For almost two months, the nation of India was gripped by the fight for survival of two year-old Falak who had been horrendously battered and abused. Falak was in the spotlight of the media from the moment that a 14 year-old, claiming to be the baby’s mother, brought her into the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) in Delhi on 18 January. Covered in human bite marks, bruises and burns, Falak underwent several operations. She was on a ventilator for much of the time, but doctors eventually admitted that even if she survived, Falak would likely be brain-damaged for the rest of her life. Her tragic short life ended on 15 March after a third heart attack.
The teenager responsible for Falak’s injuries has since been charged and will be brought to trial. Her own story of abuse and exploitation is complicated. Fleeing her father, who was physically abusing her, the girl fell into the hands of Sandeep Pandey and Pooja, who were part of a prostitution ring involved in sex trafficking. Pooja tried to force the girl to marry an elderly man in Uttar Pradesh, but when she refused Sandeep raped her at Pooja’s behest. The girl was then forced into a brothel in Delhi, via the Sonagacchi red light area in Kolkata, and it was there that she met Rajkumar who formed a relationship with her. This resulted in the girl moving in with Rajkumar after his wife had left him to travel to Mumbai where their son was very ill. Rajkumar was already looking after Falak, but when he too left for Mumbai, she was left in the care of the damaged teenager.
The teenager has since been in counselling with Delhi’s Child Welfare Committee (CWC). This process has revealed that she was used for commercial sexual exploitation by Rajkumar as well as Pooja and Sandeep. Investigations found that there is a contract system in place where girls have to entertain at least seven clients every day, and if they fail to meet this target they have to make up for it the next day. Often this takes place in hotels where the managers even help in hiding the girls whenever the police are nearby. Raj Mangal Prasad, CWC chairperson commented, “Hundreds of girls, including minors belonging to poor families in remote states, are being brought to the cities for flesh trade”. Inevitably most of these will be Dalit and Tribal girls.
Just before the end of her life, Falak was reunited albeit briefly with her real mother. Munni Khatoon comes from the state of Bihar in the north-east of the country, but was tracked down on the other side of the country in Rajasthan. Munni, married at sixteen, was persuaded to go with a woman named Laxmi to become a domestic worker in Delhi. Most reports claim that Munni was either fleeing from abuse at the hands of her husband or had been abandoned by him, but her parents believed she was actually sold to traffickers by her husband, who was a criminal and an alcoholic.
Laxmi and her associates tried to force Munni into the sex trade, but when she resisted they sold her for £3,000 (270,000 rupees) as a bride to a man in Rajasthan. They promised that they would look after Munni’s three children until her new husband agreed that she could come and fetch them. Instead, the children were separated and passed on to different people. Police are looking into the possibility that this was part of a baby trafficking racket. Falak passed through several people’s hands until she ended up with Rajkumar. Her three year-old sister was eventually tracked down in Bihar, and later her five year-old brother in Delhi.
As India followed every development in the treatment and health of Falak, and in the search for the baby’s mother and siblings, so the complicated stories of trafficking, abuse and exploitation emerged. Police have arrested up to thirteen people in connection with the case. “This particular case serves as an example for the social injustice meted out against women in India,” says Anant Asthana, a lawyer with the Legal Aid Cell of the Delhi government. It demonstrates the complexities of human trafficking with organised rings spanning across several states and cities. Asthana adds, “Child trafficking is a growing problem in India, the extent of which isn’t fully known because there is hardly any reliable data on it,”
Immediately following Falak’s death, there has been much soul searching in the Indian media. Questions have been raised about the coverage of the case – was it too intrusive in the lives of minors? Why is it that Munni and the teenager who brought Falak to the hospital were unable to turn to anyone for help? Would the authorities have made so much progress if the case had not been in the full glare of the media?
Dalit Freedom Network hopes that, at the very least, the case will alert both the public and the authorities to the prevalence of human trafficking in India so that there will be greater vigilance and more effective actions to tackle it. It is India’s Dalits – Untouchables – and Tribals, the nation’s poorest and most marginalised, who are particular vulnerable to such exploitation. Perhaps some good will come out of this tragic story.
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