Contai, May 15: 'Soon, there will be no young women left in our village.'
Bhabani Das's anguished prophecy is chillingly close to the truth. The 60-year-old lady, who has lost her 16-year-old granddaughter Basanti, is just one of the floundering victims of an insidious force sweeping through Bengal's villages.
Placement agencies based in Delhi are the new face of trafficking, stealing away girls ' often 12 years old or less ' and women from their homes, promising jobs and tempting pay, but in reality, delivering abuse.
An estimated 750 to 1,000 placement agencies ' tiny one-room set ups ' have sprouted across Delhi's distant urban sprawl. Many offer girls from Bengal, on demand, for a range of jobs, but most commonly domestic work.
'One agent alone, Suraj Jana, has taken over 300 girls,' says Sarada Giri Jana, district coordinator of Childline, an emergency help-line for children. He targets the poor and uneducated in remote villages, flashing a business card, taken as evidence of authenticity. 'The worst treated girls often come from homes without one parent or are orphans. When something goes wrong, there is no one to protest,' adds the social worker.
Bhabani lives in Kakhuria village, near Contai in East Midnapore. But 'agents' ' once shadowy figures (distant aunts, uncles, dadas, neighbours), now growing distinct but no less dangerous ' are recruiting openly across the state.
The bait is a salary of around Rs 3,000 a month, far more than the girls used to life below poverty line ever imagined they would make working at home, or even in Calcutta.
Deprivation and greed make for a sinister blend. Agencies often pocket much of the girls' money. Or, they aren't paid at all, on the pretext that they have stolen from employers or haven't finished the one-year contract, of suspect legality, they are supposedly bound by.
Rakhi Rani Shee was working in Delhi for over a year. Physically and mentally abused, the 14-year-old told her father about her plight. Brother Debdulal was sent to bring her home, but Rakhi returned without her brother. Debdulal was detained by Suraj to work without pay because Rakhi had allegedly stolen from her employers. He still hasn't ret- urned home.
The agencies take around Rs 3,000 from every employer their girls are placed with. The first month's salary is taken in advance, and a one-year 'contract' is signed. For an untrained girl, Rs 1,500 a month is the norm. A 'semi-trained' girl 'who knows a little Hindi and can cook ' fetches Rs 2,000 and upwards. A 'fully trained' hand comes for Rs 3,000.
'The jobs sound acceptable, and would fetch them only around Rs 500 a month nearer home,' adds Giri Jana. But they leave them helpless. Over 10 girls have gone missing ' including Shikharani Giri and Basanti Sheet ' in just a handful of villages.
Most return with only a fraction of the money they have earned. Some are beaten.
One has been raped, allegedly by every male member of the family where she was posted. They are prevented from keeping in touch with home. And once that tie is severed, disappearing is easy.
Sandhya, who had been taken to Mumbai two years ago, called home to leave the cryptic message that no more phone calls should be expected from her.
In Contai, where there have been six general diaries lodged in the Marishda and Bhupati Nagar thanas naming Suraj (whose wife and associate have been arrested, see box), coercion is often employed. Sometimes the girls run away without telling their parents, persuaded that a better life awaits them.
Rabi Dholui's daughter Asha disappeared eight months ago. One day, after her examinations, she went to her friend's house, and has not been home since.
'Then we found out that these agents would come to her friend's house, and that they have been taken to Delhi,' says the helpless father. When he went to the police, he was asked to come back later.
Many parents send the girls willingly, dogged as they are by poverty, with no options in sight. Then, they stay mum, further fuelling the exodus.
The police are usually reluctant to accept a diary, let alone an FIR. The parents are told that as the families send them willingly for money, it is their own fault. That this is the way of the village. All the while, the girls continue to fall through the cracks.
'There is no law by which these agencies can be held accountable,' says Aparna Bhatt of the Human Rights Law Network.
Delhi is still a world away for some and the distance ' between Calcutta and the capital, dreams and reality ' is often too far to be bridged.