Close to a week after 17-year-old Mahalakshmi, a domestic help, was murdered by the family that employed her, the National Domestic Workers’ Movement (NDWM) has alleged that she was a victim of child trafficking. In addition to this, the woman who posed as her aunt and to whom the police handed over the girl's body is in fact her trafficker, the NDWM says.
Chennai woke to the brutal murder of the young girl on Thursday. Four years ago, a woman who allegedly posed as her aunt dropped her off at Kanchipuram district. Her employers, Muruganandham, a gas cylinder manufacturer and his wife Sushmitha made her responsible for minor household chores. She also looked after the family's 10-year-old son.
On Wednesday, Muruganandham had gone for an inquiry with the Enforcement Directorate early in the morning, leaving his wife, niece and Mahalakshmi alone at home. In his absence, the women tortured the girl and poured hot water on her, leaving her bed ridden. They then rushed her to their residence at Adyar in Chennai instead of taking her to the hospital.
When Muruganandham reached home, he found the house help dead and alerted the police.
The women were arrested for murder and sources in the police told TNM that the young girl's death was a result of the severe burn injuries that stretched from her back to her thighs. Several blood clots and heat boils were also found on the girl's body and she was reportedly assaulted with knives.
A day after the arrest, police sources said that the department was in touch with young girl's aunt and that the body will be handed over to her. But when TNM contacted Sumitra, she said the girl’s parents were dead.
"The owners wouldn't have done anything wrong," she claimed. "I left there because her parents are dead. I can't do anything now. I am too old," she added, before hastily disconnecting the call.
But now, an investigation by NDWM has revealed that Sumitra is in fact a child trafficker who forcibly took Mahalakshmi away from her mother in Rajamundry district in Andhra Pradesh.
"The reason she wants nothing to do with the girl is because that is not her niece as she claims," says Lissy Joseph, member of Andhra Pradesh Domestic Workers Union. "We sent a team to the district to investigate. The father had deserted the family ten years back. Following this, Sumitra sent the mother to work at a nearby village and kept the girl with herself. Later, she sold the girl to this Chennai family for Rs.1 lakh. She also admitted to receiving Rs.5000 from them every month," she adds.
On Sunday, Sumitra received Mahalakshmi's body from the police and cremated it. The NDWM has been unable to contact her since then.
"This is a serious case of trafficking and our investigations have shown that she has trafficked several girls from Andhra Pradesh. The police however have given her the body of this girl and are not looking into the case further," alleges Lissy. "If we find Sumitra, we could rescue the other children," she adds.
The police however, were flippant when questioned about investigations. "She said she was the girl's aunt and that the minor had no parents, so we gave her the body," a police officer said.
Was there any proof that she was related to the girl?
"No, we just saw her identification," he says.
The police have allegedly been refusing to give the NDWM a copy of the FIR to take the case further in Andhra Pradesh. The activists however, are not ready to give up just yet and are planning to visit higher officials in the department.
"Employing children as domestic help is a cognizable offence as per the amended Child Labour (Prohibition & Regulation) Act. In this particular case it must be recognised that the child was 13 years old when she was brought into work as a wage earner and spent 5 years in the labour situation," says Lissy. "This case calls for registering multiple offences apart from just murder. The Child Labour (Prohibition & Regulation) Act, trafficking of the minor, violation of RTE, Bonded Labour Act and the Juvenile Justice act must be invoked."
The two women have claimed that the house help had behaved inappropriately with the son, and that had angered them. Activists have also questioned why the family did not go to the police or simply terminate her services.