After spending almost two weeks in India's northwestern state of Haryana, the destination for many trafficked brides, we decided to head to the source area. It lies two hours by plane to the east, in the lush green hills of Assam. Here, as well as in the surrounding states of West Bengal, Bihar and Nagaland, many women are trafficked from the towns and villages to live the lives of slaves more than a thousand miles away from their homes.
We wanted to find out why.
Guwahati is a sleepy town on the the banks of the Brahmaputra that doesn't betray the poverty of the surrounding countryside. Just twenty minutes northwest of Guwahati, the roads are filled with potholes and travel is slow.
It is the dry season and the Brahmaputra flows sluggishly, its banks overlooking the water level by several meters. But even the untrained eye can see how ferocious this holy river can turn once the rainy season starts and the snows of the Himalayas begin to melt. “Then, the Brahmaputra kills a lot of people,” as Ashraf, a local journalist who has come with us, points out.
Not only do people drown, but the floods also wash away their livelihoods.
Near the village of Bohari, there is a settlement of almost 500 families, who recently lost their homes, their lands, their income to the floods. The people have become refugees in their own lands, former landowners who now have to eke out a living as day laborers.
The competition for land that is secure from flooding has become so intense that sectarian tensions regularly erupt between Hindus and Muslims (the former seeing many of the latter as migrants “stealing” their lands).
Deforestation and the effects of climate change make the flooding more severe and unpredictable. “Once we had one river, now we have a multitude of rivers,” remarks Simanta Kalita from the Center for Environment Education.
It is from within these desperate communities that the women go missing. Traffickers have identified their vulnerable situation and lure them with promises of a better life in Delhi. Some of the women are outright kidnapped and sold as brides or prostitutes in Delhi, Haryana or western Uttar Pradesh, as we found out during our research.
The sex-ratios in the eastern states are much less skewed than in the northwest of India. So there is a gradient between poverty and environmental degradation on one side, and money and the lack of brides on the other.
It is this gradient that traffickers have identified as their business opportunity. Demand and supply are so vast, government and police responses so inadequate, that it is hard to see how things can turn for the better.