A malnourished boy, in shabby clothes, stood trembling in fear at the Chennai Central Railway station. Unaware of the surroundings and people, he sat in silence at the railway station for hours. Only when the Railway Protection Force (RPF) employees initiated a conversation, did he open up about his risky escape from a confectionery unit in Karnataka. The 17-year-old boy, a resident of Virudhunagar district in Tamil Nadu, was coaxed into work by a middle man, when he was barely 13.
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The promise of a decent job and good salary soon turned sour, as the boy was forced to work for over 16 hours a day. “He was not allowed to talk to his father. Neither was he paid enough, as the family had taken an advance from the owner,” says M Devasitham, associate director, strategic development, International Justice Mission.
The boy was lucky to be able to escape from the confectionery unit and travelled without a ticket to Chennai Central. “He looked frail and desperate. He seemed frightened, a hint that led us to approach and eventually help him,” said an RPF official, adding that the boy is now reunited with the family.
A case was filed against the owner of the confectionery unit, under the provisions of bonded labour system abolition act, 1976.
Railways ease cross border trafficking
This is not a lone example, as Chennai Central and Egmore railway stations, being major hubs for human trafficking in South India, witness hundreds of such cases in a year.
In the past one and half year (2017-2018 till date), Childline Foundation in Chennai has rescued 1269 children in Chennai Central (847) and Egmore (422) railway stations. Among them, almost 20 percent of the children have been rescued with the help of the Government Railway Police (GRP).
“Train stations are used by traffickers to lure both adults and children away from their homes with the promise of good jobs, and then push them into sex trafficking, domestic labour, or bonded labour. The railways have also been used by victims of trafficking who have escaped and are trying to make their way home,” says Dr. Annie Vijaya, Superintendent of Police, Railways.
A good number of victims were rescued from the trains commencing from North India including Howrah Express and Bhubaneswar express, a Railway Protection Force (RPF) inspector said.
A step towards prevention
The role played by brokers or middlemen needs to be understood, as a first step towards prevention. Middlemen target families that are economically vulnerable and usually convince them with promise of employment. Promising a decent job and lifestyle, they collect all original proofs of identity before taking them to the place of work. Children are the easiest and primary targets. It is a strategy to give handsome money as advance and then make them toil for long hours, without food and salary.
Having studied the chain of events in human trafficking, experts say it is important to nip them at the root – at railway stations or bus stops. In order to sensitise the Government Railway Police on identifying the victims of human trafficking and bonded labour, Childline Foundation and International Justice Mission conducted a workshop on April 19, in which they also discussed about the various laws to deal with the issue: IPC 370 of Human Trafficking, Prevention of Immoral Trafficking Act, Inter State Migrant Act, The Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act 1976 and The Child Labour act.
In the workshop, it was unanimously decided to set up a help desk at Chennai Central railway station, manned by personnel from RPF, GRP, NGOs and social work institutions.
“The pilot project is in the preparatory stage and we are expecting it on board within three months. A four-member desk would be set up to identify the victims and provide support, which includes reporting to the Child Welfare Committee and helping in reunion with the family,” says Annie Vijaya. ““Citizens are often oblivious of what to do, or whom to report to, even after spotting vulnerable individuals at the railway stations. The helpline is aimed at bridging this gap; police officials at the desk would file the case immediately and provide support and guidance to the victims,” she added.
Social work institutions and NGOs would play a key role in identifying the victims, initiating a sensitive conversation and providing support and rehabilitation.
What can you do?
*If you spot a person with bruises or injuries, or looking lost, you could softly converse with him/her; ask if they need help. Most of them look vulnerable and famished.
*Victims of trafficking mostly travel as a group, taking commands from a single person. They would not have their identification documents with them.
*Take the help of the GRP officials if the language is a barrier or if they are unwilling to talk.
*Do not probe for more information, after they tell you about their situation. It is important to maintain sensitivity.
*Reporting the case in itself would be of immense help. If there is a special help desk at the station (as proposed) or in the premises, you can report the case there. Alternatively, you can call up various helplines, some of the more important ones being:
Child helpline – 1098
Railway Protection Force – 04425353999
Anti Trafficking Unit – 9884326993
Women helpline – 1091
Police – 100
Ambulance – 108