Houses converted to illegal lodges. A web of brokers to procure certificates, clothes, passports and air tickets. And a qazi to perform the wedding. That's the laundry list of players who get together and run the elaborate trafficking racket in Hyderabad.
It has been three months since Fathima*, a resident of Nawab Saheb Kunta in Hyderabad, has seen her 16-year-old daughter.
"I don't want to talk to anyone. I just want my daughter back," she says in between sobs.
The Hyderabad police on Friday arrested two men who performed the marriage of Fathima's minor daughter, with a 77-year-old Omani national.
According to the police, the Omani national, identified as Ahmed, married the 16-year-old in May at a guest house in Jalpally.
He returned home after the marriage and sent a visa for the girl, who later joined him in Muscat.
The case had come to light earlier this week, after Fathima approached the Falaknuma police station, alleging that her husband's sister, Ghousia Begum, and brother-in-law, Sikander, 'sold' the girl to the Omani man for Rs 5 lakh.
"My husband works as a daily wage labourer in a marriage hall. When Ghousia and Sikander approached me with a marriage proposal for my minor daughter, I rejected it then and there," the complaint states.
"Without my knowledge, the duo approached my daughter and lured her by showing her photos and videos of the lavish Gulf lifestyle. In spite of my objection, my daughter was married off to the sheikh," she wrote.
Though the complaint stated that the man was 65 years old, police have found that he is in fact 77 years old.
The police also said that the girl informed her parents over the phone that the Sheikh was mentally and physically torturing her.
"She wants to return to Hyderabad. When I insisted that they return my daughter to me, Sikander offered a phone and cooler to my husband and asked him not to pursue the case. I spoke directly to the Omani national, who said that he had 'purchased' my daughter for Rs 5 lakh," the mother says.
The parents say Ahmed agreed to send their daughter back, only if he was repaid.
The police have registered a case of cheating and criminal intimidation against the Omani, the girl's father, his sister, her husband, the qazi and others.
"The qazi who performed the marriage is also under surveillance," said Deputy Commissioner of Police V. Satyanarayana. The qazi could not be formally arrested as he is recuperating from a bypass surgery.
A police officer said the girl's father may also be taken into custody for being lured by the money, and submitting a false affidavit showing her age as 21.
The larger problem
"The girl's parents are extremely poor, this makes them easy targets," says Amjed Ullah Khan, a local politician belonging to the Majlis Bachao Tehreek (MBT).
(Amjed Ullah Khan with the girl's parents)
Amjed says that there are several such 'agents', who facilitate the nikaah (marriage) of minor girls with old sheikhs and other foreign nationals.
"There are several houses in areas like Barkas and Chandrayangutta, where homes are illegally converted into 'lodges', to provide accommodation for these sheikhs, and even provide them with a change of clothes," Khan alleges.
Two photos of the sheikh that have emerged also strengthen Khan's claims, as one of them shows the Omani national in traditional attire, while the other photo shows him in a pant, shirt and a jacket.
"That's not all. They need a qazi to cooperate as well as a travel agent to book tickets to the foreign country. There are also other agents who duplicate Aadhaar cards, Electoral Photo Identity Card (EPIC), Passports etc. There is a large nexus involved," Amjed says.
"The nexus also involves politicians and local leaders who immediately rush to the police station when such agents are caught, and try to throw their weight around, and get the accused released," he adds.
"This is nothing short of human trafficking," says Achyuta Rao, a Hyderabad-based child rights activist with the Balala Hakkula Sangham, and former member of the State Commission for Protection of Child Rights (SCPCR).
"The government must take steps to curb this, by ensuring stringent action against those found indulging in such activities," he adds.
Achyuta suggests that security personnel at airports must be better trained to identify such cases.
"We pay so much attention to baggage at airports. If anything suspicious is found, we detain the passenger for hours, and do a thorough check. Why can't the same attention be paid to minors?" Achyuta asks.
"Authorities should be vigilant, and keep a lookout for any suspicious activity. They should ask anyone accompanying the child, to declare what their relationship is. If the documents claim that they are married, and the age difference is evident, then officials should detain them," he adds.
Additionally, Achyuta argues that airport authorities should accept government based certificates, over certificates issued by any religious body, irrespective of religion.
"The religious certificates are easier to fake, while the government certificates are more valid. We must take such factors into consideration," he says.
"Also, at the local level, qazis indulging in this should also be booked," Achyuta adds.
Amjed Ullah Khan also says that the police can put an end to this, only if there is political will.
"It is a very dangerous system that targets extremely poor families. There is an urgent need to break it, and agents should be punished severely," he adds.
Meanwhile, the police also said that they were making all efforts to bring the girl back to Hyderabad safely.
Union Minister for Women and Child Development Maneka Gandhi had on Thursday described the incident as "deeply disturbing", and urged External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj to intervene.
Authorities said they were keeping a close watch on 60 brokers who were identified during the investigation of such cases in recent years.
However, brokers based in Mumbai and even abroad are carrying on their activities by duping poor and illiterate families.