Forty-nine-year-old Marimuthu remembers standing helplessly outside his damaged quarters in Thanjavur district as his weeping 12-year-old son was dragged away in early December. It had been two weeks after Cyclone Gaja wreaked havoc in his hometown of Patukottai and with no means to even buy food for the family, Marimuthu 'sold' his young son for Rs 10,000. He was promised by the agent taking the young boy away that he will be educated and made to work at a farm in Nagapattinam district.
To Marimuthu, it seemed like his son was headed towards greener pastures because his other option, was to stay back with his cash-strapped family. But two weeks later, officials in Nagapattinam found that the young boy was made a bonded labourer by a farm owner in the district and was working long hours herding cattle. The promises of education were forgotten.
"We are just daily wage labourers and with the farms destroyed by the cyclone we had no choice but to do this," wails Marimuthu. "We have no food to eat and no house to live. There is no work also after the cyclone. We were helpless," he explains.
District officials rescued Marimuthu's son, shifted him to a children's home in Thanjavur district and he will soon be sent back home. But social activists and researchers who study bonded labour say this won't be the last rescue in Tamil Nadu as a direct result of the cyclone.
When disaster leads to trafficking
Multiple studies show that in the wake of a disaster, human trafficking and modern slavery are both devastating consequences in a community made ever more vulnerable. Reports suggest that there are several factors that make people more susceptible to traffickers in disaster affected areas. These include - loss of homes, livestock, lack of food supply and weakened state infrastructure. All these scenarios presented themselves following the recent disaster that hit Tamil Nadu's delta region.
On November 16, when Cyclone Gaja made landfall, it caused enormous damage to people's property and livelihood. Its aftermath saw suffering, loss and displacement in large parts of Tiruvarur, Nagapattinam, Thanjavur and Pudukottai districts. In its report to the Centre, the Tamil Nadu government stated that the cyclone had left 3.7 lakh people homeless and destroyed 3.4 lakh house. It crippled agriculture and livelihoods in a fertile region, killed cattle and other livestock. Between 60% and 80% of the coconut trees in the region have fallen due to the strong winds, crippling the state's farmers.
"Suddenly, people were left with no jobs, money or homes and a huge opportunity opened up for agents who work to procure human resources for the textile industry or other service industries," says SM Prithvi Raj, Director of CARE (Community Awareness Research Education Trust), who has been working in the field of human trafficking for 17 years. "The worst affected people are landless workers and fishermen who lose their boats. These are people who need to work at least 200 days to survive. So when there is no work, their very survival becomes a question," he adds.
According to CARE's on ground observations, agents who source people for employment are largely present in Pudukottai, Thanjavur, Tiruvarur and Nagapattinam districts. Their activity in these regions have increased exponentially following the Cauvery water crisis, when several farmers gave up on agriculture as an occupation. Their efforts to trap these men and women into modern day slavery was further bolstered, allegedly by 'unsustainable development' works that displaced residents.
"Usually, these agents manage to get around 25-30 people over a year in these regions to shift to low paying jobs with long hours and harsh environments. A large number of people from the delta are aware of the dangers of getting trapped in such workplaces and Tamilians avoid it. That is why lately they have been procuring employees from states such as Uttar Pradesh," says Prithvi Raj. "But after Gaja struck, as per our estimates so far, this number has atleast doubled. The agents are not new but the circumstances are," he adds.
He further opines that the Rs.1,146 crore assistance from the Centre has come too late.
"There have already been forced migrations and cases of human trafficking following the disaster. No immediate steps were taken to even address this matter," he points out. "In most areas the village officer has not even completely assessed the damage to people's livelihood," he alleges.
What can the government do?
M Devasitham, Associate Director of Strategic Development of International Justice Mission, an NGO that rescues and provides aid to bonded labourers, states that currently the Tamil Nadu Government is more focused on rehabilitation of those affected by the storm. Their economic stability, he argues, is not taken into consideration.
"They are building shelters and allowing people to move back to their villages. That is fine. But a disaster leaves people in an economic lurch and this has to be addressed," he says. "When a disaster first strikes, people send food, water and other necessities to the affected. It is when this stops that the trafficking aspect comes into play since people cannot afford to meet the cost of their basic needs," he adds.
Following the Kerala floods, IJM representatives met with Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan to discuss tackling the menace of human trafficking. The government, says Devasitham, reacted positively to the discussion and steps were taken to prevent the matter from escalating. IJM workers along with trained panchayat level officials conducted awareness programmes in the state and also sensitised anganwadi workers on the perils of human trafficking. A vulnerability survey was also conducted in flood affected areas to understand who the agents had approached so far and the immediate issues that needed to be addressed.
"The human trafficking aspect should not be ignored. The revenue, police and labour department have to work together when it comes to protecting the vulnerable masses," says Devasitham. "A strong message should be communicated to these middlemen or agents and strict punishment meted out to them."