, you would come back empty-handed."
Rishi also said that during a raid at a kotha, run by an Indian woman with only Nepali girls, he had seen how emergency relief was being sent off to quake victims of Nepal: sacks of rice, dry lentils, clothes. What explained the uncharacteristic benevolence? "She was sending out girls, apparently, to help their villages cope with the tragedy," he said. "But, in truth, they were going to lure young girls on promise of better opportunities in India. Of course, they were never told about working for brothels."
It was by chance I met Vineeta in Lucknow. The former journalist now runs Nai Asha, an NGO to raid, rescue and rehabilitate trafficked victims. In course of a conversation on the phone, she suddenly put it on loudspeaker mode. A catarrhal voice was rasping about how "fresh stock" (from Nepal) was being brought for a dance bar in Agra, how she could go about using decoys for a sting on the brothel and when. "Baba was a trafficker once," she said. Then he got into some scrapes, went to jail and suddenly decided to turn over a new leaf. He still had his contacts in place and let them know as soon as girls needed to be rescued and rehabilitated. "Thanks to him, I have learnt the filthiest of code words used by traffickers," she laughed. Baba had not been able to reform his language.
Without Rishi and Vineeta, I would never have managed to get into my story. They chalked out the trafficking trail for me ("Start from Lucknow. It's one of the big sex markets in north India. From there, go to Gorakhpur, Maharajgunj and into Nepal via the Sunaoli border. That's one of those trails used by all kinds of traffickers, criminals and terrorists.") Without them, I would never have known how much money traffickers scatter on the trail, to procure a girl. Vineeta's team mate Ashis Srivastava, who leads the raids, listed it all: Rs 10-15,000 to build up rapport with a girl's parents. Rs 10,000 to the mediators - usually neighbours or relatives - who play a role in convincing parents. Rs 10,000 for parents, if they demand a deposit. Rs 3-5,000 for each person who takes a girl from village to town, cross the border and move to bigger towns. Rs 25,000 to a taxi driver, to take them to a metro like Delhi. The trafficker would then try to sell the girl to a brothel for about Rs 50, 000-75,000. And the brothel would try to recover the cost within the first 15-30 days, with a girl servicing at least 30 men a day.
We roamed the India-Nepal border by road for a week, Lucknow to Sunaoli, Bhairwaha, Lumbini, Pokhara in the north and back to Kathmandu. A spectacular country, with snowy peaks, serene lakes, blue and silver rivers running through green valleys and winding mountain roads. Silent, serene, sombre and stunning - despite the ravages of devastation writ large across the country.
We met people, hundreds of people on the way: say, Sonkaliya, a smart young woman, who carried six identity cards and apparently worked for a company called Win-win in Varanasi (try Googling and the website just says, "The next level of your success," but doesn't open. The only information one finds from other sources is that it's an "active" company, incorporated in 2013, with two Nepali directors, one of them possible from UAE. And the address, in Bada Lalpur, Chandmari Chowk in Varanasi, doesn't exist - we were informed by UP Intelligence, who checked it out on our request.) We also met people like Archana Tamang and the group of young poets, artists, lawyers and civil society activists who gather at her Café Aamu, the Kathmandu restaurant the former UN expert in trafficking runs (and cooks every dish lovingly herself) - guitar in hand, or with laptops. They are the new generation of Nepal - dreamers, thinkers, doers.
We came back with our story and a tangle of memories - that will not fade away, even if the story does.