Giving Children a Fair Chance

 

This the link to our  (Bharti Ali and me) TED talk on giving children a fair chance. ….thank you Susmit Bose for the song that made it all so special

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Acceptance speech for the Juvenile Justice Across Borders Award given by IJJO

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Some justice at last for Baby N-Finally!

Today the man who raped baby N was convicted. He was sentenced to life imprisonment based on the nature of the crime he committed and the gravity of the injuries that baby N had sustained.

On the 29th of October, baby N will be admitted into hospital for the fourth operation.

A  year and a half ago 3 year old N and her parents arrived at our office with her parents with a plastic bag hanging from the side of her stomach to collect her urine and faeces as a result of her first of a series of colostomy operations. She had been brought to us by members of YP Foundation.

That was the beginning. Over the last year as we in HAQ walked with baby N and her mother on their journey to get justice, there were several times when we felt lost and defeated. N’s story is one that many child victims and their families go through every day. But on Monday 13 October 2014, baby N’s story became a story of hope.

N was  playing outside her home when she was picked up by a man in October 2012 and when she was  found in the hedges, although she was alive, she had  grievous injuries on her body andin her private body part. Since her vagina and rectum had been torn as were her insides by the violence had endured, she had to undergo colostomy procedure, a common surgery in individuals with trauma to their lower intestines.

Child victims of sexual assault are entitled to victim compensation from the District Legal Services Authority. But the compensation can be received only into a bank account. Since N’s  family lived in an “illegal jhuggi”, they had no proof of residence, which meant a bank account could not be opened, getting victim compensation was almost impossible.  They needed the money urgently.

Baby N had to wear a plastic bag which had to be changed 5-7 times a day. Sometimes even more. Each bag cost Rs. 20—which means the family had to have at least Rs. 200 a day for the plastic bags and medicines. The parents are daily wage labourers and because baby N needed care and attention the mother could not go to work. The father works only intermittently and is recovering from severe mental illness.

The burden of managing the family, as well as the judicial process is on N’s mother, who is barely 27 years old, and a mother or three children.

So while HAQ supported N and her family to meet the expenses of the first operation, we also had to support her in her difficult journey of preparing “legal identity proof” that finally enabled her to receive the compensation.

The family was in complete trauma, and indeed continues to be so. The extended family makes snide comments and blames the child—a three year old and her mother for what has happened. N’s maternal grandmother scolds her mother for having left the village and come to Delhi—a choice she made because of her husband’s mental illness. Receiving the compensation made it worse. The relatives, who were no help in any case, now began to harass them for money and even began to intimidate them to leave their jhuggi.

N who was a very reticent and quiet child, slowly began to open up and gain confidence. Despite her young age, the time that had elapsed since the incident, the unfamiliar surroundings of the court, in April 2013, she gave a spoke very clearly and answered all the questions asked of her. She was even able to recognise the accused. Prior to this on 26.11.2012, 3 year old N recorded her 164 statement before a Magistrate while she was not just in tremendous pain from her injuries but also undergoing complex and painful corrective surgeries for perineal tear of her vagina, perineal body and rectum. She was very scared but was able to identify the accused.

Moreover, there was clinching medical evidence in the form of DNA tests of samples establishing the perpetrator Surjeet’s identity and connection with the commission of the offence. The accused had been apprehended by the public while attempting to lure away another minor girl of an even younger age than N in the same neighbourhood. The accused had also admitted to have committed the rape of a minor girl 10-15 days ago .

The order of the sessions judge on 04.2.2014 acquitting the accused due to lack of evidence therefore came as a shock to all of us.  What the judge had to say took us all aback (the bold is the authors:

“No doubt the prosecutrix identified the accused in the dock during the course of her testimony but it is to be noted that her testimony was recorded after about six months of the date of incident. She had been produced before the Ld. Magistrate on 26.11.2012 for recording of her statement u/s.164 Cr.PC. The record of proceedings of the Ld. Magistrate (Ex.PW20/A) shows that the mother of the prosecutrix had accompanied the prosecutrix to the chamber of Ld. Magistrate and the Ld. Magistrate had tried to make her comfortable but even then the prosecutrix could not say anything about the incident of rape or the identity of the assailant. This had happened just after about one month & 20 days of the incident and during all this period, she was with her parents and hence no occasion for her to be under any fear. Even otherwise, there is nothing on record that the assailant has scolded or threatened or beaten her either before the incident or after it. This gives rise to a doubt that she may have been tutored how to depose in the court. How could she describe the incident in court and identify the accused when she could not say anything before the Ld. Magistrate.”

Not only did the Sessions Judge suggest that the victim had been tutored, despite N’s blood sample on the accused’s underwear, he said that that the evidence had been implanted on the accused. He goes further to say that a witness too was planted.

The loss of the case, combined with the aggression that the family was facing from relatives, the medical condition of N and the constant attention that was required was too much for the family. In desperation unknown to the HAQ team, N’s mother placed N in what she thought was a boarding school but was actually an orphanage. She even moved closer to the location of the orphanage so that she may be able to see her child as often as was allowed by the institution. Needless to say the mother was heartbroken.

It was providential that at a meeting called by I- Probono, we met with  Swathi Sukumar who heads the organization in India and we got them on board to help baby N. With the support of I Probono an appeal was filed in the High Court. On 13 October 2014, the Delhi High Court not only overturned the verdict of a fast-track court, which had acquitted the accused S, but also  pulled up the trial court for the manner in which the victim was examined.

The High Court observed –

“One cannot gloss over the fact that ‘N’ was brutally raped… Obviously ‘N’ had been lured to a secluded spot, hidden from public gaze, where she was raped. The focus of the trial was not on how ‘N’ was enticed to the secluded spot. ‘N’ was not an adult, and therefore, accountable for her conduct of how she reached a secluded spot”.

The court also expressed surprise at the questions put to the child during the recording of the initial statement under Section 164 CrPC by the magistrate.

Actually the recording by the Magistrate of N’s statement reflects complete insensitivity. N was three years old and traumatised.  She had never been to a school.

The magistrate asked her her age, whether she went to school. What is more she asked a three year old the difference between truth and lie and has recoded this-

“Prosecutrix is unable to tell the meaning of the word „truth nor is she able to distinguish between truth and lie”.

The magistrate had concluded that the child was not competent to make a statement.

Reacting to this the High Court said –

“The Magistrate ought to have first ascertained whether ‘N’ studied in a school before having questioned her i.e. ‘N’ about the school in which she is studying. The questions regarding the school put to ‘N’ by the Magistrate completely threw ‘N’ off-balance. What surprises us is that the learned magistrate overlooked the fact that ‘N’, who was less than three years of age, would not be studying in any school.

Thereafter the Magistrate threw a googly at ‘N’ by asking her whether she understands the meaning of word “truth and what is the difference between truth and lie. How could a two and half year old child explain the meaning of word “truth and state difference between truth and lie. It is very difficult, even for adults, to respond to abstract questions asking them to explain the conceptual difference between truth and lie. What to talk of a two and half year old child.

The High Court said, said that the magistrate took a “casual and cavalier” approach towards the victim. Citing various studies done regarding children’s understanding and communication, the High Court said that it takes children longer to process words, so it is essential to give them time to think and respond to the questions.
Based on the arguments presented and the evidence before it the High Court held Surjeet guilty and decided to hear arguments on his sentence on October 27.

Further, noting N’s medical condition, the High Court, in its order, also directed the health secretary, Delhi government, “to ensure that Baby ‘N’ receives the best possible medical treatment, and if necessary at a reputed private hospital for which the expenses shall be borne by the state”.

N’s case ended in justice from the High Court. This is a big win. But the struggles of daily life continue, made harder by the assault and rape she faced.  As if the medical condition as a result of her assault was not enough, Baby N while playing with her siblings fell into a pot of hot water and was burnt badly. She is recovering slowly.  But it is a long haul for N and her family, and also for us who are trying to support them.

At the same time Baby N’s story is yet another example of the nature of trauma that victims and their families have to endure in their search for justice. Not only is the process slow and tedious, it is also painful and traumatic. The system of investigation and judicial process as it unfolds, expects the child to recollect and repeat the sequence of events several times, leading to re-victimisation. Little surprise therefore that parents and child victims choose to keep quiet.

What makes it worse is what the victims and their families endure in their daily life. Many child survivors and their families are asked by landlords to vacate the house. Instead of cooperating with children and helping them to cope with the trauma and return to ‘normal’, children are subtly pushed out of school. Changing schools is even harder. Traumatised by the abuse, most survivors of CSA fall behind in academics, making admission to another school difficult unless the principal is apprised of the circumstances and admission sought on sympathetic grounds, hoping he/she will respect confidentiality.

Making laws is not enough. It is about how these laws are interpreted and implemented that determines justice.

For now, Baby N has got some justice. But there is a long road ahead for baby N before she is totally healed physically and mentally.

[1] Enakshi Ganguly Thukral is the Co-Director of HAQ: Centre for Child Rights

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The Media’s Kangaroo Courts (First posted on Facebook)

I have briefly met Shoma Chaudhury once. She is not my friend. I have never met Khurshid Anwar or Tarun Tejpal. So certainly they are not my friends. And I am in no way related to the young boy, who the media decided was the beast, the monster and the worst perpetrator in the December 16, 2012 rape. 

The protection of women is a priority that cannot be debated – whether it is the 16 December rape victim, a law intern, a journalist, victims in Muzzafarnagar, women like Soni Sori – or the minor rape victims that I have personally dealt with over my years of work. They must get justice. However as I read a piece by Seema Mustafa on the role of the media and the death of Khurshid Anwar, it set me thinking and I felt compelled to make a few observations.

I am not commenting on what Khurshid Anwar or Tarun Tejpal may or may not have done. That is for the judicial process to decide, on fact based trials. It is the role of the media and the public hysteria that it manages to generate, where there is a trial and a conviction in the street, and in every living room, today, that deeply worries me.

Seema Mustafa’s article has raised some important points regarding the role of the media and it took me back a few weeks to the pillorying that Shoma Chaudhury received from the media. She was accused of collusion, of hiding facts and indicted for not having filed a police complaint immediately, by journalists, activists and even male politicians who were suddenly experts on sexual harassment and women’s rights.

Of course there were gaps. Tehelka did not have a Committee to deal with Sexual Harassment in the Work Place- but then how many media houses, corporates or even NGOs have one? Even the Supreme Court of India did not have one till recently! When Tehelka and Shoma acknowledged this gap and announced the setting up of an inquiry committee and feminist and activist, Urvashi Butalia, with impeccable credentials, agreed to be on this committee, the media produced photographs of her on some panel with Tarun Tejpal, to establish they were friends and hence unfit to be on the panel. Most of us are often on panels, meetings and even social gatherings with diverse people – are they all our friends? And does this make us all unfit to be on panels of inquiry?

Why Shoma did not go to the police and file a complaint as soon as soon as the journalist approached her- is the question that has been repeatedly raised. Shoma has stated that her immediate response was to what the girl had requested, and going to the police is a process that the woman herself needed to be ready to go through, which was not immediately indicated. Is that so wrong? After all it appears that the in the case of alleged sexual assault by Khurshid Anwar, the choice was left to the girl for close to 3 months, as to when she would want to move the law by the well known women activists she had approached, some of whom were on the board of the organisation she worked in. Should all these women also be accused of collusion and silence, for not having promptly informed the police? All of us who work with victims of sexual assault find that the person concerned has to be mentally prepared to plunge into the criminal and legal battle that requires time, and often further pain. So why has Shoma been ‘hanged’ for thinking the same? At best we can say Shoma could have handled the situation better, with more procedure in place. But does that make her a co-accused and pushed out of every public space? 

Although in a much smaller measure I do know what it is to be in the eye of the media storm. Following the December 16 rape last year, the boy now 18 was tried and condemned on 24×7 media channels and print alike. He was declared the worst perpetrator and the beast. Based this one incident, the cry was for changing the law on juvenile justice. No one bothered to read the 357 page charge sheet. When the Police finally put out a 2 line statement that was carried only by two newspapers stating they retracted the statement that he was the worst perpetrator, no one else mentioned it. That was not the sexy by line. In the mean time the damage has been done. Respected Professor of Law, Dr. B.B Pande has written in an article that he has heard the concerned Magistrate admit that she succumbed to public pressure in her final order despite lack of evidence and also concerns about the boys safety in face of such public outrage. The boy lives in solitary confinement. Reporters who have met him say he swings between anxiety, fear and depression.

This boy is not my child, my friend or relative. But I do believe that he too deserved a fair trial. Besides, one incident cannot lead to the entire juvenile justice system being changed. That is when our society is determined by the one small window on the TV news screen. There we were stuck in a corner, with every other window closed and the anchors pushing us against the wall. It has been decided that we, me and others like me, support rapists and not the victim; that after our years of work with children we are not in touch with the reality of how children mature these days etc etc. Apart from other facts, they did not even try to get our names right. My colleague Bharti Ali became Bharti HAQ. The organisation HAQ: Centre for Child Rights became HAQ Foundation! My name of course is often too difficult to even pronounce! We were simply those persons that were put up on the screen so that the others could vent. For having another voice, we unequivocally represented the untold violence by all those horrible, monstrous boys that the system lets off.

In the public outrage that followed it has become impossible to go for a simple dinner party without someone coming up and saying—“so you think that boy who is the worst perpetrator should not be punished?” or “how can you be supporting a rapist?” ….We have even got mails saying –“hope you are raped or hope your child is raped because that is when you will understand the plight of the victim”. The window on the TV screen does not give enough time to mention that we work with victims of abuse too, most often very small children, and see their plight every day!

Thank god I am not as high profile or well known as Shoma. So I still have my job and my privacy and I don’t have politicians smearing my name plate. Luckily my children are old enough to be able to deal with it when they are told their mother supports rapists and delinquents. But Khurshid Anwar did not have the resilience to tide the storm. I do hope Shoma Choudhury and all those others that the media targets have it.

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“Aamra jara Rituparno (We who are Rituparno)”

22nd September 2013. I spent the afternoon watching Rituparno Ghose’s films Titli and Chitrangada. Beautiful, sensitive and brave.

This took me back to my last visit to Kolkata a few months ago, when I found my father sitting glued to the television, watching the live telecast of Rituparno Ghose’s Sharan Shabha (memorial meeting). I decided to sit and watch it with him. The memorial was attended by the who’s who of Calcutta, rather the whole of West Bengal, and included members of the Bangla film industry, politicians, academics, artistes, indeed anyone who mattered. And that included the Chief Minister, who sat through the whole programme.

Several people came up to reminisce about the talented filmmaker, and spoke about his untimely death and the legacy he has left behind. Not having ever lived in West Bengal, and not being familiar with them, I depended on my father to identify them for me.

A gentleman with striking white hair was one of them. He was accompanied by a young man in ethnic clothes and kohl-lined eyes. The elderly gentleman was introduced as Chapal Bhaduri, a well known stage actor particularly famous for his enactments of female roles in Bengali theatre. He had been the subject of a film by Rituparno, and he recounted his association with the director during the making of the film.

It was now the young man’s turn to speak. Rituparna Ghose had fought tirelessly for the cause of men like him, he began. And added, “I hope that aamra jara Rituparno (we who are Rituparno), will now find greater acceptance in society…”. Meanwhile, on the screen behind him, flashed pictures of Rituparno Ghose, adorned with full make-up and jewellery, smiling down at the audience.  Watching the young man pay his tribute were thousands, perhaps millions of Bengalis across the world. Only a relative handful was present there. The majority, like my 87 year-old father and I, sat glued to their television sets.

After the programme ended  my parents and I discussed Rituparno. They knew a lot more about him and his than I did. But what surprised me was that for the first time I was able to discuss homosexuality with my parents. It seemed that  Rituparno had been able to do what neither me nor my sister, both human rights activists, who make it our ‘job’  to persuade the world, had not been able to do in all these years. It appeared they had finally accepted homosexuality. That they  thought it was ‘Ok’ to be gay because of Rituparno, whom they admired  greatly was gay and had the courage not to hide it. The life of Rituparno, the brilliant director and artist, had finally persuaded them to regard  being gay is “normal” .

Even as I was trying to absorb this change in my parents, it suddenly  occurred to me that what was happening in my parents’ home was perhaps true of many more conservative middle-class Bengali homes. Is this why the young man had said “aamra jara Rituparno”? Had he realized that, in his death, the great filmmaker had pushed his audiences to recognize and accept homosexuality like they had never before?

Perhaps this was the first time that LGBT rights had been placed before such an eclectic ‘bhadralok’ audience, without being frowned upon. This was no gay parade, yet it had an equal, if not greater, impact, possibly as much as the Delhi High Court’s order decriminalising adult homosexual relationships.

Surely when we recount Rituparno Ghose’s legacy, this, besides all his films, especially those dealing with homosexuality, will rank high as another enduring part of it.

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Of Rajesh Khanna, Amar Prem, the Hague and Boubazar… My Travels through the Red Light

Amar Prem was the Hindi remake of Nishipadma, a film that highlighted the lives of the prostitutes of Calcutta (Kolkata). Superstar Rajesh Khanna, lead actor of Amar Prem, died on 18 July 2012. Providentially I had begun writing this piece that very day.

 Boubazar, Sonagachi, Kalighat – for long just names that reminded me of the two films, one in Bangla, the other its Hindi version. But all I could recall was their tapering lanes, and hand-pulled rickshaws depositing ‘babus’ at the bottom of a narrow staircase leading up to a room from where music oozed.

And then, in 1983, my mother decided it was time I saw some real life.

I was doing my Masters in Sociology, and was home for my summer break. Ma took me by surprise. “Wear a sari and come with me”. I remember vividly every moment, every colour of that day, including the white and orange sari I wore.

As we reached Kalighat, she said, “What you study in your course is theory. This is for real. Look around you… look at the women. Just watch their faces and you’ll understand their lives.”

Kalighat is home to the famous Kali temple. It is also a bustling market and the site of one of the largest red light areas of  Kolkata, milling with women – old and young in search of ‘clients’, and men – young, old, poor and rich, looking for a woman to make them ‘happy’. That hour, my life underwent a change. It took me many years though to realize how little changes in the lives of these women.

I had seen girls and women earlier too – garish nylon saris, hair tied in ribbons, dazzling brass jewellery – standing on the over-bridge, as I drove past in a taxi or bus. I would eye them with curiosity, and wonder briefly about their lives… but nothing more.

That day when Ma said, “Just watch their faces…”, I did, and I saw pain, exhaustion and defeat on them. Many of them were older, dressed in traditional red-bordered Bengali saris, complete with vermillion in the hair and red and white bangles on their wrists. Others were younger, not yet ready to give up. As Ma had said, there was a story in each face and pair of eyes, even in those that looked expressionless. I could not but stare. Like Amar Prem, it could have been one of deceit and trafficking, or of desperate poverty and violence that had driven them here… something I understood only after I started working.

The women along the road were calling out in low voices, stating their rates. “One rupee? Two rupees?” Even in 1983 this seemed so little. When a deal was struck, they disappeared with their “client” into one of many tiny rooms along the street, often with only a jute curtain instead of a door. Many of the men still carried their bags or tiffin boxes, having detoured on their way back from work. It didn’t take them long to go in and come out, and then nonchalantly walk away.

Since that day I have made it a point to visit “red light” areas, both in India and across the world. Each of them invariably reveals the soul of the city and its society. But that evening in Kalighat has stayed with me.

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The Hague in the Netherlands, seat of the International Court of Justice, also has a small lane lit with red and pink lights, where women, young and old, display themselves like mannequins in large glass windows. The lane is distinctive in its own way, though unlike Amsterdam where the Red Light District is a hugely popular tourist haunt.

 As I walked down the lane, my eyes were arrested by a window where a middle-aged woman stood in a black lace top, her curly hair dyed jet black, lips coloured red, and eyes heavily kohled. Compared to the svelte, bikini-clad women in other windows, this one was an ageing aunt, complete with bulges and love handles. She looked tired and bored. Who knows how long she had stood there – hour after hour, day after day!  What must it mean to have to exhibit yourself at an age when most people dream of retiring? I sauntered along, not realizing that I was staring at her, imagining her story. She saw me, and suddenly came alive. With her hand, she signalled me to move on. Go Away… I still wonder why. There were so many others in that lane that evening. Then, why just me?

Perhaps she had read the curiosity and empathy on my face. As I gaped at her, I couldn’t but remember the older women of Kalighat.

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More recently, while in Kolkata, I visited Boubazar with a friend who runs a programme with the children of sex workers. Wonder if it got its name because it was a market where bous, Bangla for ‘wives’, were bought and sold?  Or was the word bou meant to assuage men’s guilt at leaving their legit wives home and coming here?

We reached in the early afternoon, when “business” was yet to start. My friend knew almost everyone along the lane, and stopped every so often to greet someone, have a quick chat and introduce me. We entered one of the narrow doorways that lined the street, and climbed upstairs to a room. Inside, a woman in her late thirties, perhaps early forties, stood in a blouse and petticoat, getting dressed for the evening.

Seeing us, a beautiful young girl of about ten came running in. She lived next door.

We were seated on a large queen-size bed that almost filled the room, each of its legs raised with a couple of bricks. In the room was also a shelf covered in plastic zipped down the front, a stove and a few utensils scattered on the floor.

The child came and stood beside me. With a shy smile, she asked my colleague, “Who is she?”

“My friend from Delhi. She has come to meet you”.

“Oh!”

“Are you going to school?” inquired my friend. “Have you been coming to the centre?” Her centre for these children ran during the time their mothers entertained clients.

“Yes, sometimes, when Ma can spare me… I have a lot of work to do. Ma doesn’t keep well.”

Meanwhile, the woman in the blouse and petticoat continued doing up her face, peering into a small mirror that hung on the wall.

The young girl watched her with rapt attention. Suddenly she turned to us and said, “You know, mashi (aunt) dresses so well. She looks so nice, and yet she doesn’t get even one Babu these days. That’s sad, no!”

At that moment the truth of the ten-year-old’s life struck me. In it there was no space for morality or judgement. If her mother or aunt did not get a Babu, there would be no food on their plates. This was so starkly different from the reality of my own children, or of many others just across the road from Boubazar, where parents would not allow their children to even “see” her reality.

It was time for the woman to go, to “stand at the gate” and solicit clients. So we took leave. Now the lanes were buzzing with activity. Women, some well past their prime, others much younger and dressed in modern western clothes, were waiting. We made our way through the crowd.

But all I could think of was the little girl.

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Life on a River Island

“We are going to the chaur villages”, said my colleague, Baitali.

“Where ?” I asked.

“On the river Padma”.

We were in West Bengal, in district Murshidabad, on our way to the homes of young trafficked women that Baitali and her organisation Jabala had rescued, and were presently working with. Today we would visit a girl they had succeeded in sending back to her family.

Chaurs are sandy river islands that are formed when rivers change course. I had grown up hearing about them, especially those in the Brahmaputra, and how people lived on them till they got flooded out when the mighty, untameable river changed its mind and course yet again. But like most of us in the rest of India, I had known nothing about the chaurs in the Padma.

On the boat with us were women and children—each woman had an election identity card tucked at the waist, in the folds of her sari, or hanging by a thread round her neck. This was to prove to the Border Security Force (BSF) jawans that she and her children were ‘authentic’ Indians, even though they lived on no-man’s land, in the middle of the river that dividedIndia andBangladesh.

They carried huge sacks of rice and sugar or kerosene cans on their heads. Little children accompanied their mothers with big sacks…some even bigger than themselves, their spindly legs bent under the weight.

On the boat with us was also a jawan with his walkie-talkie, saying “Hello, hello xxxxx (blah blah blah). Over” every few minutes. He looked at the two of us… the unlikely passengers on the boat, and asked if we were going to immunise the children. He spoke with a strong accent and was completely taken aback when we asked him if he was from Tamil Nadu. “How can you make out?” “By your accent, thambi (brother in Tamil)…” And now we were friends. The locals could barely distinguish district borders; another state was much too far away for them even to fathom. Anyway even for the few who are more aware, all people south of the Vindhyas are Maadrasis!

The boatman pushed the boat and began rowing.

“Didi, this is where our village was…where we had a house,” said a woman on the boat, pointing to somewhere in the middle of the river.

“Here?”

“Yes. This was land before the Padma changed its course and took away the village… and now we live on the chaur.”

There is constant bhangon (breaking of the banks) because of the Padma. Entire villages get washed away, leaving people homeless, and every year or so hundreds of families get displaced.

This is when the young children become vulnerable to trafficking, Baitali explained. That is why it is so important to work with such families – to empower them financially and ensure that their children are safe and not trafficked. Children have had to be rescued from as far as Delhi, Mumbai and Pune. Young boys are almost always sold into labour, while the girls are sold into labour and prostitution. Desperate families are duped into believing that a better life awaits them away from the chaur.

 “What next? What will you do? Where will you go?”

“We’ll see when the river changes course again…Until then we have to walk every week, all the way back to where we boarded the boat to get our rations and kerosene.”

“Schools?”

“Oh, no schools. Most of the children don’t go to school. They used to, before the bhangon….now it is too far and the few who still go, have to walk and take the boat, and then walk more to the school in the block. Takes hours…”

“Health centre?”

She laughed. “Didi, which doctor will come so far? I doubt if the government even remembers we exist”

“But the jawan asked us if we were going for immunisation?”

“Oh,  yes…there are health camps or polio camps sometimes… very rarely… but for any medical help we have to walk back and take the boat to the mainland.”

Soon we reached the sandy banks of the chaur. The boat was swinging to the swift current of an overflowing Padma river. The first to get off was the jawan, shouting into his walkie-talkie. He was a man on a mission.

We stepped on to burning sand… the July mid-afternoon sun was beating down upon us and the heat from the hot sand was rising through our footwear, burning our feet. We began our endless walk on the sand. Oblivious of the heat, the women and the children carrying the big sacks started walking fast, on their bare feet. They were carrying their weekly rations for which they had to go to the block headquarters. They had to carry their identification, and record what they were carrying at the BSF post on the river front. Otherwise they would be arrested for smuggling rice, sugar or kerosene into Bangladesh.

After what seemed hours, but must have been barely forty-five minutes, we reached a habitation. Small shacks had been built on the chaur, and the land was being cultivated.  Here they lived, devoid of the most basic facilities — no electricity, and of course no schools or healthcare either.

There was a health camp on at the chaur settlement that day and, under an inadequate tent, a couple of doctors were conducting check-ups. The village was almost empty, as everyone was vying for the doctors’ attention. It was seldom that a doctor visited these parts.

We met the young girl who had been trafficked and who was among the lucky few to have been rescued. She now lived with her family, and was planning to get back to some kind of skill training and education. A happy ending in life on this whimsical,  unpredictable chaur.

We walked across to the other end of the chaur. Just across the water was Bangladesh. In fact the market on the Bangladesh side was closer than the one on the Indian bank. People from the other side “illegally” swam across the river, to the chaur and back. That is why there was constant presence of the BSF.

 Indeed, apart from the election identity cards and ration cards, there was little to distinguish one people from the other. They spoke the same dialect, ate the same food and looked the same. Only an indistinguishable international border, somewhere in the middle of the river, divided them. But to be legal they had to walk all the way across the hot sands of the chaur to access even the most basic needs. Going across the river to the nearest town in Bangladesh meant inviting arrest.

 We dragged ourselves back across the sand bank, heads covered from the late afternoon sun now somewhat less angry, feet burning on the sand still singed from the sun having beaten down all day.

There was our friend, thambi. Sounding agitated, he was speaking loudly and quickly into his walkie-talkie. A consignment of moongphali (peanuts) was landing. He needed forces.

Somehow it did not make sense. Smuggling to us has always been about gold, silver, narcotics… and human beings. That’s what we have read and know. That’s where the big bucks are. Smugglers are rich and powerful people – members of powerful syndicates. But how many actually get caught?

On the other hand here were these people, living on no-man’s land in the middle of a river, unknown to most of India, with nothing but a piece of sandy land to live off, fearing losing their children to traffickers, yet under threat of being arrested for smuggling the most basic necessities – sugar, rice kerosene… And PEANUTS!!!

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