(This story is second in two-part series on the agrarian crisis in Anantapur and its fallouts. Read the first here.)
V Ramanamma talks about her past in a disturbingly matter-of-fact manner. Her voice occasionally fills with disgust as she points to the marks which still scar her body, after months of sexual abuse at the hands of strange Saudi men, five years ago.
“I had gone to clean this man’s room and he was smoking. He called me close and blew the smoke in my face, and I felt dizzy. When he did that again, I started to faint. Then he didn't leave me, even though I kept crying for my mother and father. After a point, I went quiet because I wasn't in my senses,” Ramanamma narrates. (She will henceforth be referred to as Ramana.)**
“The next day, his father did the same thing to me. And then his older brother, and his younger brother. They kept [sexually exploiting] me the entire time I was there,” she says.
The 42-year-old had gone to Saudi Arabia in the hopes of earning money to support her paralysed husband back home in Kadiri, a town in Andhra Pradesh’s Anantapur district. While she was told she would be doing housework for a family of three, Ramana was made to work multiple homes, not given proper food, had to drink bathroom water, and ultimately, became a victim of sexual exploitation.
In one of the houses she was sent to, there were 10 men and boys between the ages of 15 and 50.
“They didn’t leave me alone even when I had terrible menstrual cramps. Once I kicked an old man who tried to force himself on me. They said, “This whore will kill us.” So, they locked me up and beat me very badly. I acted as though I had passed out because I thought I would die. Even then, he (the old man) came back and didn’t leave me, though I screamed for my mother,” Ramana recalls.
She points to the marks on her arms and says, “He is the reason for all these wounds.”
How agrarian crisis is leading to trafficking
What happened with Ramana is not an isolated incident; women from Anantapur are taken to Gulf countries and other Indian states on the pretext of house work, and sexually exploited. This has been happening for many years.
The farming economy of this Andhra district is majorly rain-fed. That Anantapur receives the lowest rainfall in the country after Jaisalmer in Rajasthan, only adds to its misery. Failing borewells and crops lead to mounting debts and the lack of alternative livelihoods has put immense pressure on farmers and their families – leading to scores of farmer suicides.
But one of the most devastating effects of the years of drought and agrarian crisis is how vulnerable it has made women and young persons in the district to traffickers, especially across 10 mandals in the Anantapur-Kadapa-Chittoor belt.
Local brokers prey on women and youngsters looking for ways to eke out a living. Based on the data collected by the NGO REDS (Rural and Environment Development Society), between 2005 and 2011, 1,240 women were trafficked from this belt. Further, a survey by district officials in Anantapur in 2016 found that a whopping 6,200 women were susceptible to trafficking.
Here, it’s important to note that human trafficking is not just abducting and/or selling someone into sex trade. Even cases where a person leaves for the said work on their own, but is cheated when it comes to the nature of work promised – would also come in the ambit of trafficking.
While some of the women TNM spoke to were lied to about the nature of work they would be made to do, others were even drugged and sold into sex work.
Mounting debts and lurking traffickers
Gangulamma, despite her frail frame, draws herself to her full height when she begins speaking about her ordeal. “The local brokers told me that if I go to Saudi, I will be able to pay off my loan of Rs 3 lakh. In our village, everyone has gone to Saudi like that due to debt,” she says at a gathering of women called by REDS in Kadiri, a town in Anantapur. The agrarian crisis has affected them all deeply – whether it is the death of a loved one or falling victim to trafficking.
The mother of two is the earning member of the family. About two years ago, she and her husband, both farmers, took a loan of Rs 3 lakh from a local moneylender to dig a borewell. The borewell failed.
“These agents had come to the village… They asked around and when they found out that I had a loan, they asked me if I wanted to go to Saudi. They said I could earn money and clear my debt,” she tells TNM.
Gangulamma left for Saudi in 2016. What unfolded was an 11-month-long nightmare.
Initially, she was only made to do housework as promised. But it did not take long for the sexual harassment and beatings to begin.
“One day three months later, a man in the house tried to hold my hand. I told him I only came here because I am in debt. I need to raise my children and I will only do housework. Because I resisted him, he beat me,” Gangulamma says.
“They would touch me when I slept. And when I did not give in, they beat me. I could not move one of my legs for a while because they hit me with a rod. This went on for nine months,” she adds slowly.
Even the women in the house turned a blind eye to Gangulamma’s plight. Soon, she hit rock bottom. “I refused to work and turned against them. I told them, ‘if you want to hit me you hit me, if you want to kill me, you kill me,’” she narrates.
Gangulamma’s ordeal ended only after her husband took another loan to pay a local agent in Saudi to help her get out. She also realised later that the agent who sent her to Saudi had introduced her as his wife, and had given his own bank account details. So apart from the first three months, Gangulamma was never even paid for the work she did.
Even now, she has no choice but to consider leaving home again to earn money to repay her loans. “I will have to see if I can find work in Bengaluru or someplace,” she says with resignation.
Broken families, little respite
While Gangulamma was able to return with her family’s intervention, there are others who must watch their loved ones suffer from afar. One such woman is Ramanamma, who awaits her young daughter’s return from Saudi Arabia.
Ramanamma lost both her husband and her son to suicide. Like Gangulamma, her family, too, was reeling under debt due to several failed borewells and four years of crop failure.
“The moneylenders would come and torture us to pay them back. In that situation, my son drank pesticide. He said that I would receive compensation from the government for his death,” Ramanamma narrates. It has been over two years but she has still not received the Rs 5 lakh ex gratia.
Of her two daughters, the elder one killed herself due to personal reasons. And her second daughter, 19-year-old Rekha*, left for Saudi 18 months ago to help her family get out of debt. She left behind her three-year-old son in Ramanamma’s care. Ramanamma also cares for her elder daughter’s son who studies in class 9.
“I am entirely dependent on PDS to feed the children and myself. I cannot even work because I have to care for them,” she rues.
Ramanamma holds up a passport sized photo of Rekha. “She calls me sometimes. She says there's a lot of work and she finds it difficult… That her back hurts, legs hurt, head hurts. They give her one meal in a day.”
Another woman who works with REDS and knows Ramanamma says that even after all the back-breaking work, Ramanamma's daughter hasn't been able to send any money home. She sent a little in the first few months, but that system ended quickly. “Her employer in Saudi keeps an eye on her whenever she speaks on the phone. So, we can’t tell if she’s being exploited or abused,” she says.
Social evils make women more vulnerable
Bhanuja, the founder of REDS, has been helping Ramana, Gangulamma and others who are victims of trafficking or have been affected by the agrarian crisis. She says that a problem with the authorities’ approach to trafficking is that they don’t see what is happening as a social issue.
“For instance, there is a need to stop child marriages. Under Right to Education, children should be made to study. Till the time they are in school, they remain protected. They also need to be told that migration is not the only option,” she argues.
A case in point is that of Nagalakshmi. Married off when she was 12 years old, Nagalakshmi describes her husband as a 45-year-old alcoholic, who would come home drunk and beat the young girl from day one. Four months in, he poured kerosene on her and attempted to set her on fire, after which Nagalakshmi’s parents took her back home in Tanakallu. There, she started doing odd jobs, including manual labour.
A child bride who was separated from her husband and unwelcome in the society, Nagalakshmi became a prime target for traffickers. A broker befriended the teenager and told Nagalakshmi she could go to Hyderabad and earn Rs 15,000 every month.
“It was difficult to even earn Rs 50 working as a coolie, even if we worked from 6am to 6pm,” Nagalakshmi recounts. “There was a week where we had no food and no work. So, when the broker came and asked me that time, I said okay.”
The next day, Nagalakshmi got on a train. She did not know she wouldn’t return for five years.
When she got down, it wasn’t Hyderabad, but Delhi. That night, as the teenage Nagalakshmi slept in a room in a building, not knowing it was a brothel, the broker who promised her a job and accompanied her to Delhi forced himself on her.
The next day, a woman took Nagalakshmi’s earrings, two nosepins and thaali, and promised to give them to her family back home. “She didn't give the jewellery at home, nor did she tell them anything. She didn't even tell them ‘I sold your daughter’,” Nagalakshmi says bitterly.
“They showed me hell in those five years,” she continues. “The entire time I was there, I wanted to die. Since the time I had my first customer until I came back home, I saw the same hell.”
Everything the girls earned from the sex work would go to the ‘madam’ who ran the brothel. “When we asked, she would say that we would get the money when it was time for us to go home. But I did not get a single penny for those five years,” Nagalakshmi says angrily.
She was finally able to escape when a watchman took pity on her and helped her get on a train.
Two months later, Nagalakshmi exemplified courage: She went back to the place which scarred her for life. With the help of REDS and the police, she went to the brothel on GB road in Delhi and helped rescue 20 more girls.
Lack of alternative livelihoods
Ramana thought that going to Saudi was a good option to support her husband, who has physical disabilities and used to work as a construction supervisor when he was able.
“I thought if I go work in Saudi for two years, my finances will be sorted. If I make some money I can get medical care for my husband. Six months later, a man told some other agent about me. He said ‘Don't worry, you're like a sister to me. We'll set you up with a nice house, you should go,’” Ramana recounts.
What happened left Ramana with both mental and physical scars for a lifetime. When asked if there are alternative livelihoods that women like her can undertake in Kadiri, she shakes her head. “There are no options other than that work. I am also not able to do farm work in the sun… Bhanuja madam is only taking care of us,” she says.
There’s also the poignant and distressing story of Lakshmibai.
Time, a marker that many of us take for granted, is very foggy for her. She does not have a clear memory of nine years of her life. She does not remember her age, but recalls that she married when she was between 20 and 25 years old, over a decade ago. Her husband died around 13 years ago. And that same year, she became a victim of trafficking.
She lives now with her mother-in-law. Her son, a second-year college student, studies in Tirupathi. Lakshmibai says he comes home once a year, and that she misses him.
“We used to work on someone else’s land and earn a few thousand rupees. I also worked as a daily wage labourer in Tanakallu,” she begins. “Two people from a village called Maddenuvupalli... I had met them a couple of times and they said they would help me find work [after my husband’s death].”
Lakshmibai met the duo one day and they offered her a soft drink which was laced with sedatives. “I regained consciousness only nine years later, and realised I was in Delhi and this was… broker business. Bad,” she says, referring to the sex work she was forced into.
Lakshmibai maintains that those nine years of her life are a haze. Whether she was kept drugged in the brothel for almost a decade or if her mind has just repressed those memories – she does not know.
“I felt really bad when I regained my senses. I thought, ‘chee, why am I doing this kind of work?’ I told them I wanted to go home. They took me inside and beat me. They kept saying they will send me home the next month… but they didn’t. Then, I escaped secretly with two other girls, and came back,” Lakshmibai narrates.
The three of them got down at Hyderabad from the train they took and went their separate ways.
Back home, but not really
The silver lining in these heart wrenching narratives is that these women have found their own way of empowering themselves and others, even though their suffering continues.
Lakshmibai, Nagalakshmi and Ramana are now part of a REDS committee which includes several women, many of whom are victims of trafficking or have lost someone to the agrarian crisis. They work in their vicinity, trying to prevent women and young persons from falling victim to trafficking in India and abroad.
“They do need the money. But I tell them these things happen (sexual abuse and exploitation). I tell them about my experience, and show them my wounds. Then they listen,” Ramana says.
The REDS Committee. From left: Ramanamma, Leelavati, Bhawani, Ramana, Lakshmibai, Gangulamma, Nagalakshmi, Ramadevi
While most of the women TNM spoke to had made some effort to take legal action against their offenders, Bhanuja notes that a number of families don’t even know that this is an option. Further, REDS found that even the police do not have proper information on booking people under the Immoral trafficking (Prevention) Act of 1956.
The state does have laws in place to tackle human trafficking. There are government orders to set up district-level committees and anti-trafficking squads and shelter homes. Those rescued from trafficking are also eligible for free healthcare services, including those who may be HIV positive. Children and women survivors are also entitled to immediate relief of Rs 20,000.
However, these measures fall short of addressing the crisis simply because they do not see that the trafficking does not exist in a vacuum.
Meanwhile, though some women are now home, it’s not as though they have come back to the acceptance and affection of their families. The stigma and discrimination begins at home, and permeates into the entire community.
Nagalakshmi, Gangulamma and Lakshmibai
It has been three years since Lakshmibai came back home. While things have become better now, for a long time, there were jibes about her having done “bad work” and rumours of her having contracted AIDS. Her son, who was three when she left, looked at her blankly and said, “I don’t have a mother.” But after her in-laws convinced him, he accepted Lakshmibai as his mother and things improved.
Nagalakshmi, too, came back to a home to find that her parents had passed away. But it is not as though she could grieve in peace. “People said things like... ‘She was gone for 5 years, god knows what work she has been doing.’ No one wondered what kind of problems I had faced,” she says.
Despite the unkind treatment meted out to them by their own communities, the women are happier to be here. But their suffering is far from over.
If the burdens of the agrarian crisis were not enough, what hurts women like Lakshmibai most is that their traffickers have gotten bail and are roaming scot-free. “They ruined my life and made me suffer so much. I didn’t have proper food and sleep for years. I want them to be punished and to suffer like I did,” she says bitterly.
*Not her real name
**Since two women quoted in the story have the same name – Ramanamma – one has been referred to as Ramana, solely for the sake of clarity.
(With inputs from Jahnavi Reddy)