Trafficking rackets use climate disasters as opportunities, say experts
Natural disasters make the poor more vulnerable to human trafficking in India, according to experts. The link between the crises becomes especially stark in states like Bihar and Uttar Pradesh that consistently fare poorly on the Human Development Index.
Vipul left his family in Uttar Pradesh’s Gorakhpur to work as a labourer in Mumbai after the 1998 flood flattened their home, his younger brother Vijay, 25, recounted.
He came back several months later with a wound on his torso, "They had taken out his kidney," said Vijay. “He went back to Mumbai again looking for work, but this time he never returned.”
Before the floods, Vijay, Vipul and their four sisters used to live on the outskirts of Gorakhpur city with their parents, who were daily wage labourers. Making ends meet was always challenging for the family and Vipul started working at the age of 10.
Their house in Pichhaura village was less than a kilometre away from the Rapti river, which swelled due to heavy monsoon rainfall and led to the devastating flood.
The family was uprooted from the village and was forced to take shelter on the railway platform in Gorakhpur city. More impoverished than ever, they were relieved when Vipul was offered a Rs 400 per day painting job in Mumbai.
Over two decades later, they still live on the platform and believe Vipul fell prey to organ traffickers, who must have harvested his other organs as well.
Gorakhpur district of Uttar Pradesh has started seeing frequent flooding of Rapti, Rohini and Ghaghara rivers, displacing thousands of residents. In 2021, 312,000 people in 391 villages were impacted and 56,000 hectares of land submerged. This is the story nearly every year.
“Recurring floods are the primary root cause of trafficking in this region. The link may not necessarily be direct, but it is there and often overlooked,” Brijesh Chaturvedi, programme head at Safe Society, a Gorakhpur-based non-profit, told Down To Earth (DTE).
According to the 2011 Census, 20.9 million people left their hometowns in UP and Bihar, accounting for 37 per cent of India’s total migrant population.
Rajesh Mani, director of Manav Seva Sansthan, told DTE:
In this part of UP — which includes districts such as Gorakhpur, Maharajganj and Kushinagar — there is no quality of life. People are always looking to move to metropolitan areas. Their desperation is heightened when recurrent heavy monsoon rains destroy whatever little they have — whether it’s their home or farm land.
Traffickers exploit these conditions every time, turning a disaster into an opportunity, he added.
Floods due to the overflowing Gandak, Bagmati, Burhi Gandak and Kamla rivers in the northern parts of Bihar in 2021 affected three million people, ruined agricultural land in 14 districts and forced the locals to seek menial jobs in neighbouring states and Nepal after monsoons, according to the flood control cell of the state disaster management department.
Mohd Farookh from Bhulli village in Sitamarhi district was working in a brick-kiln in Kashmir in August 2021 when his village got flooded by Bagmati near the Nepal border.
He received a phone call from his neighbour informing him that his eldest son Abdul was missing for the past few days. He shivered in fear of never seeing him again.
“I couldn’t go back without finishing my contract,” he shared.
After flooding during the monsoons, we move to Kashmir to find work, as there is no source of income in the village, Farookh added. “Silt gets deposited on the farms and nothing grows during this time.”
They found Abdul six months later when the police raided a bangle factory over a 1,000 kilometres away in Jaipur along with 11 other child labourers. The 15-year-old who was trafficked from his village had survived on plain rice and leftovers.
But Abdul wasn’t happy to be home. “I went to earn,” he said bitterly with his eyes downcast. “The man had promised me Rs 3,000 per month. He owes me Rs 18,000, which I didn’t get because the police sent me home.”
He believed going out to work is the only path to success, he said. This is the kind of brain-washing the traffickers do while convincing teenage boys to run away to Jaipur, luring them with dreams of a fixed income, a city life and good food, according to social workers.
The man who trafficked Abdul, a distant relative of the boy’s friend in another village, kept making promises to pay them on his visit to Sitamarhi.
Vishal Kumar, reintegration coordinator with Centre Direct — a child rights non-profit, said:
The exploiters teach the children to not give out their names to the police or rescuers. They tell them that if the traffickers are arrested, they won’t pay the wages.
When the children are rescued, the exploiters ask them not to tell their names to the police, or rescuers as if they get arrested, else they won’t get their salaries.
Some children who were rescued in 2015 and are now adults still hope to be paid for work they did 7 years ago every time the factory owner comes home, he added.
Targeting the children when they are most vulnerable, the traffickers wait for the floods. “Once their fathers go out for work, the traffickers convince teenage boys. They are naïve and gullible, which works in their favour, he said.
Every year, around 200 children are rescued from the Jaipur bangle factory alone, said Suresh Kumar, child rights activist and author of the book Child Trafficking — Fight for Freedom. “Many are sent to Hyderabad and Chennai too, but we do not know the numbers. What we see are rescued cases; the real number of trafficked children is much higher.”
These cases come to light when the rescued children recall their ordeals, Suresh added. “But there are many who die of starvation and diseases in these factories because the employers don’t bother to get medical help for them.”
These frequent floods in the northern districts are fairly new, said Deenanath Maurya, district coordinator, Centre Direct, Gaya. “A lot of factors from building dams, to land encroachment to construction in fields and, above all, climate change are behind this. These weather events affect agriculture and the locals have to migrate in search of work, leaving their children unsupervised, which is the perfect opportunity for traffickers.”
The rescued children claim they ran away on their own, rescuers shared.
The young, impressionable children are so thoroughly brainwashed that they think that the traffickers were doing them a favour by taking them out of the village. The traffickers are locals who know the children and their family problems, and take advantage of the situation.
As floods have become more prolonged and frequent, the destruction also has become more severe, he added. “This is causing more and more children into the traps of the traffickers.”
Gorakhpur in UP is the key transit point for child trafficking in the region. It is flanked by Nepal on one side and Kushinagar and Bihar’s Paschim Champaran on the other — all three of which are extremely prone to annual flooding.
With an airport and a railway station connecting it to other parts of the country, the city is the only slightly developed area in this part of the state.
Data collected by Safe Society revealed that the majority of trafficking cases in Gorakhpur actually originate from Kushinagar and Paschim Champaran, both extremely backward and are regularly inundated by floods.
Between April 2015 and February 2019, 114 children were trafficked from the region with Gorakhpur as a transit point — 63 of which were from Bihar, 13 and four from Kushinagar and Maharajganj districts in UP, according to Manav Seva Sansthan.
Of the 63 from Bihar, 36 were from West Champaran district in Bihar. This is a conservative figure and the actual number of children trafficked is much higher, Chaturvedi asserted.
Trafficking cases from Kushinagar increased during and after the monsoon, a time-period wise analysis by the organisation showed.
From April 2015-January 2016, for instance, seven children were trafficked from Kushinagar. The figure increased by five times to 35 from February-July 2016, data showed. “This data indicates how during monsoon season, trafficking from Kushinagar increased,” said Chaturvedi.
Vice-chairperson of Uttar Pradesh’s women commission, Anju Chaudhary, underlined similar concerns but didn’t explicitly say there is a link between climate change disasters and trafficking. On the northern side of the Rapti river, fields are very low and are therefore flooded every monsoon season even with a little bit of rainfall. “People living in these areas often send their children off for work, sometimes whole families move out,” she told DTE.
Vandana Singh, president of the Child Welfare Committee (CWC) in Uttar Pradesh, noted that the body is aware of the problem and is working with involved parties to address it.
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