UL 09 – It was in April this year when three worried adults in Humla submitted a letter of appeal to the Central Child Welfare Board (CCWB), a statutory body under the Ministry of Women, Children and Social Welfare. Humble words requested for help in repatriating girl children from Tamil Nadu, India- “…a place wherefrom it is impossible to learn of their well being and condition…and where our children have expressed over the telephone their inability to continue staying”-the letter states in Nepali.
Guardians Dhan Maya Lama, Saraswati Lama and Krishna Lama (names changed) of Humla had entrusted the responsibility of their children to a local politician in the year 2004, convinced of his promises to educate them in a boarding school in Kathmandu, away from the conflict-ridden place that Humla was in those years. But in the year 2006, the parents came to learn that their children had been taken all the way down to Tamil Nadu, and they were not even informed about it. “When he first took them, we gave him money for taking our children to a better place. But it has been seven years now and he refuses to bring them back to us,” said Dhan Maya over the telephone from Humla.
Claimed by many villagers in Humla, such a practice—of entrusting one’s child into the hands of people with authority, along with sums of money—has been a resort for many parents, as they trust those more empowered to give their children a better future. The families of Dhan Maya, Saraswati and Krishna followed suit and their children were taken away, later enrolled at the Michael Job Centre in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu—a Christian organisation that claims to house and provide education to orphan girls.
About four years ago, another Humli parent Dhiren Lama (name changed) along with five friends hunted down the person who had taken their children away. UML member Dal Bahadur Phadera was coerced by the group to bring their children back. Phadera had succumbed then, taking the group of guardians with him to the Michael Job Centre in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu. “We had to spend so much money to finally track him down, but even then he tried to assuage us by saying, ‘Let me celebrate Tihar first, and then I shall get your kids’,” recalls Dhiren. Dhiren and his friends invested significantly in making their way from Humla, to Kathmandu and Gorakhpur, en route to Tamil Nadu. But unlike him, Dhan Maya, Saraswati and Krishna, have yet to gather finances and the courage to make Phadera bring their children back.
Dhiren’s niece, who was brought back with 12 other girls talked of receiving an education in Tamil Nadu. The place appeared to be good for children in Dhiren’s eyes too, letting one believe that such a case would be hard to define as trafficking. But says Dhiren: “He (Phadera) is not a good man. I had given him Rs. 12,000 when I handed my niece over to him and a separate Rs. 3,000 to my niece for her personal expense. But Phadera snatched the money off her hands.”
The Michael Job Centre claims to have a mission of saving orphaned girls of Christian martyrs, after the principal Dr. P.P Job’s own son, Michael, was run down with a car—as the website claims—by radical Hindus of India. Also accepting orphans of any other religion, it has had a record of receiving girls from Nepal. But the centre’s reputation would best be defined as ambiguous. A news report titled ‘Mother seeks return of her daughter’ (Apr. 30 2010) from the Manipur Mail informs of 20 Manipuri girls from Churachandpur district to have been “beaten to bleeding” and confined all days inside the Michael Job campus. Could this be a reason why the children express their inability to stay in the centre, as stated in the letter?
What Dhan Maya, Saraswati and Krishna should ideally have done is filed a First Information Report (FIR) with the local police, enabling rescue organisations in India to enter and investigate the alleged institute where their children are kept. But uninformed of these criminal justice procedures, and unsure of its advice from local NGOs and INGOs, Dhan Maya went back to Phadera instead to consult the matter. “He was extremely angry when I talked to him about this,” recalls Dhan maya, who told the Post of Phadera’s bullying ways whenever she gathered her voice to ask of her child. “The school is good, don’t file the report,” Phadera would tell her and end the conversation. Corroborations with officers of a local NGO in Humla that works closely with Humli families to bring back their lost children confirm the same.
Dal Bahadur Phadera, known to anti-trafficking organisations in Kathmandu as ‘DB’, is known to exert considerable fear and influence among civilians in Humla. He is a martial arts practitioner, say some and “someone who follows you around if you come in his way” others. But the man and his notoriety are an open secret among Humlis, child rights officers and administrators in government and non-government bodies, who take his name easily when discussed with about child trafficking. A child rights officer of the District Child Welfare Board claims Phadera to “not have stopped trafficking entirely” whereas an officer at the Central Child Welfare Board acknowledges his reputation as a trafficker.
But aside from these sources who are cautious with their comments, evidence of Phadera’s history in trafficking lies in Saroj Adhikari’s article ‘Bal Balika ko Rahasmaya Osaar Pasaar’ in the July 2006 issue of Nepal magazine. Adhikari reports the stark discrepancy between the number of children registered in a dozen schools in the Valley where Phadera claims to have enrolled them, and the number actually present. “Details given by Dal Phadera state 32 minors to have been enrolled in Pushpanjali Boarding School in Taukhel, but the school’s teacher Sharada Lamichhane of the Accounts Department claims 14 of them to be absent,” he writes. Additional proof of Phadera’s engagement in trafficking children comes from a group of children rescued by the non-profit organisation Next Generation Nepal. Currently staying at their children’s home in Balkot, 16-year-old Sravan Puri (name changed) gives a heart-rending testimony of leaving home for Kathmandu when he was eight, being taken in custody by Dal Phadera, and eventually being forced to beg in the streets for money and at another time, being paid Rs. 25 for three months of washing dishes at a hotel. Similar testimonies have come from Sravan’s friends, who now in their late teens, were all victims of Phadera’s guile. “DB used to bring volunteers to the orphanage in Mathatirtha, but he would take away all the goodies and stationary items they would bring for us,” he shares of his days in the Mathatirtha orphanage run under Phadera’s organisation Himali Anath Bal Bikas Kendra (Himali Orphan Child Development Centre). Both the orphanage and the organisation closed down in the year 2006 after the orphanage was discovered to have been run illegally.
Put into custody for three days by the Nepal Police in the same year, Phadera was released by the sheer weight of his political influence, reports Adhikari, now with the Kantipur Daily. Not once charged for his trafficking activities since, Phadera continues to remain free today.
In a telephone conversation with the Post, Phadera claimed of not taking any money from parents in Humla. “I do not know who Dhiren is, besides, when members of the UCPN (Maoist) party kidnapped me on charges of several complaints of trafficking, it was done with political motives and for character assassination,” he added, regarding an accusation by members of UCPN (Maoist) of Humla in the year 2006-7. Interestingly, in a statement denying charges from the UCPN (Maoist), Phadera quotes the name of a certain ‘Chakkra Shahi’ as a trafficker, who is also named by a villager in the documentary Paper Orphans by Terre Des Hommes, a Swiss humanitarian organisation that gives assistance to children in need, to have carried out similar activities of deceiving Humli parents and taking children away.
The Human Trafficking and Transportation Control Act (2007) and Regulation (2008)— as mentioned in the 2011 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report issued by the US Government in June this year—subjects persons guilty of trafficking to 10 to 20 years’ imprisonment. Phadera has not been subject to any such punishment.
This issue of families being deceived by traffickers in the Karnali region has been addressed for the first time in the 2011 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report, and so have the impunity enjoyed by politically-connected perpetrators and the negative effect it has had in the number of trafficking cases filed with the police. But slow justice and a long wait before reunification remains the reality of most families, who in their circumstances have unwittingly lost their children.
Dhan Maya, Saraswati and Krishna wait for what assistance can come from their local NGO and the DCWB in response to their letter of appeal. Says the NGO officer who has been contacted by the CCWB for coordination: “We have asked for institutional and strategic help in our letter in response to the CCWB, but we have yet to send it.”