Sex trafficking: The big secret trade in ‘black diamonds’

Every hour, three young women are trafficked into sex work in India. And India’s third-largest underhand industry is only getting bigger

Representative image of a sex worker soliciting at a car window. Three of the four young women entering sex work in India every hour are doing so against their will (photo: Getty Images)
Representative image of a sex worker soliciting at a car window. Three of the four young women entering sex work in India every hour are doing so against their will (photo: Getty Images)

Rashme Sehgal

The hired white Innova cruises into town, stopping in Shillong or Imphal or some other city in the Northeast. It disgorges handsome, presentable young men, seemingly flush with money themselves, definitely social media-savvy, who have flown into Guwahati on behalf of attractive and affluent gentlemen in Singapore and Malaysia, seeking a ‘bride’. That’s the promise for the attractive young women here to make the trip to meet these prospective husbands. After all, what’s the harm—they can always come back if they don’t get on, no harm, no foul.

Other young ladies are lured into luxurious apartments in Dubai and Mumbai, with the promise of access to premier jobs in MNCs and 5-star hotels. The sky seems the limit, and hundreds of hopeful young people are waiting in line to grasp such opportunities with both hands—after all, the fairy tale is all too believable in the racially profiled world we inhabit. Who hasn’t gone into a big-city ‘exotic Asian’ restaurant to be greeted and served by efficient young folks from the North-East who supposedly ‘look the part’?

And for the personable young men, the ‘couriers’? They are never seen twice in the same neighbourhood.

Yes, post-Covid—so activists and police officers say—trafficking has undergone a sea change in India. No longer do pimps posing as ‘uncles’ herd young women into second-class train compartments in order to sell them to brothel owners in north India. Shillong-based lawyer Bariphylla Lyttan, case manager for the Impulse Network NGO, says, “Traffickers are [now] very well-connected and have a lot of money. Since most of their interactions with these women are over social media, it is very difficult to track them down. The girls go willingly with them. These agents take different routes each time they come to the North-East. They also seem to be aware about the modus operandi of the NGOs working in this field and outsmart both us and the police. It has become very difficult to find survivors who will speak out against them. It is also difficult to get a figure as to how many girls are being trafficked.”

Impulse Network works closely with New Life Foundation in Manipur, the Sikkim-based Hope and the Bethesda Youth Welfare Centre of Nagaland.

While the Northeast may be attracting the more well-heeled agents, the situation in states such as Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh, which are also witness to rampant trafficking of women, has also changed drastically. Pimps and agents have devised more sophisticated methods here too to outwit the police, with a high degree of success.

An activist with the Jharkhand-based NGO ASHA agreed: “The dalal (pimp) has been replaced by a family member who takes the women in small groups to the southern states, promising them lucrative jobs. North India is no longer considered a premier destination. They are [often] taken to Chennai in Volvo buses, and moved into different towns from there. Most of the time, these girls are not even told the names of the cities to which they have been taken,” the activist said. Doubtless the higher language barrier helps.

Madhya Pradesh also has the dubious honour of ranking high on the trafficking incidence list. Bhopal-based DIG (administration) Ruchi Vardhan Mishra recalls how she and her team of cops conducted a raid in December 2019 on a hotel-cum-bar called, ironically, My Home. It was run by a local goon named Jitu Soni and his son Amit Soni. “We were able to rescue 67 women and girls and 7 minor boys,” says Mishra, “who had been brought there from West Bengal, and I suspect some were from Bangladesh. The women were made to wear revealing clothes and dance before the prospective customers. Soni’s henchmen had videographed these girls and warned them that if any of them tried to run away, they would be exposed before their family members back in the villages.” In the conservative and quite judgemental milieu they come from, this would be tantamount to social suicide.

Sex trafficking: The big secret trade in ‘black diamonds’
Getty Images

In Madhya Pradesh, women are not typically employed in bars per a law that prohibits employment of young persons and women in any dangerous occupation that involves a hazard to life, health or morals. “These girls received no salaries,” says Mishra, “but were given a nominal amount from the tips they received from customers.” Soni was arrested and has been in jail for the last three years. “His infamous hotel was demolished a few months after the raid,” says Mishra.

Mishra has worked extensively to help women and child victims of trafficking. In the course of her work, she has found that in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, the Bedia tribe is actively involved in the trafficking of women and especially young girls. “When I was in Bhopal, I found a striking anomaly in the behaviour of the Bedia men,” the senior police officer recalls. Some of their daughters would be respectably married off, while other ‘daughters’ end up in the sex trade. It turns out the latter were not the biological daughters of their fathers but ‘foundlings’.

The Bedia tribesmen, she says, abduct young girls at 3–4 years of age and bring them up as their own daughters. When these girls become 14–16 years old, they take them to Nagpur and Mumbai, where they are initially made to live with an older female member of their extended family, who would then initiate them into the flesh trade. She is also the one who would ‘manage’ their finances.

“Since most of the of the girls were so young when they were estranged from their families, they had no recollection of their parents,” Mishra says. This could explain why Madhya Pradesh tops the list of missing girls amongst all the Indian states. The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data reveals that a minor girl goes missing every 55 minutes in Madhya Pradesh, with 9,407 girls reported missing in 2021 alone. The NCRB data for 2021 shows another 36,000 women have gone missing in the state too.

Mishra believes many of these girls are being lured away from their families. “Poverty and lack of opportunities make many of them look around for alternatives and they take whatever comes their way without realising that they are walking into a trap,” she says.

Statewise data on human trafficking cases reported (watchdogs, activists and police believe the actual numbers are much higher)
Statewise data on human trafficking cases reported (watchdogs, activists and police believe the actual numbers are much higher)
National Herald

West Bengal also has a large number of minor girls being lured into sex work. Per the NCRB, 8,478 girls went missing in the state in 2021. But Rishi Kant, whose NGO Shakti Vahini has been actively involved in rescuing trafficked girls for over two decades, says, “Sadly, when these girls go missing, the police do not record these cases under Section 370 of IPC as cases of trafficking. They register them under Sections 363 and 366 IPC (missing persons and kidnapping). In 2021, only 15 cases of women being trafficked were registered in West Bengal, whereas the actual figures are suspected to be far higher.”

Kant acknowledges that since much of the operation is now being conducted online, it is very difficult for the police to determine the numbers, or track down the agents and dalals. The modus operandi, he and others in the field say, is similar to that in the Northeast. “Many of these dalals pose as wannabe bridegrooms who want pretty homemakers,” says Kant. “They go from village to village in West Bengal and establish a relationship with these girls, who invariably end up eloping with them. When reality dawns on them, it is too late.”

“We insist, in many cases, that the police upgrade the FIR to Section 370 IPC, to allow us, accompanied by the police, to conduct raids in brothels where these girls have been kept,” he says.

Trafficking has also seen a spurt in Maharashtra. The Mumbai Police released figures that show 5,610 girls and women were reported missing from Mumbai and other parts of the state in the first three months of 2023, per statistics provided by the Maharashtra State Commission for Women.

Vibhuti Patel, who retired as a professor at the Advanced Centre for Women’s Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, believes that the post-Covid period has seen an acceleration of poverty amongst the lower socio-economic groups. “With both parents being forced to work, children living in bastis (slums) are on their own and they are easy targets for the dalals and agents who force them into trafficking; or else they become victims of the organ trade,” says Patel.

The NCRB 2021 data for Gujarat also looks dire: 41,621 women went missing between 2016 and 2020. However, Gujarat DGP (law & order) N.N. Kumar disagrees with the magnitude of these numbers, claiming that around 39,000 of these women had been found and restored to their families. “Many of these were cases of elopement and inter-caste mar- riages,” says Kumar, “where the families did not agree with their daughters’ choice and so they ran away from home.” He vehemently denied that these numbers were indicative of trafficked women.

Jharna Pathak of the Ahmedabad Women’s Action Group does not agree with Kumar’s explanation that these missing women largely represent cases of elopement or of marital discord that prompted wives to leave their marital homes without informing their husbands or in-laws. “Where is the data to show there is no trafficking of women taking place in Gujarat?,” asks Pathak. “We deal with cases of domestic violence and while we do come across cases of elopement, primarily because the caste system remains so entrenched in our society, these numbers are not as high as are being claimed by the police. In south Gujarat, bonded labour also continues to be prevalent and trafficking of girls from these communities is hardly uncommon.”

Ranjana Kumari, who heads the Centre for Social Research in New Delhi, also believes there is a deliberate effort by police to underplay the whole issue of trafficking of women. “Today, there is no data available on the number of women and minors being trafficked,” she says. “The cops are deliberately misleading the public. I have spent several decades as a social activist, and my own belief is that a large number of missing women are actually being trafficked.’

She says this is true across all states of the country, in fact. In Punjab, activists point out that village women from the weaker sections are being lured to work in the Gulf countries as domestic workers and caretakers. But once they reach these countries, they find themselves being held captive and forced into sex work.

Placement agencies in Delhi and Mumbai are also luring away women from tribal communities in Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand, promoting them as ‘black diamond’ beauties. Many of these girls are taken to beauty parlours in Punjabi Bagh, Rajouri Garden and Shakurpur, where they are smartened up before being sent to work in 5-star hotels or to ‘serve’ rich tycoons. A senior Delhi-based police official pointed out that there are over 500 such ‘placement agencies’ in Delhi alone.

Activists believe the number of women and minors being trafficked runs into hundreds of thousands. This is corroborated by several NGOs. Even UN bodies, including the International Labour Organization (ILO) concluded in a 2021 report that 8 million people are trapped in human trafficking in India, and that half of these are children who are forced into the sex trade. Even the Lok Sabha Secretariat in its reference notes has identified trafficking for sex as being the third-largest money spinner in India after arms and drugs.

According to a Reuters study from 2019, there were an estimated 20 million commercial sex workers in India, of whom 16 million women and girls were victims of sex trafficking. Legal Services in India estimates that every hour, four girls in India enter sex work, of which three are doing so against their own will.

With technology reshaping sex trafficking and making it more difficult to track, agencies now find it more difficult to locate the operators. The kingpins behind this trade are seldom caught. Human trafficking is a billion-dollar business and it has become more entrenched in India during the last decade, activists believe.

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