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The dark side of Assam tea

Tea from Assam is world famous, but distressingly it is not only tea that is traded on the plantations in the northeast of India. The business of human trafficking flourishes here with traffickers abusing the desperate situation of many of the tea picking families. With Missio Aachen.

The local Salesian Sisters, headed by Sister Annie Enchenatil, have taken up the fight against human trafficking. Through socio-pastoral programs such as theatre, they are enlightening local tea-picking families about the dangers of human trafficking. The street performances outside the living quarters at the tea plantation tell the true story of a 16-year-old girl who was trafficked to work as a maid, and whose kidney was taken from her without her consent. Following this crime, the girl was brought back home to her family where she collapsed and, soon after, passed away.

Due to low education levels of the tea-picking families, most of whom are from the indigenous Adivasi ethnic group who have faced decades of discrimination, these crimes are never brought to justice. Sadly, Sister Annie knows many stories like this.

Highly aware of the precarious situation of plantation workers, human traffickers specifically target families with many children and lure them by promising that their daughter or son will receive good work and can send money back home. Sometimes they are even paid the fee of 1,000 rupees (approximately A$20) upfront, which is a lot of money for these poor families. The children are brought to big cities like New Delhi or Mumbai, where girls often become house maids while boys work in hotels. Initially, the parents receive small funds and believe everything worked out, but after a few months or a year, the agents stop the payments. Following that the children often disappear without a trace.

In addition to providing education and awareness of the dangers of human trafficking, Sister Annie and her team are working to rescue human trafficking victims. In the last year they have successfully rescued fifteen children. ‘We found adolescents in Chennai, Mumbai and Delhi,’ she says. ‘They told us about their situation. They must work all day and are treated like slaves.’

Through an outreach program, which focuses on socio-pastoral work in 34 centres in northeast India, the Sisters aim to sensitise 30 vulnerable village communities, so human traffickers won’t stand a chance. Programs include catechist formation, house visits, education for girls and women, self-help groups for women, and child parliaments. In addition, the Sisters founded a civilian committee against human trafficking, which maintains contact with the police if needed, while also informing locals about safe forms of migration and job hunting. Sister Annie particularly sets her hope on the Adivasi youth. ‘We want to support teenagers, nurture their self-confidence and turn them into leaders in their church community,’ she explains.

Twenty-three-year-old Barnabas Kongadi is one of the actors in the street performance about human trafficking. His mother works as a tea picker on the plantation, and his four younger sisters all go to school. Barnabas participated in the outreach program run by the Salesian Sisters. ‘It cleared up a lot of things for me,’ he explains. ‘It brought me closer to my religion and fortified my faith, also the faith in myself, and I discovered what I want to do with my life.’ Today, Barnabas goes to college. He wants to become a teacher, and says, ‘I wish to prevent as many poor children as possible from dropping out of school. That is my dream.’

The program also has impact for the Adivasi women. ‘My fellow sisters recently asked mothers whether they could send their children to us so they can help with some work,’ Sister Annie recalls. ‘The women replied, “But Sisters, you told us that we shouldn’t send our children away because it dangerous”.

‘My fellow sisters and I really liked that,’ she adds with a smile.

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