Nation Weekly magazine, June 28-June 4, 2004
Nepali parents find their children living a life of servitude in an Indian circus. But they also find out that trying to extract their own children from the circus can be dangerous
BY SUSHMA JOSHI
When four parents from Bijauna village in Makwanpur left for India on June 13 in an attempt to rescue their children from The Great Roman Circus near Lucknow, they did not know they were going to end up in jail. The raid organized by the Nepal Child Welfare Foundation (NCWF) and the South Asian Coalition Against Child Servitude (SACCS) turned violent as circus employees attacked the activists and journalists present. Of the estimated 35 Nepali children working in the circus, only one of them, Nita Lama, escaped with her parents. She too found herself held in custody at the magistrate’s office in Karnailganj, Uttar Pradesh.
The story illustrates how international and national mechanisms that protect children are strongly determined by local conditions. Laws vary from country to country and state to state, leaving local police to devise their own standards of protection. In states like Bihar and Uttar Pradesh the law often collaborates with local criminal elements: trying to extract a child from a site of trafficking can be dangerous. Parents and legal guardians often stand on thin ice during judicial procedures if it is found out that they were involved in transactions where they accepted money in exchange for their children.
NGOs like Nepal Child Welfare Foundation (NCWF) are at the forefront of the anti-trafficking movement, but there is strong consensus that the government needs to get involved. Lobbying from human rights organizations has often bought the issue of international agreements against trafficking on the table. While informal accords have been floated, no strong international law has been created at a regional level. In Nepal, the Human Trafficking Control Act of 1986 criminalizes trafficking in persons, but comprehensive legislation has yet to be enacted and implemented.
Gauri Pradhan, Founder President of Child Workers in Nepal (CWIN) says his NGO has a simple goal: “We are asking that all the children who have been illegally smuggled and sold into forced labors in circuses in India be provided safety and rescued, returned to their motherland, reunited with their families and helped to readjust in society.”
Earlier this month, the U.S. government underscored the seriousness with which it regards this issue when it released the fourth annual Department of State Trafficking in Persons Report in Washington D.C. The 141-country report looks comprehensively at the efforts of governments to combat severe forms of trafficking in persons. The report, which calls trafficking “modern-day slavery,” suggests various practices to deal with the transnational problem.
Nepal was placed in the Tier 2 group, a soft rating. “The Government of Nepal does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking,” says the report, which then adds, “however, it is making significant efforts to do so.” If a country’s practices land it in Tier 3, it faces sanctions, as Bangladesh and nine other countries found out.
A porous border that allows traffickers to transport their victims with ease compounds Nepal’s trafficking woes. Across the border are Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, two states whose police and law are some of the most corrupt in the world. Nepali victims often end up farther away in cities like Mumbai and Delhi, where they remain due to economic constraints and vulnerability.
The case of the 35 girls in the Great Roman Circus is hardly unique. Estimates vary, but activists say about 500 Nepali girls are working in major Indian circuses. Most of these girls come from Makwanpur. Like Nuwakot and Sindhupalchowk, other districts close to the capital that suffer the most poverty and from where large numbers of women get trafficked, Makwanpur is also a district whose economy has been impoverished with its proximity to the capital.
The U.S. report suggests various practices for ending trafficking, including linkages amongst diplomats, diplomatic protection for victims, using surprise inspections on labor agencies, discouraging the sex industry, intercepting potential victims and cooperation between transit and destination countries.
Cases include those of Panama, which enacted a new anti-trafficking law that addresses trafficking and takes child pornography, sex tourism and the use of the Internet into account. Among other stipulations, the law obligates airlines, tour agencies and hotels to inform customers in writing about the prohibitions of the new law.
Laws of this nature would warn potential customers who see the South Asian region as easy game for child prostitution. Interestingly and perhaps predictably, cases of street children being molested in Thamel has not raised the same ire in child rights activists as cases of children being molested in Indian brothels. Individuals who have busted child sexual abuse amongst the expatriate community have been ostracized in the past, pointing to a deeply entrenched culture of silence.
The other case is that of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) of the Dominican Republic, which has created four “anti-trafficking networks” among diplomats in its embassies in countries that are major destinations for trafficked Dominican women. These networks encourage diplomats to be proactive in addressing trafficking issues. They work with host governments to identify and assist Dominican victims, many of whom have escaped their traffickers and fled to their consulates for help, to collect information on trafficking patterns and to identify traffickers. This information is reported back to the MFA’s consular affairs office and is shared with the Dominican Republic’s allies in the anti-trafficking fight. A network of this nature, established by the Nepali government, is sorely needed in the Gulf countries.
Nepalis stranded in Malaysian jails seem to make the front page on a regular basis. They would greatly benefit from shelters like the ones the Indonesian Foreign Ministry operates at its embassies and consulates in a number of countries, including Malaysia, Singapore, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Over the past year, these diplomatic establishments sheltered thousands of Indonesian citizens, including potential trafficking victims. In coordination with government agencies, the embassies also assisted with repatriation of victims.
These are some of the best practices followed by other countries. Until comprehensive legislation comes into place in Nepal, victims like Nita Lama might find themselves stranded in jail in a foreign country while they await justice. For Lama, who has filed a case of severe abuse against the circus employees, the wait for justice might take a while as the police investigate her claim. Her parents will stay with her until she is allowed to go. For other girls in the circus, the moment of freedom is still far away.
CWIN’s Pradhan says that the fight against child labor is not yet as organized as the drive against girl trafficking. He quickly adds, “But we are only beginning our fight against this sort of exploitation. I do believe affirmative action will be taken, but it depends on the pressure we can create.”
Nation Weekly staff reporter Yashas Vaidya interviews Gauri Pradhan.
Bureaucratic Red Tape In The Way
Gauri Pradhan, Founder President of Child Workers in Nepal, spoke to Nation Weekly’s Yashas Vaidya about the current protests over the Great Roman Circus incident.
What is the aim of this protest?We are requesting our government, the Indian government, the UN and the SAARC Secretariat to help rescue the Nepali children trapped in the circus and their return home and to punish those accused of exploiting the children and attacking Mr K Satyarhti and the human rights activists who tried to rescue the children. We are also asking that the Indian government to take responsibility for the security of Nepali members of the rescue team and Mr Satyarthi.
What has been the response to your demands?The Indian Ambassador to Nepal informed us that he had not yet received an official request from the Nepali government asking for the return of the missing children. On the other hand, we did approach the Nepali prime minister who gave us his assurance that he would look into this matter immediately.
The botched rescue attempt took place on June 15 but there have been no developments since. Can’t the two governments do something?Nepal’s prime minister is now aware of the situation. The Indian government states that it will not hand over the children directly to the INGOs. There is a lot of bureaucratic red tape getting in the way and slowing down the process. Other than that, it’s a fact that there is a big Indian crime network involved. We believe that the local police and the magistrate are in league with the circus owners. Also, there is a big syndicate that has been bringing Nepali children from villages and selling them into forced labor in Indian circuses, going a generation back.We plan to create more pressure for the fulfillment of these demands. This protest rally is by various organizations that stand united on this issue. The Global March Against Child Labor, with offices in 150 countries is also involved in this. We plan to approach Indian embassies all over the world though the organization and thus create more pressure on the Indian government to take some sort of action. We also aim to create international pressure about this issue.
So there is a larger focus than just this single case?There is a bigger issue at hand. The drive against girl trafficking may be successful, but now children are being trafficked and taken to India to work as domestic laborers or in circuses. There they are forced into labor and become the victims of sexual exploitation in many cases. It is just like old wine in a new bottle. We do still face the problem of sexual exploitation. Also, we are making an attempt to classify circus work as hazardous and not appropriate for minors aged below 18. This is not the case now. Our aim is to create legal restrictions and stop children from being exploited.
‘Indian Authorities Are Corrupt’ For the past one year or so, Khem Thapa, head of the Hetauda-based Nepal Child Welfare Foundation (NCWF), has been at the forefront in rescuing Nepali children from Indian circuses. But it was only after the circus owners attacked rescuers in Karnailgunj in Uttar Pradesh that the plight of Nepali children came to light. Thapa talked with John Narayan Parajuli of Nation Weekly over the phone from Karnailgunj (near Lucknow) where he, alongside Indian activists, has been waging a courageous, and often dangerous, battle to rescue Nepali children from The Great Roman Circus.
What is the situation on the ground?From the very beginning we knew it would be difficult due to the notoriety of the circus owner. The raid which was conducted in the presence of the local authority, that is, the Sub Divisional Magistrate Mr. Havaldar Yadav and an inspector of the police station in Karnailganj, (but) the thugs from the Great Roman circus started to beat up the activists and parents who were there to release the children while they (the local authorities) were mute spectators. Then onwards, a lot of pressure was applied by the concerned citizens and numerous social organizations but the local authority has turned a deaf ear. There is a great danger from the circus owner who is freely roaming around Gonda and Karnailganj with his hoodlums. We know they are armed and many death threats have been received by the activists of the BBA.
There are reports of missing children, how many of them are missing?We had affidavits from the parents of 11 children of whom four accompanied us to Karnailganj. Only one child was rescued on the 15th of June. Although seven other children were also present during the raid (according to the girl who was rescued) of which one was snatched away by the goons of the circus from her father. Now the circus people are saying none of the girls whose affidavits were presented are there. It appears they got the names from somewhere and the girls have been hidden away from the circus. So, 10 girls are now missing.
How do you describe the mental and physical condition of the children?Unfortunately, I cannot comment on the mental and physical conditions of the children because we are not allowed to meet them at the circus. But I can safely say that they are under great threat from the owner of the circus and I would not be surprised if there are permanent or long-term psychosocial problems. The girl who is in the police custody in Gonda is also under tremendous mental and psychosocial pressure. The girl needs to be removed into a safer environment immediately.
How do you describe the role of Indian authorities?I have never seen or heard of such corrupt and uncaring authorities. They are all in league with the owner of the circuses.
And the Nepali side?As soon as the raid was conducted and the behavior of the authorities came to light, I contacted the founder President of Maiti Nepal Mrs. Anuradha Koirala and other leading NGOs in Nepal, including Mr. Gauri Pradhan of CWIN. All of the NGOs have been very supportive and they have moved heaven and earth to help our cause. A delegation from NGO Fed have already seen the prime minister of Nepal and the Indian ambassador in Kathmandu. The Nepalese Embassy in Delhi has been in contact with me since 18th of June and they are fully supportive of our cause.
What do you think must be done to secure the safe release of these and many other children trapped in the circus?We need to continuously apply pressure from Lucknow as well as from outside. Now the Nepali government is involved, I strongly feel that a representative from the Nepali Embassy must be in Lucknow to deal directly with the state government and the local authorities. In the meantime all social organizations must maintain the pressure on the central government of India as well as the local government in UP.
Indian NGOs have been in the forefront of all these. How do you describe their role?Without their involvement, it is difficult for a Nepali NGO to carry out any activity in India. That is why we formed a partnership with BBA more than two years ago specifically to deal with the problem of child labor in Indian circuses.
Are raids in circus the best way to free these kids?We have been working towards freeing the children who are in bondage in Indian circuses since 2002. We have had numerous conferences with the Indian Circus Federation where they had declared that they would not recruit children; they even made a token gesture by handing over nine children during a big press meet in Delhi on the 27 January 2004. They have repeatedly gone back on their promises of freeing children or even supplying names of children working in the circuses. Furthermore, not all the circuses are members of the federation and they have no reason to comply with the declaration made by the Indian Circus Federation. We do not believe in confrontational approach and we tried the negotiation and dialogue route for a long time with very little tangible results. Therefore it was imperative that a raid had to be conducted to free the children from the clutches of the circus owners.
What other measures do you suggest?A commission should be set up to investigate the working conditions inside all circuses. All circuses must submit the list of names of all artists working in the circuses with their details. Recruitment of children under the age of 14 in the circus must be outlawed and anyone found breaking the rules must have his license revoked.