The original version of this article appeared on the Wilson Center’s New Security Beat.
The story of Uma Tudu captures the endless cycle of poverty, violence, and suffering faced by too many girls in the northeastern Indian state of Assam.* At 16, following floods that destroyed her village, she traveled more than 1,600 kilometers to Delhi, lured by the promise of a good job and a good life. Instead she was sold as bonded labor.
Rescued two years later, she returned to the abject poverty she tried to escape. She decided to help other girls avoid the same fate by becoming a crucial hand at Nobel Prize-winner Kailash Satyarthi’s non-profit, Bachpan Bachao Andolan, passing on information about human traffickers. Life was reasonably good; she had a purpose.
Then in December 2014, Uma’s village was attacked by rebels during a wave of ethnic violence. For weeks afterwards, no one saw or heard from her. She wasn’t spotted in any of the relief camps. As bodies were recovered, her family dreaded to think if this was the end for the 20-year-old girl who had overcome so much.
A State of Turmoil
The sight of displaced families, widowed women, and orphaned children is not unusual in certain parts of Assam. In September 2014, a hundred people were killed and a million more displaced by floods. Three months later, ethnic conflict claimed the lives of at least 80 people, most of whom were women and children.
Assam shares borders with six other Indian states and neighboring Bangladesh and Bhutan. In the western corner and parts of lower Assam, conflict over land and identity between Bodo tribals, Muslims – many migrants from Bangladesh – and other ethnic groups has resulted in periodic violence over the past 20 years. From low-lying Bangladesh into Assam comes one of the largest flows of people across international borders in the world. The particularly bloody attack that claimed Uma’s village was reportedly carried out by a faction of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland that seeks to create a separate state for Bodo tribals.
Against the backdrop of this strife, there is climate change.
Ushabala Das doesn’t know exactly how old she is, but at least 50 and too old to restart her life in any case, she says. The flooding in September destroyed her home in the village of Kalapani, Goalpara district. “I lost everything,” she says in a video interview. “The water level was above the roof of my house.” Before the floods, Usha and her husband Ramakanta Das made a living out of rice cultivation, but now their paddies are covered in silt and sand.
While Ushabala’s husband is hoping to restart small-scale farming, she knows it may be a long time before they reap any benefit. For her family and two teenage boys to survive, she has no other option but to work as a daily wage laborer in Goalpara town. Many women have found themselves in similar situations, forced to find work as domestic help or laborers.
The mighty Brahmaputra River, which flows through Tibet, downstream into India through Arunachal Pradesh and Assam before reaching Bangladesh, has been the backbone of the state’s predominantly agrarian economy for thousands of years. But in recent years the river has changed. As Himalayan glaciers melt upstream, it has experienced prolonged floods year after year. Flooding and loss of land by river erosion affects the poorest segments of Assam society most. According to the World Bank, at least 386,000 hectares of land in the state have been lost to erosion since 1954, and 800,000 hectares are affected by floods every year.
A 2012 report by the Center for Environment, Social, and Policy Research, an environmental research and advocacy organization, found women in Assam are disproportionately affected by climate change. In recent years, there has been a significant reduction in the percentage of women involved in agriculture and an increase in their involvement in labor work, the report finds, spurred in part by unsustainable agriculture.
“I Will Be Going to Look for Girls”
For young women and girls, this shift is especially dangerous. “We fear that with the recent floods and conflict, there will be a rise in trafficking of girls for slavery in Assam,” says Rakesh Senger, national secretary of Bachpan Bachao Andolan. “The girls are scared to go back to their villages and the traffickers know this.”
In a phone conversation two weeks after the wave of violence that claimed Uma’s village, Bibek Kirki, a 45-year-old trafficker in Assam’s Lakhimpur district, confirms as much. “I will be going to look for girls from Sonitpur [one of the three conflict-affected districts]. I think I can arrange them in three to four days,” he tells me with scary confidence.
Bibek has been trafficking girls from various districts of Assam for many years now. He went underground after the owner of an agency in Delhi to which he supplied girls was arrested six months ago. The economics look good to him. “Earlier I would be paid 10,000 rupees [$170] per girl, but now it’s become more risky,” he tells me. “My rate has doubled.” He’s confident of reviving his business and is almost certain he’ll find girls eager to go to the city from Assam.
Once the girls reach Delhi and other cities, they are sold to illegal placement agencies who in turn sell them for almost 40,000 rupees ($660) as domestic help, forced labor, and even brides for forced marriages to much older men. This is a blueprint for human trafficking and slavery that thrives in India.
Mirila was sold to an older man for 70,000 rupees ($1,160). All of 17, she is the eldest child to a single parent. Her mother sells oranges in Goalpara town to make ends meet and to ensure her two younger brothers can continue in school. Mirila says the prospect of a job in a city seemed the obvious solution to her family’s problems. “This was last year in August, a boy from my village said he will introduce me to someone in Delhi who can give me a job,” she said:
“So I traveled with him by train to Delhi and met this man called Samir. I stayed at Samir’s house for a week. He told me he was finding me a good job and then one day took me to Rajasthan [a northwestern Indian state]. Over there, he sold me to this man. He would physically abuse me and repeatedly tell me that he paid a lot of money for me. Then one day I managed to call my mother and told her where I was. I was then rescued by the police.”
In the last six months, more than 70 trafficked children from Assam, mostly girls, have been rescued from Mumbai and nearby Haryana State, with 31 being rescued last December. Jyotsna Das goes to the police station every time she hears of such a rescue. She scans the girls with hope that her lost daughter is back. This has been her routine for two long and lonely years. “That day she had gone to school, I think it must have been on her way back home that she was abducted,” she says, holding the picture of a teenage girl with black shiny hair falling to her shoulders in a blue and white school uniform. “She was just 14 years old when she went missing. I have searched everywhere, searched across four states, but no one knows anything.”
Jyotsna and her family were among the 12 million people displaced by floods in Assam in 2004. She along with her husband and daughter moved from flood-affected Bolbola to Goalpara. Jyotsna today sells fish and earns between $4 and $5 a day.
“I can’t find evidence of traffickers swooping in hours after a cyclone, but I can find evidence of families pushed from their homes, land and possessions lost, and becoming refugees… and in that very vulnerable state, falling prey to the blandishments of traffickers,” says Kevin Bales, the lead author of The Global Slavery Index report and co-founder of the anti-slavery organization, Free the Slaves. “Any environmentally disruptive event can push the poor into a situation in which they are more easily enslaved, especially when the rule of law breaks down as a result.”
Data from a 2011 UN Environment Program report suggests that human trafficking increases by 20 to 30 percent during disasters. According to the State Commission for the Protection of Child Rights, more than 2,800 minor girls have gone missing in the last five years from Assam. More than 400 trafficking victims have been rescued and 281 middlemen arrested since 2011.
Mirila feels lucky she was rescued after five months. There are many who never come back and there are others who return home to the same poverty and struggle they fled in the first place.
The first step to untangling this web of environmental, social, and security challenges is recognizing the problem. Sanjoy Hazarika, founder of the Center for Northeast Studies and Policy Research, says the national government needs to setup a network of counseling centers in conflict and flood-affected areas. “Women need counseling from the effects of post-traumatic stress, otherwise they remain trapped in the past,” he says.
“There also needs to be tough action on traffickers and establish their links to the conflict and the natural disasters,” he continues. “The government seems to be content with pursuing armed groups after they strike and does not have the requisite number of police to tackle the issue of conflict while natural disaster management remains ad hoc and spotty.” A stronger police force and a collaborating network of anti-human trafficking units and legal centers could go a long way.
During the completion of this report, I was informed that Uma has been found. Although she was injured in the attack on her village, she is recovering in a hospital and her spirit is far from defeated.
In a state wounded by conflict for decades and being reshaped by climate change, a beacon of hope ironically comes from those that are worst affected. Traffickers are exploiting the drive by women and girls like Uma, Mirila, and Jyotsna’s daughter to strike out for a better life. The state should be tapping into this same desire to provide legitimate means for them to be productive – education, vocational training, and a legal system that provides stronger protections for migrants. The women of Assam display a rare resilience that pushes life ahead despite incredible vulnerability and neglect.
*The names of trafficking survivors have been changed to protect their identities.
Priyali Sur is a longtime correspondent with CNN IBN Delhi and is currently a Fulbright Humphrey fellow at the University of Maryland. Follow her on Twitter @priyalisur. Thanks to Surajit Bordoloi and the Wilson Center’s Environmental Change and Security Program for their input.