Forced Surrogacy Trafficked, traded, enslaved, raped and made to conceive babies for adoption. Adivasi girls are turned into baby-making machines that fetch Rs 1-4 lakh per child.

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A MUMBAI GHETTO, MUMBAI, INDIA - 2012/11/07: A clinic in Mumbai called "Surrogacy India" have rented a room in a ghetto for three surrogate mothers to carry the embryos for the clinic's clients; the three mothers don't recieve much help from the clinic and rely mostly on each other. Eggs from Europeans, semen from wealthy Westerners and embryos planted in desperate women's bodies. The Indian baby factories have become a growing multi-billion dollar industry.. (Photo by Jonas Gratzer/LightRocket via Getty Images)

(Insider Bureau) There’s something almost eerily Nazi about this. Not in terms of formal politics, of course. Only ­ordinary people are involved here. But their actions speak of a rarefied universe of cruelty—­elevated to an organised, clinical, coldly amoral enterprise. At the heart of it is the idea that one can ­exert ­absolute control over anot­her’s body. The terms of abuse go beyond even sadism; the ­human body here is just a device and also its product. The stories offer no great cause for optimism, but avoiding the dark dramas, and pretending they don’t exist, is precisely what allows them to grow.The first story. We’ll call her Soni, as many of them are ­indeed called—an adivasi name that contains resonances. She is at an undisclosed location in Bihar at present, in hiding, fearing for her life, recuperating from the injuries to her soul. She breaks down often over the phone as she narrates her story.                  Of how she came to Delhi as a minor and, in sta­ges, passed through a dark mirror—to enter an unreal world of slavery that awaited on the other side, a tiny house, where unknown men set in motion a whole cycle of sowing and harvesting on her body. And that of other girls like her.
As the story starts, life looked cheerless but sufficiently normal. Soni was 15 in 2010 when she, along with four friends, moved out from her village in Jharkhand, joining the tide of humankind flowing out from that immiserated state. Volitio­nal, but only to a degree. For there was an agent, as always, and then a sale and transfer of ownership to an agency, and then the drudgery of housework in a typical Delhi home. She lost track of her friends. Six months on, a man came to see Soni, and said he was from the “off­ice”. He said nothing else—just saw her and left. Days later, another agent came, took her along to a new house. The people at the first house were nice, relatively. They slipped her Rs 10,000, which she concealed in her salwar.
The new house was tiny and sur­rounded by narrow lanes. Soni was made to sign papers she couldn’t read, something written in English. Then a strange rout­ine started—regular check-ups at a hospital, blood tests and, most importantly, strange injections. She didn’t understand why she needed them. There were other girls at the house, all sec­luded. The curtains were alw­ays firmly drawn. There were guards, agents, staff members and a caretaker, a woman from Jharkhand she called ‘didi’. The rhythms of life seemed regular—sleeping, waking, cleaning, eating. “I would want fish and they would get me fish. Nobody refused me any­thing. They were nice to me, I didn’t know why,” she says.
One day a girl whispered to Soni in the bathroom that a baby was growing inside her. She had never heard the English word “baby”, so she didn’t catch on. “I just didn’t have the brains to know what was happening. I was 15 or 16,” she says. After three months of regular hospital visits—always in a curtained vehicle—Soni was taken for an ultrasound. “Back home, I pestered the caretaker, ‘Kya hai didi, dikhaiye na, dikhaiye na’. And she showed me. There was a photo of a very small child—ekdum chhota sa bachcha tha.”
It was like a pane of glass getting shattered inside her. The news would have come as a profound shock to any woman, but it was natural for a girl her age and level of emotional maturity to be thrown totally off-kilter. The coldness of the system rel­ies on their naivete—underage girls are especially vulnerable to this exploitation because, by the time they realise they are pregnant, it’s often too late for abortion. Soni managed to stay on her feet, though. The caretaker told her to win the confidence of those running the house. She found enough steel inside her to play along, hoping to run away one day. She stayed in the house for another three months—in all, around six. They took her for walks at a local park or to buy vegetables. “Other girls would run away to try and abort the child but they were caught, brought back and beaten. I used to get scared but kept quiet, as if I was fine,” she says. Slowly she won their trust and one night she slipped out at 3 am. Where she went, how she went, is a blur. She asked a taxi driver, “Bhaiya humko station chhod dijiye—please take me to the station”. Using some of the Rs 10,000, she finally escaped the city with that grey moral smog hanging over it, and reached Ranchi.
Back in her village, still pregnant, Soni wandered alone in the forest, trying repeatedly to kill herself. By hanging, by pouring kerosene…but always survived. “I knew there was a child inside me but didn’t know how to tell anybody, how to exp­lain how it happened,” she says. Girls in her situation, Soni realised later, often end their lives—as a friend of hers did recently. In her own case, a male friend finally arr­anged a doctor. An abortion ens­ued, at almost four months.
The village was where it started. Soni recalls, through tears, leaving her mother crying at the bus stand, asking her not to leave for Delhi. “I didn’t listen—meri zidd thi—I was set upon going. The agent was from my village so I believed him,” she says. Her father had filed an FIR when he found her gone, but there was no police investigation. Now she registered a case, and promptly started getting threats to her life. “The agents tore up my FIR and threw it away,” she says. She did not mention the pregnancy in the FIR. “My FIR was only about agents selling girls for Rs 40,000-50,000 but the police didn’t probe even this. Nobody supported me,” she says.From a sense of sheer isolation, a sense of community began growing in her. The pattern started sinking in. Soni met another girl from Jharkhand who told her of having given birth six times, until her body gave way. “She got Rs 50,000 per child. It is such a sad thing. I believe her. Nobody can live with a lie this big. I cry so much. Why did this happen to me? Why does it happen to unmarried girls? I didn’t love anybody, had no friend. Why does god do this to us—how have we ever harmed anybody?” Depleted of her inner resources of vitality, it was a slow recovery—and a vague apprehension about the future kept Soni silent in public. “Tell the police? What will they do? They will only ridicule me and I’ll never be able to marry. My parents will be defamed, that’s all. What choice do I have? What can anybody do for me?”The  second story has overlaps with the first—the same points on the physical and social map—but this time it’s an eye-witness. Her account helps us map out the territory from the outside, as it were. Rashmi is only about 20 but solemn-faced, as if the weight of years has worn her down slightly. She was all of 13 when the system smoked her out of her village home up on the Simdega plateau in southern Jharkhand, bordering Orissa. One day in September 2014, Rashmi escaped from seven years of domestic slavery. The placement agent who had lured her to that city back in 2008, put her on a train back to Ranchi. Rashmi travelled another 100 km by bus, crossing jungle and river to reach familial territory. A house in the town of Gumla. Her own people at last.
It was the house of her sister and brother-in-law. Soon after, the two of them accompanied Ras­hmi to the Child Welfare Committee (CWC) office in Gumla. Yes, it was a child’s story—a tale about the lost years of childhood—that she had to relate. The CWC is the only government body authorised to hear and record such testimonies. But its officers were away that day. “Our team was attending a UNICEF function in Ranchi that day so we didn’t meet Soni,” says Targen Panna, CWC’s Gumla chairperson at the time. Nice touch that…UNICEF. Anyway, outside the CWC campus, Ras­hmi bumped into news reporters and activists. One of them brought her to Shashi Kant, an anti-trafficking activist who heads an organisation of his Chik Baraik tribe and is a journalist for a district paper. In the nondescript, white-walled courtyard of his house, Rashmi recorded, on videotape, what she had witnessed in Delhi.
“Bachcha bechne waala kaam,” she called it. Baby-selling. A racket that’s evolved in the shadow-zones of modern life to cater to demand. Or rather, many demands. For, baby-selling is only the last link in the chain. Baby production is a necessary interim stage. The laws of the market dictate that supply will rise up to meet demand. And that latter is a primordial word that can encompass many meanings. To reveal the full variety of exploitative practices, throw in a form of slavery. The video conversation with Rashmi, roughly five minutes long, is one of the rare testimonies of what was always suspected happens in Jharkhand but has not been acknowledged so starkly—adiv­asi girls are trafficked, then raped, compelled to conceive, and finally their children sold in the flourishing adoption black market. A whole assembly-line of organised cruelty.
The price of a child secured through forced conception ranges between Rs 1-4 lakh, say activists. Besides the desperation of those seeking a child, the fluctuation is on account of the money the agents invest in adivasi women and the risk and problems encountered to have them conceive—the cold chain logistics, essentially. The commodification of the human body is abject, merciless and complete. In this economy, the adivasi woman and her womb are turned into ­money-making devices.
When reports about Rashmi were splashed in the papers, it was initially assumed she was a victim too. One news report talked of a “rescued girl who had had six babies”. Another said she had been asked, and she refused. Indeed, some tell-tale signs fit the pattern, but Rashmi herself denies it. Anyway, all the buzz spurred the CWC into action—but even then, not much of it. “We didn’t visit her village but we kept ask-ing her to come to us. Rashmi never responded,” says Panna. “Tell me—you are a victim, you have a problem, shouldn’t you at least tell us about it? She is also over 18, so what could we do? Yes, even if such a crime occurred, she should have come to us.”
In a tangential way, the episode cuts to the nub of why this phenomenon is hard to track down, let alone establish. The traumatised women often don’t want to talk—and for a variety of understandable reasons. Victims feel vulnerable in surroundings alien to them—and revisiting rape in front of strangers can be akin to a second violation. Two, they may simply not want the fact of rape or pregnancy disclosed. The stigma is overpowering, and thoughts can turn to mere survival. A testimony such as Rashmi’s, therefore, is valuable in the extreme, and likely rev­eals just the tip of the iceberg.
But in contrast to the lackadaisical CWC, Shakti Vahini, an NGO, sent a fact-finding team to meet Rashmi at her home. “We heard of a rescued girl going to her village and telling people she was forced to have a child in Delhi so we went to meet her,” says Rishikant, who runs Shakti Vahini. He and Baidnath, a Ranchi-based activist who was also in the fact-finding team, pieced together Rashmi’s story and the NGO later publicised the facts in a report. The essential elements go thus:
An agent named Chayin Singh delivered Rashmi to Delhi. Not to any ordinary placement agency but to the Moti Nagar office of Manpower Bureau, run by Naina Kumari, allegedly one of Jharkhand’s three most notorious traffickers. Whenever she visited that office, one  thing struck her as odd: the number of babies and pregnant women. On one such visit, she met four girls, two of them pregnant, who explained things to her. As Rashmi recounted even in her video, “Girls who get pregnant, their children are kept in the agency office and sold after they are around one year old.”
From here on, the trail goes hazy. As Rishikant admits, “We could not verify her claims.” The NGO recommended an official investigation, which never took place. Trouble is, the complaint Rashmi later filed with the pol­ice (FIR No 08/15) in Basia, near Gumla, also does not mention the allegation she made before the media, act­ivists and the fact-finding team. “Rashmi’s case is only about rec­overing dues under labour laws and accuses Chayin Singh and Naina Kumari with trafficking and keeping bonded labour,” says an officer who investigated the case. Naina, of course, denies involvement and claims a witch-hunt. “Some journalists and the CWC coerced three girls to give statements against me, but they backed out before the SP,” she says.
How does one square these blurred circles? “The police should have investigated the allegations when she first made them. We keep hearing of such cases but the victims are poor tribal girls. They recant under pressure from agents,” says Shashi Kant. It seems too coincidental that Rashmi’s actual testimonial reached everybody’s ears except the CWC and the police. At any rate, there’s a pattern in the testimonials—an initial burst of candour, then reticence, even retractions.
Similar graph was marked out when, three months after Rashmi, another woman, Vinati Bhuiya, app­roached the Basia police’s AHTU (Anti Human Trafficking Unit) and also complained before the CWC. Her daughters, aged 15 and 17, had gone to Delhi in October 2013 with an agent and her older daughter, Mamta, was forcibly impregnated, she said. “The mother told us this in a written complaint, filed before me,” says Alakh Narayan Singh, then a CWC member. “She wanted her daughters returned but her allegations were not confirmed,” says Panna.
Strangely enough, the CWC soon received a letter signed by the two girls saying they were well and the rumours about pregnancy were untrue. “Two barely educated girls could not have written such a long, articulate letter. We dem­anded they be produced before us and then the girls returned,” says Panna. Alakh Narayan says the agency wields inordinate power over the girls—“they were simply afraid to speak”.
The FIR (No. 38/15, May 6, 2015) once again omitted the most ser­ious charges. Instead, Vin­ati only charged the agent, Anita Devi—also related to Manpower Bureau—of “spreading a rumour in the village that her daughter is pregnant.” Anita, her husband and son were chargesheeted, the police say, on December 27, 2015, for keeping bonded labour and trafficking—charges softer than rape and impregnation of minors. The case is still on trial.
After the FIR, Vinati’s daughters returned to Basia (through an agent), visited the police station and were taken to the SP’s office in Gumla. “I myself took the girl (Mamta) to the SP’s office. After the mother’s allegations of pregnancy appeared in the news, the DG, IG, everybody took notice. But the girl denied being forced to have children,” says a police officer.
The flurry of attention did not escape Naina Kumari either. It was three months after Rashmi’s FIR that Vinati’s daughters were sent back home from Delhi—another sign that she too could have been a victim. “Naina became afraid after the FIR,” says Alakh Narayan. In September 2016, she came down to the CWC office in Gumla straight from a court appearance. “She ­created a ruckus. She accused us of harassing girls, of pressurising them to make statements against her,” recounts Alakh Narayan. “Naina is very dabang—bold. She’s young and looks innocent but don’t be fooled; she can kick up a storm, trick anybody.”
It was clear that the FIR had had its effect—but the crucial gap in incrimination remained. Without a high-level inquiry into placement agencies, the sheer enormity of the phenomenon escaped notice. Meanwhile, the driblets of information kept coming. Other girls have returned pregnant to Jharkhand. Some had their children taken away at birth. All stories have the same depressing arc.