Image and article by Sudhir Katiyar
Reshma was only 12-years-old when she was taken away from her village by a local labourer contractor, forced to work long hours in a cotton seed plot and repeatedly raped. “I was going to the fields for morning calls, he followed me, lifted me and carried me away and raped me,” said Reshma, who lives with her family in their village near Phalasiya, Rajasthan. She is a bright girl and after passing class five last year her father Shanti Lal, a farmer, was keen that she continue her schooling and secured her a place at the upper primary school. But whilst he was away, working on a construction site in Udaipur to bolster the family’s income, a local contractor offered Reshma work, just two hours a day, and promised she could still continue her schooling.
Despite being kept in the dark on her wage-rate and being paid nothing in advance (a common practice whilst recruiting), Reshma trusted the contractor and followed him. She was taken to cottonseed plots in Gurajat by the contractor and his mother along with a group of 8-10 girls. Reality did not reflect the perfect picture painted by the contractor: her days began at 4am and she was forced to work tirelessly throughout the day with intervals only for food.
Three months later the rapes began. The labour contractor, forced himself onto Reshma early one morning; she was too scared to scream. “He said he will kill me and throw my body in the well, or sell me away in a different village,” she said. Three days later, he pulled her away from her sleeping place into the night where he raped her again. Reshma was traumatized and alone, she did not know what was happening and was even more vulnerable since none of the workers were from her village. The contractor threatened to sell her off in Gujarat or drown her in a well if she told anyone about the rape. As she could not speak out, for fear that the contractor would kill her, her only option was to run away.
After four days, she finally escaped early one morning, with no money, and hundreds of kilometers away from home, she roamed the countryside for almost 10 days, living outside and begging for food and shelter from the people she met. When he returned home from Upaipur her father was informed of Reshma’s escape, he went to relatives to ask if they knew where she was, but no one could help him. He decided to approach the police, but they did not file a report and told him to simply wait. He organized a search mission on his own, even hiring a taxi driver familiar with the trafficking routes to go to Guajarat, despite his meager income. But this expedition, and a subsequent one on motorbike, was unsuccessful.
Shanti Lal was planning to go on another expedition when his son called him from Palasiya and said he had found Reshma and was bringing her home. She was disheveled and distressed, but at least she was alive. She had met a group of workers from her village who were returning home and they brought her back. “Her hair and clothes were in bad condition”, said her father, “she looked like a mad person.” Reshma did not tell her father about the sexual abuse she had suffered until three days after her return.
The police, when approached again did not file a report but brought both the parties, Reshma’s father and the offender, together to settle the case monetarily. They asked the contractor to pay 50000 and sent both parties home telling them to come back the next day. When Reshma and her father went back the next day, the police said they were busy. Shanti Lal visited the police three or four times after that but each time they said they were busy. Shanti Lal tried to organise a meeting with the village elders but they said there was nothing they could do.
The matter only came to light again six months later when an intern student doing a survey of trafficked children visited the village. An activist from a local trade union, Dakshini Rajasthan Majdoor Union, that has been fighting the practice of trafficking, took the intern to Reshma’s house. Once the matter came to light, they brought Reshma and her father to the Inspector General of Police at Udaipur and he ordered a case to be filed and the trafficker has now been arrested.
Reshma’s case is not an isolated incident, the area in Rajasthan where she is from, which borders Gujarat, is the hub of a flourishing trafficking network that supplies children to the cotton industry. Reshma is considered lucky because she was able to escape and find her family again. An estimated 1/3 of the total cotton-field labor force in northern Gujarat is made solely of child labor (Khandelwal et al., A case Study of Cottonseed Farms in North Gujarat, 2008).
Many of these supply cotton to big companies, including big multinational corporations, and links between farmers and such companies have been identified (Khandelwal et al., A case Study of Cottonseed Farms in North Gujarat, 2008). These children, just like Reshma, work 9-12 hours a day, from early morning to late at night, with bad living conditions, no medical attention or support and pay below minimum wage if they are paid at all.
India’s cotton-industry constitutes the largest incidence of child trafficking within the country: children go in groups unaccompanied by elders; cases of sexual exploitation of young girls by employers, labor contractors, and older male workers is rife; and many children end up in situations like Reshma, having to walk hundreds of kilometres to return home.
Despite 2013 changes in India’s labor laws, cases of human trafficking and child labor, especially in Northern India, are still an everyday reality, as much of the legislation is only sparsely applied. It is especially so in the cotton industry, for which every year thousands of children from the Rajasthan districts of Udaipur, Dungarpur, and Banswara are trafficked, providing cheap and easily available labour.
Names have been changed to protect identities.