All that is left of 16-year-old Protima Jana’s* clay hut, are a collapsed pile of bamboo sticks that once formed its foundation. The pond infront of it gives out a foul smell from dead fishes and unchecked algae formation caused by the infiltration of saline water. Next to it is a small dinghy that, till about a month ago, served as her father’s only source of livelihood. A part of the wooden vessel is now smashed in.
A month after Cyclone Yass ravaged parts of southern West Bengal, most families in Protima’s village, in the Sundarbans delta, are yet to gather the means to acquire two square meals a day.
As the cyclone broke the river embankments between 26 and 28 May, the roads in the village, about 30kms from the town of Kakdwip, gave way to slush. The slush remains the same, becoming sludgier with each monsoon shower, threatening to sink anyone who made their way to their hut. Protima, however, didn’t lose the spring in her step, say her family members – coordinating relief work, studying and braving chest deep water to fetch rations in the days after the cyclone. It was this will of Protima’s, to make something of her life, in spite of her difficult circumstances, that haunts her family now – a week after they found her lifeless body, hanging from a tree in the village.
“The Sundori Of The Village…”
The Quint first heard of Protima from a local source in Kakdwip who was helping us get in touch with sex trafficking survivors in the area. In the meeting at our hotel, the day before our shoot, our source told us about the women we’d be meeting the next day – Protima was one of them. While giving us her background, he mentioned – in passing- that Protima’s trafficker had come back to harass her. He’d allegedly created a Facebook profile in her name and was uploading obscene photos of her on the page. He showed us one of the photos.
Four hours later, as we were about to go to sleep to prepare for an early next day, we received a call informing us that Protima had died by suicide. Her family had just discovered her body.
According to local sources, Protima was allegedly trafficked and then rescued from Odisha in 2019. The boy accused of trafficking her belongs to the village and lives two houses away. At the time, her family says, he used to work outside and visit home occasionally. Eventually a romance started developing between the two, which anti-trafficking organisations in the area, say, is one of the most common ways young girls from the area are entrapped.
One day, Protima’s family received news from her school that the then 14-year-old had not turned up for her classes. When they asked around, they were informed that she was last seen getting on a bike with three boys. One of them being Binod Barik*, the boy accused of trafficking her.
Eventually her family filed a missing person report and also that of kidnapping. About a month later, they got a call from the police saying that Protima was at the police station.
When we met Protima’s family in their village, two days after her death, her father, mother, grandfather and even the aunt that she was close to, were unsure of what transpired between the time that she’d got on the bike and when they saw her at the police station.
They use the word “paachaar” (trafficking) in the course of conversation, but are unable to furnish any further details.
Our source and guide, a NGO worker who was involved in Protima’s rescue, said that she was found in a red-light area in Odisha. She was traced after she sneakily managed to call one of her friends to inform her that she was unsafe.
“That is how we tracked the call and rescued her”, he said.
“She was ashamed and unwilling to talk about how she landed there. She was kept in a shelter home for few days and once she came back to her family, she just wanted to move on with her life”, he added.
She was the sundori (most beautiful girl) of the village. She wanted to be a nurse. Everyone was very impressed with her. She would always get good grades and her handwriting was her biggest asset.Protima's Grandfather
As if to furnish proof, he shows us an application she’d sent to a government officer in the area after cyclone Amphan in 2020. In the application, Protima had identified herself as a “trafficking victim”, stating that her home was ruined in the cyclone and she felt insecure. She was requesting for her home to be rebuilt.
Though Protima was just 16, the family had started talking to another family from the neighbouring village who’d expressed interest in getting their son married to her. While her family wanted to get her married off soon, fearing that the stigma around her disappearance would not land her great prospects later, Protima wanted to wait. She liked the boy, he was earning well, but her experience with social work had taught her that marrying before 18 was illegal.
“She’d threaten other families in the area who wanted to get their daughters married before adulthood. She’d say she’d call the police on them and get them arrested. We’d spoken to the boy’s family, we knew them and they’re good people. But Protima said she’ll only marry once she finishes her nursing course and lands a job”, said her aunt.
Protima’s parents feel that the news of her impending marriage to the other boy is what caused Binod to come back and harass her.
“She did not have a phone. She came to know about the Facebook profile when her friends and other people in class showed it to her. Screenshots of the profile and the sleazy pictures were taken and shared with the entire village on Whatsapp”, said Protima’s mother as she hugged three laminated photos of her daughter – the only photos of her that they have.
“Whether she was walking to school or going to the market, there were whispers and stares. She had told me that she was unable to face the world with those pictures going around”, she continued.
“The final trigger was when someone in the village showed the pictures to her uncle – my elder brother. He came and asked her about it and she was extremely embarrassed. That day she retreated into the house and refused to come out for anything or even eat food. Two days later, she was gone forever”, added her father, sobbing uncontrollably.
When the fake profile had surfaced about a month and a half back, Protima had tried to lodge a police complaint, but the family says that the complaint was not registered. On the other hand, efforts of the NGO to seek redressal through their own sources were also impeded as the coronavirus lockdown and Yass devastated the economy of the area.
Everyone’s first thought at the time was to ensure a roof over their heads and food to eat. Our scarce resources – financial and human- were stretched. I’d told Protima that we’d need time but we’ll get to the bottom of this. I wish she’d told me that my time was running outLocal guide, and the last person Protima spoke to.
Surviving Nature & The Flesh Trade
Subsequent NCRB reports over the last 5 years show that West Bengal human trafficking is a rampant problem in West Bengal, with some reports stating that 1 in every 3 trafficked girl is a minor.
South 24 Parganas, where the Sundarbans in located, accounts for a bulk of these cases.
Those working with trafficking victims in the area and their families say that the chronic poverty in the area, exacerbated by severe climate change events in the past few years, have made the women vulnerable to trafficking and other forms of gender abuse like child marriage, forced labour etc.
As cyclones became more frequent and the tides got higher, people in the Sundarbans lost their agricultural land, their small fishery ponds, their betel nut plantations, their saved ration, their homes and basically, most things except the clothes on their body.
“We’ve seen cases of child trafficking increase after calamitic events like Cyclone Amphan in 2020. This is a trend we have monitored since Cyclone Aila in 2009, which was the first cyclone of its kind to hit the area. Young girls are taken away from their homes under various pretexts. Some offer to marry them and pay the parents a handsome amount as a way of “looking after them”. If the girl is ambitious, she’s promised a job in the city and her parents are paid the first month’s salary as an “advance”. In other cases, the girl is honey-trapped and then convinced to elope with her “lover” who then sells her off in a different state”, says Subhasree Raptan, chief of GGBK, a NGO that works on the rescue and rehabilitation of trafficking victims in the Sundarbans.
Subhasree adds that the guarantee of money is something most parents in the area, and even their children, find hard to refuse as most of them have little to no means of living. Most of them do not bother to verify most details that the trafficker provides them with.
However, while the story of trafficked young girls from the Sundarbans is told time and again, Subhasree says there should be equal focus on the ones they manage to bring back, and their life after.
“This is a simple issue of mental health. Protima was being counseled by our team as are all survivors that we work with. But the stigma they have to face every single day is real. In many cases they’re shamed for being in the flesh trade and are made to believe that their lives have no meaning anymore”, she says.
She also offers an explanation as to why Protima’s family where largely clueless about what had happened to her after she disappeared.
In many cases we do not tell the family that their child was sold into the sex trade. We’ve seen families disown or harass their daughters. In the event that we do tell them, we are careful about which details to divulge. It is important to remember that in small villages, personal details don’t remain personal. The stigma soon becomes all-pervasive.Subhashree Raptan, GGBK
Subhasree also points out that inspite of this being a case of trafficking, not one governmental anti-trafficking unit was involved or investigating the case, as is the norm. The case was still being investigated by the police, who are now looking to arrest the accused on charges of cyber crime.
Kakali, who also works with GGKB, and was personally involved in Protima’s case, says that it is also difficult to follow due legal procedure in such cases.
“Initially the family files a missing person complaint. Then when the girls are rescued, they are told by authorities and those around them to hide the truth and not talk about what actually happened to them. They’re told that if they identify as trafficking victims, they will be held in shelter homes all their lives”, says Kakali.
“In Protima’s case too, there was no mention of trafficking in the final FIR. It was registered as a case of kidnapping”, she adds.
However, both Subhasree and Kakali show various documents – applications that Protima has written for various kind of administrative help- in which he calls herself a survivor of human trafficking.
The Quint tried to reach officials at the Dholaghat Police Station, where the case has been registered, but did not receive a response. In a report by the Anandabazar Patrika, filed a day after Protima's suicide, the police have claimed that Protima had "run away with her lover" and was then brought back. She had ended the relationship, but the boy wanted her to continue, which is why he spread the obscene photos, the report said.
Protima’s family, not aware of the law or the legalese, find it astounding that the boy who took away their daughter two years ago was given the opportunity to come back and harass her again.
“The last thing she wanted was for him to behind bars. We are people of the jungles, of the river. We live with the fear of death at all times. But this, this is no way to go”, says Protima’s mother.
She shows us the first complaint Protima had written to the police when she came across the fake Facebook account. Impeccably written in neat lines with clean margins, the family holds on to it as proof of the brilliant life their daughter could’ve carved for herself, if only she’d been given the opportunity.
(*Name changed to protect identity)