“Nothing can be done in her case as there is no law for domestic workers.” The official at the labour welfare department in Karampura looked apologetic as he explained the government was working on such a law. Meanwhile, nothing could be done for 23-year-old Monika Mardi, who stood quietly by in the office.

Nearly three years ago, Monika had left home after a fight with her elder sister. Home was in Goriagram, in West Bengal’s Birbhum district. The Mardis, an adivasi family, own a piece of land there. It’s a large family and money has always been short, depending on what the land yields.

Monika was in touch with a Malati Besra, a woman from the neighbouring Boddopaharigram, who helped young girls from Bengal and Jharkhand get to Delhi and other faraway places. “I said I wanted to work, and I didn’t tell anyone at home,” Monika recalls. She was offered a job that would pay Rs 3,500 a month by agents in Delhi. They took Monika to a businessman’s house in Kirti Nagar in West Delhi, where she had to do almost all the work in a household of six people.

Three years later, she hasn’t seen any of the money, she doesn’t know her home anymore and has lost all her Bengali. “They said they [the agents] took your money. Maybe the family gave them money, I don’t know. They wouldn’t let me eat until I had finished all the day’s work. They wouldn’t let me go out of the house. I wanted to go home and they said it’s not time for you to go yet,” she said.

Back home, her family tried to get in touch with Monika, with little success. Her brother-in-law, Ghasiram Hembrom, said they spoke to her six months after she had reached Delhi. “She said she was doing well, though she hadn’t got any of the money yet.” Then he lost her number and Malati became the only point of contact.

“She kept saying Monika was fine but wouldn’t let us talk to her,” Hembrom said. Was Malati known in the village? Yes, he said. Had she taken any other girls to Delhi from there? Yes, eight or nine, or maybe 12, nobody was sure. Did anyone know what had happened to these girls? No.

“Finally, after pressing Malati for a long time, I was allowed to come to Delhi to meet her. The employers still wouldn’t agree to send her back home. They said they would bring her in June and that they had paid her salary to the agents, Sanjay Kumar and Miri,” said Hembrom.

As Hembrom was about to board his train back to Birbhum, the agents handed him Rs 15,000, though by then Monika was owed much more. “They threatened me and forced me to sign a blank piece of paper,” he said. Back in Delhi to collect his sister-in-law again, he is still receiving threats. “Meyeke ki kore niye jao ami dekhchi (Let me see how you take the girl back),” Miri had said.

The invisible multitude

Monika is only one of a swelling stream of women who make the ill-fated journey to Delhi and other big cities, both within the country and abroad. Women who are invisible, trapped behind the closed doors of affluent households. The ordeal faced by the Nepali women at the Saudi diplomat’s house in Gurgaon has suddenly drawn attention to this multitude, and by extension, to organised crime on a frightening scale.

“Bengal is both a source and transit point for trafficking,” said Sarbari Bhattacharya, officer in charge of the anti-human trafficking cell of the West Bengal CID. “From Nepal, the girls are taken to Darjeeling, and then to Bagdogra or New Jalpaiguri, from where they travel to other parts of the country or abroad. Girls from Bangladesh also travel to Kolkata, and are passed off as Bengali girls in other parts of the country.”

Trafficking is particularly rampant in North 24 Parganas, Siliguri, Darjeeling, Cooch Behar and the Sunderbans. Other hot spots are Upper Assam and areas in Jharkhand, such as the districts of Gumla, Kunthi and Simdega. In Andhra Pradesh, there is a flow of workers going out from Kadapa district, East and West Godavari districts, Visakhapatnam and old Hyderabad, mainly to the Middle East. Kannur in Kerala is also a hub for trafficking to the Middle East.

“There is a large influx from Nepal since the country bans women from going abroad as domestic workers,” said Sister Lissy Joseph of the Andhra Pradesh Domestic Workers’ Welfare Trust. “We have open borders with Nepal so the women come to India and then travel abroad illegally. India also prohibits women under 30 from going abroad as domestic workers, but the rule is never followed.”

The volume of this human flow is anybody’s guess. “In 2014, 18,000 went missing from Bengal, 1,200 from Jharkhand, and that was according to police records. I have information of 5,000 missing women and children from Gumla district alone. And many more disappearances go unreported since these are tribal districts and people are scared to approach the police,” says Rishi Kant, who works with an NGO called Shakti Vahini. “I have seen 5,000 women go out from Kadapa district,” said Joseph.

“Until we actually find the victims, we can’t say whether it is a case of an affair, or ordinary migration or actual trafficking,” Bhattacharya said. But sometimes, consent may be extracted through promises of love or employment.

Shadow rings

The modus operandi of the trafficking rings in Bengal, at least, can often blur the lines. “Very often, the dalal will romance the girl and ask her out for phuchkas. Then he’ll mix something in the phuchkas and spirit her away while she is still drugged,” said Kant.

In Andhra Pradesh, where the movement is towards the Middle East, these agents have set up an effective system to help women avoid immigration clearances. “The government does not have centres in the villages but the agents can reach there,” said Joseph. “There are three or four levels of agents, collecting money from these women, and there are more agents waiting on that side. They usually distribute illegal visas for a fee from the women and also collect money in advance from the employer as well. As of last year, there were 168 women trapped in Bahrain’s open jails.”

It doesn’t help that the traffickers are shadow organisations that have largely evaded detection. “By the time a complaint is filed, it has already been 48 hours,” said Bhattacharya. “By then the girl could be in any other part of the country or in another country. And usually we don’t have any particulars of the trafficker. Even if we arrest the middleman in the village, they will only have a phone number and a false name. But the person giving them instructions will have discarded the phone the moment the operation’s done. Sometimes, by the time the case comes to us, it’s been years and it is then impossible to trace the girl. Many girls are being lost this way.”

These are highly organised rings, with their members in constant contact with one another. The Jharkhand police did manage to catch 47 dalals recently, said Kant, but many more remain on the loose.

What the law cannot see

Monika’s case reveals how vulnerable you are to fantasies spun by others if you are poor and want a better life, but also how little hope of justice you have if you are an adivasi, from a rural home and employed in domestic work.

When Monika disappeared, Ghasiram said he didn’t go to the police, “Because we are adivasis and they would only create trouble.” He works with an NGO in Birbhum, called Uthnau, which put him in touch with Ananya Biswas and Yuvraj Lohar, a couple in Delhi who help the NGO.

After they collected Monika from her employers’ place, they went to the Kirti Nagar police station to file a complaint, but Ghasiram and Monika were harassed and interrogated instead. When contacted by Scroll, the station house officer at Kirti Nagar police station merely said that Monika had filed her complaint and left. Next, they tried the labour welfare department. There, the labour officer in charge patiently explained the law to an incredulous audience.

There was no way Monika could claim redress, he said. Domestic workers were part of the unorganised sector, which was largely unprotected by the existing labour laws. The Domestic Workers’ Welfare and Social Security Act 2010 has been stuck in the pipeline for five years now. If they could provide the details of the placement agency, something might be done about it in future. But even that would take a while. “There is a Delhi Private Placement Agencies (Regulation) Bill,” said the official. “But it’s stuck because they are still working out the rules.”

If Monika wanted to recover the money she was owed, she could try filing a civil suit at Tees Hazari. Punishment for employers was near impossible in these cases, he said, there were simply no laws to recognise that they had committed an offence.

The absence of legislation is a problem faced by law enforcement agencies across the country. For abducted minors, there are a number of laws, such as the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act and the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act. “But for women, Section 366 is the only provision of the Indian Penal Code that we can charge the offenders with,” said Bhattacharya. It prescribes punishment for “kidnapping, abducting or inducing woman to compel her to marriage etc.”

“In theory, we have several measures, like a special task force and a state action plan. But in practice, much more needs to be done.”

The point of return

Maybe the tide of women travelling to different parts of the world cannot be turned. “It’s no use having restrictions,” Joseph said. “Agriculture is shrinking and there is no other employment. Women will go abroad to ensure a better future for their families. Without the required skill and with no language training, these women are exploited even more by their employers. In Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, the government trains these women so that they can be valuable additions to the workforce. The Indian government should do the same.”

But for now, Monika wants to go home. Delhi has given her neither money nor a better life. Yet Birbhum is a home she hasn’t visited in three years, where the very language has become strange to her.

“The rehabilitation story is one that never gets told,” says Bhattacharya. “Once a girl leaves home and returns after years, she may never be accepted in society again.” The women who endured years of an ordeal now move in a cloud of suspicion in their  native villages. So for the lucky few who do make it back, it is often a rough homecoming.