The Sunderbans, which is the largest delta in the world, is formed at the confluence of the mighty Ganga, Hooghly, Padma and Brahmaputra rivers. This deltaic region stretches from the Hooghly River on the west to the Meghna River on the east and is shared by India (West Bengal) and Bangladesh. Known for its amazing variety of flora and fauna, the area is also one of the most deprived due to it inaccessibility and ecological fragility.
Educational vulnerability after Aila
The region was devastated in 2009 when the cyclonic storm Aila caused severe flooding and destruction. The region, which practises seasonal agriculture in the absence of adequate irrigation facilities, was submerged by the brackish river water. When the flood water receded, the excessive amount of salinity left in the soil made most of the agricultural land unsuitable for agriculture. This environmental disaster has greatly increased educational vulnerability for the children of these island villages.
Himalaya Santra, the Headmaster of Charakhali Shiskha Bhavan in the Hingalgunj Block of North 24 Parganas, told BE, “Dropouts increased after Aila but it has been controlled to a certain extent by focused policy interventions. Economic marginalisation caused by poor agricultural production has forced many of the men and women of these villages to migrate to different states in search of livelihood. They often leave their children with aging relatives and that has often led to a rise in dropouts as they are left unsupervised.” Santra’s school overlooks the narrow Kaikhali River and he informed, “The river bank on other side is Bangladeshi territory.”
These island villages are witnessing another peculiar social phenomenon. Many of the families here are actually headed by children. Parents often leave their younger children with their older children and that increases the educational vulnerability of both. Sanjeev Kumar Singh, Secretary, Association for Social and Humanitarian Action (ASHA), an organisation that works extensively in these areas, explained, “Such practices expose children to a host of problems. It impacts the education of the older one as he has to fend for his younger sibling. Additionally, the older sibling may need to be active economically as the responsibility of running the family rests on him. Lastly, the sheer emotional strain of heading a family is too much for adolescent children and impairs their growth process.”
Santra added, “There have been instances when I visit the house of a student who has not been regularly attending school to find that he is engaged in some form of economic activity. Persuading such students to return to school is difficult as their families depend on their income.”
Increase in trafficking and underage elopement
These forested islands are increasingly considered a trafficking hotspot as impacts of climate change – such as worsening cyclones, sea level rise and loss of land to erosion and saltwater – mean worsening poverty and living conditions and more desperation.
According to local villagers, many girls and women were lost after Aila and were later identified as trafficked from these villages. Additionally, according to Sanchita Mondal, Area Coordinator, ASHA, the cases of elopement among adolescent girls have increased manifold. She said, “Economic deprivation has increased greatly after Aila. Most girls who are eloping hail from very poor families. They often dream of a better, affluent life after their marriage and escape from poverty. Their vulnerability makes them easy prey to human traffickers as well.”
According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime report titled ‘An Introduction to Human Trafficking: Vulnerability, Impact and Action’, “Issues such as dis-empowerment, social exclusion and economic vulnerability are the result of policies and practices that marginalise entire groups of people and make them particularly vulnerable to being trafficked. The allure of opportunity, the relentless demand for inexpensive goods and services and the expectation of reliable income drive people into potentially dangerous situations where they are at risk of being exploited.” The severe environmental vulnerability in these islands adds to the risk of trafficking.
Mondal informed BE, “There have been unconfirmed reports that 10 adolescent girls from a local high school had gone missing recently and only three of them could be traced back.” In many cases, girls who elope and get married return to their native villages after a few years. Mondal said, “Many of these girls are exploited after their elopement and subsequent marriage and eventually return. However, it is difficult to rehabilitate them.”
According to Dipanwita Sarkar, Pro-gramme Manager, ASHA, “This social problem is assuming alarming propor-tions. Once these girls return, they are not always accepted by their families. The chances of getting remarried are very low given the conservative nature of the society that they live in. Without any chance of earning a livelihood for themselves, they remain highly vulnerable. ASHA has a centre operating where such girls are given training in the making of jute bags. Once their training is complete, they are given the scope to earn their livelihood. At present, we are working with 20 such girls in our centre.”
The risk of trafficking in these regions is so high that ASHA has collaborated with various high schools in these areas to undertake safety classes for students. Girl students are taught basic safety processes and are helped to identify potential risks. Sarkar added, “These initiatives are aimed to orient the children regarding potential risks.” She added, “Peer pressure often plays a detrimental role in these cases. If one girl in a group elopes and gets married underage that also influences other girls to undertake similar acts. At their tender age, they fail to identify the risks and are often swayed by peer pressure. In the absence of proper supervision, as many of their parents have migrated for livelihood options, these unsupervised adolescent girls are at high risk. Our programme tries to bridge that gap.” Typically, young girls are lured through WhatsApp messages, missed calls and expensive gifts that include smart phones. Once the confidence of the girl is achieved, the trafficker will tell her that he has secured a good job in a distant city and will ask her to accompany him and get married. It would then be only a matter of time that this unsuspecting girl would be trafficked and exploited.
The problem has been recognised by corporate groups as well. Srei Foundation, an organisation under the Srei group working on social issues, has collaborated with West Bengal Police to provide rehabilitation for the rescued traffic girls from the region. The organisation conducts various training modules such as beautician courses, animal husbandry courses, bag making courses and also trains these rescued girls in sari printing in an attempt to make them independent economically. Additionally, it works in 183 schools promoting safety measures among girl students in the trafficking prone zones in the Sunderban region of the district of South 24 Parganas.
Unlike other parts of West Bengal, cases of child marriages still occur in these remote villages and are related to cases of domestic violence. Many of these young brides who drop out of school to get married are exposed to high risks of trafficking. The promise of a better life for the girl child through marriage and also the reduction of economic burden of rearing her figures prominently as factors behind child marriages in these parts.
The latest figures of the National Crime Records Bureau, released in 2017, show that of the 8,132 cases of human trafficking recorded in the country (January to December 2016), 3,579 cases (around 44%) were from West Bengal. A recent order from the Division Bench of the CalcuttaHigh Court has opened possibilities for compensation for trafficked victims. The problem can be combated with more of such positive measures and decisive governmental action.