When she was a little over knee high, Badaik’s father took her on a trip. They walked through lush tea gardens, boarded a bus and reached “somewhere”.

As she took in the sights, her father turned back and went home, leaving her at the doorstep of a “nice house”.

He had sold her into slavery for Rs 500.

Badaik grew up working as a maid in the northeast Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, roughly 50 km (30 miles) from her home in the tea gardens of the neighbouring state of Assam.

In 2016, a chance meeting with another maid – a fellow teenager who had been sold off – set her on a journey. Badaik retrod the bylanes commonly used by child traffickers to cross state borders and finally found her mother and her old home.

“I think I am 16 or maybe 17 now,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, sitting in New Purubari village in the heart of a tea garden in Assam’s Biswanath district.

She was born here, but has little memory of the place. “I went when I was tiny and have come back all grown up,” she said. “I had forgotten my family, my language, my home. I am slowly reconnecting.”

Villagers say she is lucky to have found her way back.

Rich pickings

Across the tea plantations of Assam, where poverty is deeply entrenched, hundreds of thousands of children have gone missing, activists say.

“Agents and sometimes even families from Arunachal Pradesh drive into the tea gardens, pick any child and go,” said Moni Darnal of non-profit Jagriti Samiti, which is running awareness campaigns on child trafficking. “They take them as young as three and four so that they can train them to do household chores. It’s become an accepted norm and it is that simple.”

India’s 2011 census recorded more than four million labourers aged 5-14, out of 168 million globally, but campaigners say millions more are at risk due to poverty. More than half toil in farms, one in four work in manufacturing and others are in homes and hotels, washing dishes, chopping vegetables, cleaning and scrubbing floors. Children may be sold for a few hundred rupees by desperate parents, sometimes for more than Rs 100,000 by profit-hungry agents, according to child rights campaigners.

“On Monday, we rescued a child from the home of a former minister,” said Jumtum Minga, who runs a helpline for children in Arunachal Pradesh’s capital Itanagar. “Like him, most employers are influential people, many in government. They all employ children because they don’t have to pay them anything. Children are not demanding and so owners treat them as private property.”

Between January 2016 and July this year, the Itanagar Childline registered 91 cases of child labour in the city and took 26 children back home.

Other children don’t know where they are from anymore. They are just “tea garden children” and employers make sure they have no contact with their parents, campaigners say. “The circumstances are getting worse,” said Stephen Ekka of PAJHRA, a charity in Assam fighting for tea workers’ rights.

The tea industry in Assam, the world’s largest, has been in crisis for years, with accusations of slave labour and exploitative work conditions, leading to labour disputes that have forced some plantations to shut.

Sunita Changkakati, head of Assam’s commission for the protection of child rights, said the risk of slavery is growing.

“Many childhoods are being lost,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “We are working with great urgency to create awareness and prevent cases of trafficking and child labour. It is an uphill task.”

Listing a lid

Badaik’s is a rare, first-hand account of life as a child slave, since not much is known of what happens to children after they are sold off.

“At first, I remember doing nothing, just playing in the house,” Badaik recalled. “Then I was shown how to peel garlic. A little later, how to sweep and mop, then wash the utensils and do laundry. It was all gradual but by the time I was eight, I could do it all.”

She worked 17-hour days, was not allowed to step out of the house and had no friends. When Badaik grew up, she was told her salary was Rs 100 rupees a month. “The madam said she was putting it in the bank and they used it when I was sick or needed something.”

Many employers believe providing food and shelter is enough, said a senior bureaucrat in Arunachal Pradesh who requested anonymity. “There is a demand which we cannot deny. Many families don’t see it as against the law and there are rarely any complaints that come for us to take action,” she said.

Slap in the face

After the chance encounter with her fellow maid, Badaik started looking for clues that would lead her back home. On a borrowed mobile phone, she called a number and then another, until she found an uncle.

Determined to go back, Badaik asked her employers for help. They refused and locked her up.

“Madam told me that they had kept me as their family but as I was growing up, I knew they were not my family,” she said. “I told madam that her daughter came home for the holidays but I had never been home for the last 10 years. She relented.”

When Badaik walked into New Purubari village last year, she only remembered where the church was. “My uncle carried me, my mother hugged and wept while my father stood in a corner,” she said. “I slapped him. How could he just leave me there and never come to check on me? I was not an orphan but always felt like one.”

Now Badaik has to retread the back lanes for one final task in Arunachal Pradesh – she is on a mission to find her younger sister, similarly sold off by their father to work as a maid.

This article first appeared on Thomson Reuters Foundation News.