NEW DELHI: Inside the crumbling housing estates of Shivaji Enclave, amid the boys playing cricket and housewives chatting from their balconies, winding staircases lead to places where lies a darker side to India’s economic boom.
Three months ago, police rescued Theresa Kerketa from one of these tiny two-roomed flats. For four years, she was kept here by a placement agency for domestic maids, in between stints as a virtual slave to Delhi’s middle-class homes.
“They sent me many places – I don’t even know the names of the areas,” said Kerketa, 45, from a village in Chhattisgarh state in central India.
“Fifteen days here, one month there. The placement agent kept making excuses and kept me working. She took all my salary.”
Often beaten and locked in the homes she was sent to, Kerketa was forced to work long hours and denied contact with her family. She was not informed when her father and husband died. The police eventually found her when a concerned relative went to a local charity, which traced the agency and rescued her together with the police.
Abuse of migrant maids from Africa and Asia in the Middle East and parts of Southeast Asia is commonly reported.
But the story of Kerketa is the story of many maids and nannies in India, where a surging demand for domestic help is fuelling a business that, in large part, thrives on human trafficking by unregulated placement agencies.
As long as there are no laws to regulate the placement agencies or even define the rights of India’s unofficially estimated 90 million domestic workers, both traffickers and employers may act with impunity, according to child and women’s rights activists and government officials.
Activists say the offences are on the rise and link it directly to the country’s economic boom over the last two decades.
“Demand for maids is increasing because of the rising incomes of families who now have money to pay for people to cook, clean and look after their children,” says Bhuwan Ribhu from Bachpan Bachao Andolan (Save the Childhood Movement), the charity that helped rescue Kerketa.
Economic reforms that began in the early 1990s have transformed the lifestyles of many Indian families. Now almost 30 per cent of India’s 1.2 billion people are middle class and this is expected to surge to 45 per cent by 2020.
Yet as people get wealthier, more women go out to work and more and more families live on their own without relatives to help them, the voracious demand for maids has outstripped supply.
Behind closed doors
There are no reliable figures for how many people are trafficked for domestic servitude. The Indian government says 126,321 trafficked children were rescued from domestic work in 2011/12, a rise of almost 27 per cent from the previous year.
Activists say if you include women over 18 years, the figure could run into the hundreds of thousands.
The abuse is difficult to detect as it is hidden within average houses and apartments, and under-reported, because victims are often too fearful to go to the police. There were 3,517 incidents relating to human trafficking in India in 2011, says the National Crime Records Bureau, compared to 3,422 the previous year.
Conviction rates for typical offences related to trafficking – bonded labour, sexual exploitation, child labour and illegal confinement – are also low at around 20 per cent. Cases can take up to two years to come to trial, by which time victims have returned home and cannot afford to return to come to court.
Police investigations can be shoddy due to a lack of training and awareness about the seriousness of the crime.
Under pressure from civil society groups as well as media reports of cases of women and children trafficked not just to be maids, but also for prostitution and industrial labour, authorities have paid more attention in recent years.
In 2011, the government began setting up specialised anti-human trafficking units in police stations throughout the country.
There are now 225 units and another 110 due next year whose job it is to collect intelligence, maintain a database of offenders, investigate reports of missing persons and partner with charities in raids to rescue victims.
Parveen Kumari, director in charge of anti-trafficking at the ministry of home affairs, says so far, around 1,500 victims have been rescued from brick kilns, carpet weaving and embroidery factories, brothels, placement agencies and houses.
“We realise trafficking is a bigger issue now with greater demand for labour in the cities and these teams will help,” said Kumari. “The placement agencies are certainly under the radar.”
The media is full of reports of minors and women lured from their villages by promises of a good life as maids in the cities. They are often sent by agencies to work in homes in Delhi, and its satellite towns such as Noida and Gurgaon, where they face a myriad of abuses.
In April, a 13-year-old maid heard crying for help from the balcony of a second floor flat in a residential complex in Delhi’s Dwarka area became a national cause cÃ©lÃ¨bre.
The girl, from Jharkhand state, had been locked in for six days while her employers went holidaying in Thailand. She was starving and had bruises all over her body.
The child, who had been sold by a placement agency, is now in a government boarding school as her parents are too poor to look after her. The employers deny maltreatment, and the case is under investigation, said Shakti Vahini, the Delhi-based child rights charity which helped rescue her.