On 8 July 2020, the story of human trafficking of minors in Chitrakoot made headlines as investigative journalist Mausami Singh of India Today released a report of the extreme poverty in the region that forced families to send their daughters as young as 12 to middlemen for work and be paid after they had sex with whoever the middleman decided. The stories were heart breaking. There were women talking about how it was impossible to survive without the girls being involved in the flesh trade, and middle aged women did not get jobs. Worse, the children were paid half of what was promised and they could not argue about the money as they have been living by the logic that some money is better than no money. As a result, instead of 400, they are paid 150-200 rupees.
If the story of exploitation, hunger during pandemic and sexual exploitation of underage girls was not shameful enough, the SDM and the police went a step ahead to give a clean chit to the human traffickers and pimps with an astonishing speed. Within 24 hours of the news report, the DM and the MandalAyukt of ChtrakootDham reached the village to make the girls say that they did not face any untoward incident and lied to the journalists as they did not understand the language. There was a press conference to give a clean chit to everyone accused in the news report, in less than 48 hours!!
We watched with horror as the anchor RajdeepSardesai telecast the interview of the survivors. We read the reports of the girls who described the brutal exploitation and helplessness during the pandemic. The struggle for survival came at the cost of human dignity and pain. However, it was the response of the police and the district administration, publicized by the BJP cadres that we found even more horrifying. The clip tweeted by the BJP cadres shows girls being asked a series of questions in a matter of minutes, where their manipulation was evident. The shameless manner of questioning showed that the questioner wanted to establish that even if there was a sexual act, it was consensual. There was clear intimidation in asking the girl, why did you say what you said to the reporter? A scared girl could only blurt out she misunderstood the question and did not comprehend the language of the journalist.
At this point, we would like to raise a few questions to the DM.
- Does the police not know that the victims of sexual harassment/assault are not to be outed during an investigation? Their identity is supposed to be protected and not exposed. The first line of questioning should not have been of the victims of human trafficking.
- The accusations are of sexual exploitation of underage girls, why did the DM not involve any of the women’s network/child labour NGOs or counseling centres during the questioning or intimidation of the victims??
3.When such a massive allegation has been made, why has the DM not set up a team of doctors to examine the girls and provide them with proper medical advice??
- What was the purpose of going to the village to interrogate victims of sexual exploitation with a bunch of police women and some religious leaders??
- What measures has the administration taken to mitigate the suffering of the community so that they do not have to send children to work for survival? Why has the DM not announced any ration or economic relief measures to prove economic preparedness that would prevent the villagers from having to take such extreme steps in desperation?
- Why is the issue of illegal mining not under investigation? When the report clearly showed the illegal mining, why has no action been taken against it??
The entire procedure of conducting an investigation with the sole intention of proving the journalist, the trafficked girls and the villagers to be liars reeks of incompetent investigative agents, and a collusion between the administration with the criminals. What should have been a beginning of a series of investigative and reformative measures to check poverty, exploitation of women and children during the pandemic, healthcare services for the tribal population and other measures, turned out to be a massive cover-up exercise coordinated by the local and national level BJP leaders, heads of maths and the local administration.
We demand a Judicial Enquiry of all the series of illegal activities shown in the investigative report.
An investigation by the Human Rights Commission and the Women’s Commission should also be conducted at the earliest.
Most important, we want the administration to facilitate an independent civil society audit of the situation by women’s movements, child rights movements, tribal rights movements and legal experts.
Deepti Bharti, Gen Secy, National Federation of Indian Women, Delhi Unit
Adv. Poonam Kaushik, Gen Secy, Pragatisheel Mahila Sangathan Delhi
Maya John, Centre for Struggling Women
Kusum Sehgal, Swastik Mahila Samiti
Responses to Justice for Chitrakoot
359 leaders of mass organizations and intellectuals responded to and supported this letter.