"Last year, when the Covid restrictions were there, the streets were empty because there was a lockdown. But the business of trafficking girls continued." The North Eastern states of India have been plagued by child trafficking for decades. According to researchers and activists, with the rise in the number of cases being reported, the traffickers have begun running their rackets via online platforms and other avenues.

The Press Trust of India recently reported that a new Bill to combat human trafficking will be introduced on the Parliament floor this Monsoon Session: Trafficking of Persons (Protection, Care and Rehabilitation) Bill, 2022.

Shillong based Hasina Kharbhih, founded the Impulse NGO network at the age of 17. Impulse works for the prevention, rescue and repatriation of children who are at risk of or have been trafficked within and out of India.

"Those who are using online spaces from the region, are getting involved in human trafficking… Online safety is an enormous category of the 'new threads' of human trafficking that we have been experiencing. For the past seven years we have been getting more such cases, especially following the pandemic," said Kharbhih.

"We are located in a border area, with countries like China, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Bhutan, and we also have the chicken's neck connection to Nepal. So we have seen that we can be a source, a transit, and a destination," she added .

"Over time traffickers have become smarter and sharper. They are using online social spaces to lure and coerce children. It's manifesting in different ways, and affecting children from every strata of society." According to her, the crime of trafficking has evolved so as to occupy virtual spaces for business.

Diganta Roy, teacher and currently researching criminal contempt at North Eastern Hill University also echoes this opinion, "the modus operandi is moving to cyberspace. For example if there is a job mela, unemployed youth will come to the event organised by the government… These kids who are looking for jobs, they share their email id and phone numbers, which are somehow leaked to the wrong people."

"They convince people to travel with them." In his research of news articles Roy found that the many of children trafficked out of the North East end up in Delhi for sexual exploitaiton, and in Haryana for forced marriages.

Roy, along with fellow researcher Jayanta Boruah published a paper titled "Causes and Concerns of Child Trafficking in North-East India: A Socio-legal Analysis", in the International Journal of Legal Science and Innovation last year.

"We see that the older teenagers are falling prey to cyber trafficking. The younger children, who are under seven years of age, are not so widely falling prey to cyber trafficking. When it comes to underage children, the parents are the bigger victims," said Boruah. Boruah is also a lawyer and Assistant Professor at RKB Law College.

Kharbhih pointed to the lack of employment opportunities and aspirations of young people from the region, "seeking jobs outside is often the case for many young people. But recruiting agencies and their credentials are not checked properly. People with skills, look for employment or greener pastures, but they get duped andtrafficked … The majority of the trafficking cases coming from the North East are due to employment."

She stressed that "checking credentials is a prevention mechanism, and creating employment opportunities will ensure families do have to send young adults outside the region for work."

Digambar Narzary, Chairman of NEDAN Foundation also spoke of this with regard to Assam, where 42 trafficked children were recently rescued from Sikkim and West Bengal. "We met the Chief Minister and asked why the children are being compelled to go outside and engage in domestic labour. Is it because they are the forest dwellers without entitlement rights? If in such areas anganwadi centres are not operational, and schools are not there, children are bound to go out."

"I know if I step into the Chennai Express train that runs from Guwahati, or the Bangalore Express, hundreds of young people are in the train heading out. They don't even know what kind of life awaits them on the other side. Many children do not study beyond Class 10 because the age for free and compulsory education is 14… During the pandemic all the children passed their exams. We have to realise whether we have enough infrastructure for them to come into higher education or the workforce," Narzary told The Citizen.

In 2021, nearly 123 traffickers were arrested in Assam, and less than half of the 279 trafficked children were able to be rescued. Narzary added, "today the youngsters have different aspirations. They get vocational training, and then go elsewhere. In these circumstances, the exploiter is always waiting to take advantage. People here face a lot of other challenges that I think the government has to seriously and strategically address."

Another such challenge was highlighted by Boruah, "the one thing that characterises the North East is isolation. This leads to a lack of awareness. This gives way to a lack of reachability of modern global developments. Most of the time, due to the ignorance of their rights, they fall into the traps of these traffickers." He added that the young people from numerous indigenous tribes are more likely to fall prey to smugglers for this reason.

"Society is unable to adapt to the changes. This has created a gap, which has led to them becoming victims. Moreover, in developed states or metro cities, whenever these kinds of offences take place, they get reported in the mainstream news. But here, issues like floods also don't get that much focus… the majority of the cases remain hidden."

In addition to looking for avenues for employment, Khabhrih and Narzary, both long-time social workers, have both experienced that displacement is a major cause for trafficking.

"Look at the floods that happen every year in this region (Assam)... Displacement has been one of the major situations how children have been taken out to work as domestic help, and sexual exploitation," said Khabhrih. "Conflict displacement becomes an epicentre from where children can be lured for various purposes. We have fought this for almost 20 years. Yet, there are many agents coming and offering education, employment and opportunities for better life. Those agents reach those displaced areas," said Narzary. After the floods, many families have become homeless and crops have been destroyed. "The reality of life is harsh, and those areas become vulnerable for children being trafficked."

The National Commission for Protection of Child Rights in 2016 found that the states of Manipur, Assam, Meghalaya, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh were the source states in the North East, from where children as young as five-year-old were trafficked with the promise of education. The destination states were Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala.

Roy surmised that, "the most important thing that is causing trafficking is financial stress. The children that are taken are mostly from tribal or village areas. They need money and they are illiterate, they don't have much information about all that is happening around them."

Boruah added that there has been a historical disconnect between the locals and the law enforcement in these regions. "The problem is in the relationship between the public and the police. There is a lack of sensitivity and a reluctance on the part of the police, and a lack of knowledge and awareness on the part of the public. There is a fear of police officers among the villagers. Now also, if you go to the village areas in Assam, the police do not do any night patrolling. It is a very bold statement, but practical evidence is there."

"Most people do not come to the police station, even if they do, the process is so complicated for them. If you want to get a driver's licence, everyone knows how to go about it, but if you lose your child, whom to complain to, what to complain? What details to give and what not to give, how to make an FIR? These are not known," he explained.

Khabrih also expounded on the gap in the government data. "The NCRB data is only data of cases being reported. And cases are being reported only when cases are being registered as an FIR. This doesn't really happen so easily in the whole country. Centralised data management is also a situation where there has been a lot of debate, on how do we get a better narrative."

"According to NCRB reports, in 2018 and 2019, Assam was second in terms of child trafficking in India. But that does not mean that it is not happening in other states. I think the reporting mechanism now exists in more places in Assam," stated Narzary.

Speaking to the rampant and invisible nature of this phenomenon, Narzary recalled, "Last year, when the Covid restrictions were there, all the streets were empty because there was a lockdown. But the business of trafficking of girls continued. We brought back children who had been trafficked to Khalpara red light area, in the peak of the lockdown."

According to Narzary, the police were so busy managing the lockdown that such crimes like trafficking were neglected. And with a rise in the demand for labourers in many states, the problem snowballed, with traffickers taking advantage of the migrants' desperate need for work and the states' demand for daily wage labourers.

"Many girl children are trafficked for forced marriages, to places where male to female ratio is poor. I have also seen instances of girls being forced to marry multiple male partners, three to four men will have a common wife, they will procreate and their job is done. During the pandemic, this problem aggravated," Roy told The Citizen. "Dimapur in Nagaland is another route from which children are trafficked into Dubai and other such countries" he added.

Organ trafficking on the rise

Boruah also brought forth another important caveat of child trafficking. "Besides sexual exploitation and forced marriage, the thing that does not get talked about often is organ trafficking. Many children fall into this trap also. And even when their bodies are found disposed of in other places, there is no one to trace them. Police records show that 60 percent of the kidnapping cases were for the purpose of organ trafficking. When organ trafficking is concerned, gender does not matter. So now, children are viewed from that perspective as well and cases of organ trafficking are increasing. It's not that the police are not doing anything. But it is also not that everything is being done."

Kharbhih and Narzary both believe that while the state machineries to combat human and child trafficking are becoming slowly more vigilant, the systems have to be similarly operational in all states across who's border trafficking routes have been established.

In Narzary's experience, "most of the adivasi children of Assam bordering with Arunachal are taken there as domestic labour. When people are willingly allowing their children to go work outside for money, it is still trafficking, but they are not getting reported. So the state-to-state SOP is yet to be perfected." A machinery of eradicating or preventing child trafficking is not active in Arunachal the way that it is in Assam. "Unless the machinery in both the states is similarly operational, it is difficult to make rescues."

"Now systems are in place," he said, speaking of Assam, "there are state nodal officers, and all the 35 districts have an Anti-Human Trafficking Police Unit in place, as opposed to only 14 districts earlier. Earlier networking and synergy building took a long time between the departments. And the departments lacked human and financial resources. But now Assam has resources allocated by the state and by the MHA to combat human trafficking and child trafficking particularly. This has become strong and operational since 2014."

Anti-Human Trafficking Units of Assam have been allocated funds by the state government. "Funds have been allocated to the formation of the AHTUs, followed by training as well. On demand from civil society organisations, the state also allocated resources for victim compensations. This was announced in 2012, but was put into action in 2014," he said "civil society's engagement with the government has become much stronger than earlier. Once the cases are reported, the victims can apply for compensation. The application is scrutinised by the DLSA and sent to the SLSA to be approved. "The networking of the stakeholders is very very important."

Khabhrih makes a point to mention that the widespread nature of the trafficking rackets can only be fought with an equally widespread rescue system. "Human trafficking cannot be dealt by a single organisation. After rescue they need proper rehabilitation and a proper support mechanism. Intervention of over 7-8 years helped them to bring about the closure of the rathole mining, which in turn led to a drop in the number of children being trafficked to and from the region. But now, we see new trends emerging."

She said that working on eradicating human and child trafficking and dealing intimately with these cases for over two decades, has been a process of learning and unlearning for her.

The new Anti-Human Trafficking Bill draft to be presented in Parliament this session states that - a person found guilty of trafficking will be charged with a prison sentence of seven years which may extend to a period of 10 years, and a fine of at least Rs 1 lakh, which may extend to Rs 5 lakh.

Narzary, who has been working on ground with aggrieved individuals and families in villages in the North East for nearly 20 years, said that reintegrating a child who has been trafficked and bringing them back to normal is a five year process at least.

"I run a child care institution and I know how long it takes to heal them. We have a community recovery and reintegration model. Where the children (after being rescued) live in the campus, go through government schooling, because going to school and being able to get back to a friends' circle is really important for their process." He added that the media too needs to play a vital role, "rather than sensationalising these issues, we need to work together and talk about the narrative that there is life after rescue."