When Navita Devi uncovered a massive trafficking racket in Katihar, Bihar, she was threatened by the traffickers and the local village council leader. But thanks to her persistence, a woman responsible for trafficking over a 100 people is finally behind bars.
Janki Kumari was a student in the sixth grade when she was almost married off to a 40-year-old man. Her father, Ravi Das, was convinced by a woman from the neighbouring village to do so in return for a concrete house, and an advance of 25,000 rupees. Janki was rescued at the last minute, but other women in the neighbouring villages have not been as lucky. Janki’s parents say that they weren’t aware that they were putting their daughter into the hands of human traffickers.
Katihar, a district in the East-Indian state of Bihar, has a literacy rate of 54% and a sex ratio of 916; amongst the lowest in the entire country. The district’s proximity to Nepal and West Bengal make it a hotbed for human trafficking. Navita Devi, a Community Correspondent, has been reporting on the lack of basic facilities like schools and healthcare, and the effect of corruption on these communities since 2013. It was her ability to highlight such aspects of life in Bihar and bring justice to disenfranchised communities that made people confide in her about Ameerka Devi’s trafficking racket. Ameerka Devi a.k.a Meena Devi and her gang of goons operated over an area that covered three blocks of Katihar; hundreds, mostly women and children, had been trafficked to states like Uttar Pradesh.
Navita started following a trafficking case in 2016 after Umesh, an NGO worker, told her about it. In her first video on the issue, Suga Devi from Choti village was trying to bring back her niece from a village in Uttar Pradesh. Unable to care for her daughter and niece, Suga had been convinced to marry both girls off in return for 50,000 rupees. Suga’s daughter was forced to become the wife of four brothers. Though Suga managed to release her daughter with the help of the police, she was not able to bring back her niece. According to government data, 2,000 children are trafficked from Bihar annually. Girls under 18 are most vulnerable to being pushed into slavery, sex work, and surrogacy rackets.
Navita confronted Ameerka Devi on camera asking her if she’d help bring Suga’s niece back to the village. Ameerka Devi replied that she had stopped trafficking people. Off camera, a different story unfolded. “This woman told me that I would not be able to stop her. She threatened me with dire consequences if I carried on filming the story and tried raising it with the police,” said Navita.
In addition, Navita was also scared of the village head of her own village. Having challenged him previously on corruption in MNREGA wages, cutting into his profit, the village head was looking for an excuse to stop Navita’s work as a Correspondent.
Umesh encouraged Navita to continue her work on the case. He assured her that he would support her in keeping track of Ameerka Devi’s movements. Together they resolved that they would catch her with evidence.
In September 2016, Navita uncovered a second story, which could potentially incriminate Ameerka Devi. Rupa Devi and her two minor daughters had been missing since April 2016. During an interview in September, Rupa’s brother-in-law, Ganga, revealed how apathetic the police had been in filing a First Information Report on the case, “He said this kind of thing happens everyday.” All the family knows is that a woman from Jhitkia is involved in Rupa’s disappearance. While the community in Rupa’s village was eager to take action against Ameerka Devi, they backed down sensing the family’s reluctance to pursue the case. Navita’s own hunch was that the cops too were involved in the racket and had intimidated Rupa’s relatives into silence.
“There were 10-15 trafficking cases against her but there was no evidence… She was caught once but managed to have the charges dropped by paying off the authorities some 1-1.5 lakh rupees,” says Umesh in the video.
It was almost a year later, in May 2017, that Ameerka Devi made an appearance again. This time it was Janki, a 12-year-old girl who was to be married off. Umesh was able to get in touch with Navita to inform her about the situation. Since it was evening and Rampur village was 20 kilometers away from Navita’s own home, she told the men to talk to the village head and to catch Ameerka Devi. Simultaneously, Navita and people from the community organisation called the police station to file a report.
“Things unfolded so fast over the next day that I wasn’t able to film everything. Our main focus at the time was to make sure that Ameerka went to jail. I was not allowed to interview her when I went to the police station,” says Navita.
Umesh, who had been present behind the scenes throughout the year, explains further, “The Panchayat Head [of Rampur] and you played a vital role. You co-operated whenever we raised a concern. You helped build pressure to get Ameerka caught and she’s in jail because of that.”
Video by Community Correspondent Navita Devi
Article by Kayonaaz Kalyanwala, a member of the VV Editorial Team