By Surendra Phuyal, 24, June 2006, Ekantipur.COM
Orphaned at age three, Nima grew up with her neighbours in the shadows of Mt Makalu.
Today she's 15 years old. And in the shadows of Kanchanjunga, in this predominantly Nepali ethnic hill town in northeast India, she is struggling to grow into a normal woman with dignity. But only after she got trafficked, got exploited and got sexually abused by her "relatives" who shipped her out of eastern Nepal.
That happened about two years ago. Then she was just 13. "My close grandpa brought me to this place via Dharan and …" she narrates as her teachers, seated next to her in her dormitory, encourage her to do so. She was sexually abused en route. At her distant folks' place at the nearby Alubarai village here, more exploitation followed.
Months later, she fell ill. Suffering from rheumatic fever, she arrived at Edith Wilkins' School with one of her friends. Which is where she got a new life. It is here where her life has started changing for the better. Nima is just one among 233 other children — mostly Nepali girls — benefiting at this shelter by the Chowrasta slope.
By all standards, these kids are lucky. But there are many who are still unlucky. They are in the thousands in the impoverished pockets of Nepal and other areas in the Eastern Himalayas such as Sikkim, Darjeeling, Assam, North Bengal and Bhutan, say experts. They are trafficked for child labour — and a life of bondage and slavery in the fast-emerging "sex markets" across India.
From eastern Nepal alone, around 1,500 to 2,000 children — among them teenage girls — are trafficked across the border into this part of India every month, according to a recent study by the Edith Wilkins' Foundation, India, and Maiti Nepal's eastern branches at Ilam and Jhapa.
About 30 kilometres away from the Nepal border, the bustling town of Siliguri serves as the transit point to North East India, mainland India, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal.
In worst cases, says Wilkins, 48, who's spent 24 years in Bengal with the needy, "Children are also traded like animals in the bordering towns [of Siliguri, Kakadbhitta etc]." Generally, they are taken to new places by their close relatives. "It's a very chronic ongoing situation, and it needs to be changed."
Overall, 12,000 Nepali children and women are trafficked to India for commercial sex work, according to the International Labour Organization (ILO). India serves as the source, transit and destination for trafficking of women and children.
There are over 200,000 Nepali girls who are sold into prostitution in different metropolises of India, according to a ten-year-old estimation. That number, activists fear, could be much higher today. As per children trafficked for hazardous work, no data exists.
But does anyone care?
Non-profit organizations like the Wilkins', Maiti Nepal, Concern in the 'chicken neck' of Siliguri and the dozens of others that have mushroomed in the region seem to be doing their bit, occasionally rescuing some and, sometimes, even taking them to shelter homes.
Yet the trend of inter-state and intra-state trade in children and women, fuelled by the region's widespread poverty and illiteracy, is showing no signs of tapering off.
There are others who blame the economics of demand and supply — in the face of conflict situations like the one being witnessed in Nepal; natural disasters; and growing consumerism and "hi-fi lifestyle" as the other related factors. Experts blame "weak law enforcement" and the state and national governments' "inept handling" of the situation for the "exploding ground situation."
The West Bengal and Sikkim governments, and the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council (DGHC), which governs the Darjeeling hills, for instance, spend millions of rupees every year for the welfare of the area's women and children. The Council also gives away monthly IRs 600 to every child as nutrition allowance, and funds some NGOs.
Still, trafficking of children and women from here is an issue the Subash Ghising-led DGHC administration has not been able to properly deal with, says a local journalist, who doesn't want to be named. "Children are exploited and girls are being trafficked from here, but the administration is doing little," he said. "The problem is that rulers here are low on vision and high on corruption." In India, 400 million out of the over one billion people are children below 18 years of age. So in a country where hundreds of thousands of children are believed to have been subjected to different forms of slavery, the Darjeeling people appear to be faring relatively well.
One reason for that is this: The Ghising administration is negotiating with the state government in Kolkata and the centre in Delhi the Other Backward Class and the Sixth Schedule Caste status so as to ensure more "reservations", more "quotas" and more allocations for the hills' tribes; most of them are of Nepali origin.
But fruits of all that bargaining are not trickling down to the poorest strata of the population. This becomes clear from the fact that a good Samaritan like Edith Wilkins has to come to the rescue of Darjeeling's street children. Wilkins School is home to 25 resident and 200 more non-resident "high risk" children mostly from North Bengal, Sikkim and Nepal.
South Asia-wide, while NGOs' transparency records are often under the scanner, some NGO-led drives have yielded encouraging results. Two years ago, activists with a coalition of NGOs called the Global March Against Child Labor rescued nearly two dozen minor girls, mostly Nepali, exploited by a north Indian circus company.
These days, however, very few children are working in circuses, claims Kailash Satyarthi of Bachpan Bachao Andolan, which is part of the Global March. "There's hardly any girl child from Nepal or anywhere in India who's working in an Indian circus today," he says.
But other activists fear, the region's vulnerable children could be ending up in other hazardous professions like camel jockeying and other small-scale industries.
The United Nations run UNDP and UNIFEM may be endlessly talking about "safe migration", but here in Darjeeling and down in Siliguri "high risk children" are on the move as ever. After arriving at New Jalpaiguri Railway Station and the nearby bus and truck stands, "they can be easily approached and lured," says Dolly, a teacher at a nearby school.
The street children don't understand development buzzwords like "safe migration". So until safe migration can be ensured, nobody knows what's in store for them. Nobody knows where they will end up. "Safe migration is not possible unless there's a fair amount of government-to-government dialogue," says Anuradha Koirala, of Kathamndu based Maiti Nepal. "That's doesn't seem to be happening."
In Darjeeling, meanwhile, Nima is growing into a healthy girl, undergoing stitching and beautician training and learning how to read, write and speak, Nepali, Hindi and English. Would she want to return to her village in Makalu someday? She has no answer. She bursts into tears and expresses a quiet 'No'.