COVID-19: Child trafficking, assault on the rise in north Bengal

Most tea growers lost livelihood to the pandemic; cases of sexual assualt do not reach courts

By Gurvinder Singh
Published: Thursday 15 July 2021

Child marriages, trafficking and sexual assault have been on the rise in the tea gardens of north Bengal. Poverty, coupled with low wages and frequent closure of gardens due to the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, has made the tea workers vulnerable to traffickers.

Deepa (name changed) — a minor girl who stays at Dalgaon in Alipurduar district of West Bengal known for its tea gardens — was allegedly sexually assaulted by her neighbour last year. The accused was arrested but later released on bail.

The case was dismissed after Deepa’s family allegedly “settled for the compensation” offered by the family of the accused. The victim’s aunt, a tea plucker in Dalgaon, said “they were too poor to fight legal battles”.

North Bengal has over 280 tea gardens that employ around 0.35 million. The region produces tea through the Crush, Tear, Curl (CTC) method, wherein black tea leaves are passed through a series of cylindrical rollers that crush, tear, and curl the tea into small, hard pellets.

The Darjeeling tea is grow in hills and exported to countries like Russia, Germany, Vietnam, China, Iran and others. Tea processed through CTC is grown in plains and consumed within the country.

Rise in child marriages

Deepa is not alone. “Earlier, we used to receive 12-13 complaints a month of child marriages from the district; it has now gone up to 20-22. People are marrying their children off due to poverty. It becomes difficult to reach every place as they are being organised clandestinely,” said Smita Banerjee, a childline team member working in Madarihat and Birpara (Dalgaon) blocks in Alipurduar district.

She added that the activists faced opposition from the family members of the accused when they tried to stop them.

Dipa Gope, another child line team member, recalled how a 65-year-old man allegedly sexually assaulted a 13-year-old girl. The activists managed to rescue her, but claimed that the “victim did not get justice as most cases are mutually solved”.

Most boys as young as 10-12 years have been pushed into labour, claimed activists. “They can be seen working in stone crushers and building construction. They are paid as little as 150-200 per day,” said Gope.

Trade union leaders working in tea gardens admitted that the pandemic has led to an increase in such activities. “People lost their livelihoods to the pandemic and fell for such activities to earn a living,” said Gopal Pradhan, president, Dooars Chai bagan workers Union.

“The pandemic made it difficult for us to monitor the situation on an everyday basis. This prompted the traffickers to continue their nefarious activities.”

Indrajit Dey, secretary, Birpara Welfare Organization, a non-profit working against trafficking, said: “The Indo-Nepal border is not very far from here and the girls are easily trafficked as the border is porous.” 

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