By Anirban Datta
In seconds she loses her new found confidence. She is once again that little girl, bundled into a bus at early dawn, hugging her worldly possessions to her chest, filled with excitement, awe and a little fear.
She remembers looking back at the fast disappearing landscape of Assam’s teagarden district, Tezpur.
Little did Salmi know then that she would spend the next few years of her life, clutching on to these memories in her daily struggle to find her feet and come to terms with the harsh realities of life as a trafficked domestic worker in Delhi.
Salmi was 11 when she was trafficked. She is 16 today. She is no longer the cowering, quiet, wide-eyed child she was five years ago. She is confident, aware of her rights and somewhat cocky. Her struggles have hardened her. Frequent hearings at the Child Welfare Committee, visits to the police station, negotiations with her former employers in the safe precincts of Nirmana, (the NGO that conducted the rescue), have made her bold.
Yet, as soon as she set eyes on her father, she breaks. She had yearned for this meeting for years, telling herself that one day she would meet her parents. Her belief kept her going.
Chances were slim, though. The scrap of paper on which her trafficker had scribbled his number, was long gone. Even had she saved that paper and managed to call him, she would probably have reached a dead end, feel her rescuers.
Phillip, the trafficker had brought her to Delhi. He was from a nearby village. He had seemed quite the man of the world as he spoke about this huge city with glitzy malls and high rise buildings where everyone could earn a decent living. For 11 year old Salmi and her friends, he was their key to their dreams. One day, he put them on a bus and took them on a long and difficult journey.
From Guwahati, they traveled by train to Delhi, dodging ticket checkers along the way, surviving on a frugal fare. On reaching Delhi, they were whisked away to different homes and thus began their dreary days as live in domestic helps. Salmi never saw her friends again, nor did she see Phillip. As time passed, her memories of home faded, she forgot her language, her village, her way of life and yet she never lost hope. What remained distinct in her mind, were her last memories of her village and the last bumpy ride which took her away from home. Every evening, she dreamt of her Papa birar (her father), wondering if he would come to find her. She told herself, he would.
Salmi hugs her father, sheds copious tears and pours out her story. ShrirajTopno is is bewildered. He cannot understand a word of what she is saying. Salmi has forgotten her native tongue, completely. He takes a step back to look at her. This is undoubtedly his Salmi. The apple of his eye, his little girl whom he had given up for dead. She is almost a woman now, no longer the little child who would be prancing around him as he went about his daily chores. She seems so confident and articulate, in this strange city. Shriraj is decidedly uncomfortable. He has never traveled so far from home. He adjusts the collar of his brand new bush shirt and wishes he could get home fast. He is not sure of what the future holds for him or his daughter. All he wants is to get her home.
Salmi is lucky. She wasn’t really ill treated at the place Phillip left her. The family fed her well and looked after her, although they worked her to the bone. They took care to ensure that she learnt their language and their ways, so that that she could perform her duties efficiently.
As Salmi grew, she started resenting the fact that they never spoke about sending her home. They never mentioned Phillip. They also gave her no money. She started voicing her resentment, which led to spats and incidents of ill treatment.
One day after a particularly ugly spat, she left. She was found wandering the streets by another domestic help who took her to her employer. On hearing her story, this person advised her to go to the police. Salmi broke down. She begged him for some money and a ticket to go home. However, she couldn’t remember where home was. This person took pity on her and searched on the internet for an NGO that could help her. He came across Nirmana.
Subhash Bhatnagar, who runs Nirmana, recollects how hard they tried to find out where she was from. Several rescued girls from Assam spoke to her but none of them had a clue as to which part of Assam she belonged to, until almost as a miracle an older girl from her village who had also been trafficked by Phillip recognized her. From her, they got to know of her village. Luckily her father had lodged an FIR with the police and also sought assistance from a local NGO in Assam. It was this NGO that swung into action, contacted her father and sent him to Delhi with all her documents.
Salmi’s story is like a fairy tale. There are many like her who never make it back home, who completely lose their identity and spend the rest of their lives clutching the fading memories of their homes, far away.
Salmi’s story is not only a story about trafficking. It is the story of thousands of hapless domestic workers, who in the absence of a law that ensures safe migration and rights, end up in the hands of unscrupulous agents of placement agencies who force them into a life of virtual slavery from which there are little chances of escape.
A UN report on the status of domestic workers in India states “States such as Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, West Bengal and Odisha with a dominant adivasi population are sources for inter-state migrant domestic workers. Lack of alternative livelihood options, aspiration to enter into the labour markets to earn a decent living, and also the lack of freedom and independence within one’s own community and family, make young girls an easy prey for trafficking.
Many of these workers face an increased risk of trafficking because of their vulnerability, uninformed and unsafe migration, unprotected nature of work and the highly personalized relationship between the intermediaries who often help unscrupulous agents to take children, adolescent girls and women to cities for work. The full report can be read on http://in.one.un.org/img/uploads/DomesticWorker_Feb2014_Brochure.pdf
While there are a number of good Samaritans in Salmi’s story, who are the villains? The family who employed Salmi? Phillip, the trafficker? or the unscrupulous employment agencies who employ people like him?
In this story, Salmi’s employers had to pay heavy compensation. They pleaded that they had paid her salary regularly to the placement agency that Phillip represented, and even produced receipts. The Child Welfare Council took a stern view of the fact that they had employed a young child and asked the police to produce Phillip.
Phillip was untraceable. Why can’t the likes of Phillip be brought before the law? Why can’t agencies be summoned by Courts?
Subhash feels that the key to this problem lies in registering employers. Agencies are elusive and maintain need based contacts with the domestic helps they place. They however keep in touch with the employers, albeit on their own terms, for collecting salaries of the domestic helps.
Subhash also feels that there needs to be a tripartite contract between the employer, employee and the agency in which the terms and conditions of employment are clearly spelt out.
The demand for domestic workers, especially in places like the National Capital is only likely to increase, with more and more middle class women joining the work force. This demand is likely to increase the flow of hapless women from tribal areas, the east, north east and other belts where eking out a livelihood is difficult. Social scientists have termed this flow as an ‘economic migration’“ or ‘distress migration’.