Young girls face trafficking as lack of rain drives worsening rural poverty

December, 2010

Value Based Learning

The article from AlertNet brings to our attention how climate change affects people in the Nalbari  district of India, including many young girls sent from their poor homes to find work, who end up trafficked to India as prostitutes or as poorly paid factory workers

Scroll down to the end of the article for questions based on the  Earth Charter's ethical principles to evaluate the response of people in the Nalbari District to climate change. 

NALBARI DISTRICT, India (AlertNet) - The rescue of 17-year-old Nitumoni (name changed) from a brothel in Shillong city recently points to a new danger as climate change takes hold in Northeast India - trafficking of vulnerable women.

Nitumoni's widowed mother, from Madhupur village, used to work as a daily wage labourer at rice fields in her village, near the Bhutan border.

But as groundwater dries up in the region and rains fall short, farmers are giving up rice production, leaving families like Nitumoni's without work and struggling to make ends meet. So when a distant relative offered to take Nitumoni to Shillong, the capital of neighboring Meghalaya state, to work as a domestic helper, her impoverished family agreed. But the girl instead ended up in a brothel, before being rescued recently by police.

This has raised new worries about the dangers facing young girls as their already poor families struggle to cope with added burdens brought on by climate change. "It dawned on me that climate change had much broader implications than it appears. Issues like human trafficking come to the limelight only when such an incident takes place. Otherwise, nobody wants to talk about it," said Prithibhusan Deka, president of Gramya Vikas Mancha, a non-profit local development organization.

Many young girls sent from poor homes to find work end up trafficked to India as prostitutes or poorly paid factory workers, she said. The organization is now working to fight the problem, which has been growing in remote villages badly hit by erratic rainfall and near-drought situations, she said.


"This raises questions about human trafficking in the name of searching for alternate means of livelihood. We are conducting a baseline survey of young women, mostly climate refugees who are trafficked and forced into sex work in big cities in India. It is very difficult to get accurate statistics as nobody wants to talk about it. But we know that there are middlemen who are operating in these areas," Deka said.

In a growing number of villages in Assam, groundwater levels are very low and farmers are dependent on natural rainfall or dongs, traditional water channels that are the main source of irrigation and drinking water.

The age-old water management system is particularly important to the most thirsty villages in the area. Dongs are akin to small dams built on a river, with water diverted through canals to fields and backyard ponds. But gradually even the dongs are now drying up.

Due to rampant deforestation in the foothills of Bhutan, heavy rains during the monsoons now carry rocks, soil and silt that block the dongs, said Ramani Thakuria, a senior agronomist at Assam Agricultural University. And in winter, the systems increasingly run completely dry, particularly as rainfall becomes more erratic.

As a result, farmers engaged in water-intensive rice cultivation have been severely affected, with many now moving to cities in search of new work or sending family members there to supplement falling incomes on the farm.

Nitumoni, her family's oldest child, was sent to the city to help support her mother and younger siblings, according to police who raided a brothel, rescuing a number of young girls. Alarmed by the growing poverty-driven trafficking problem, Deka's organization is now working to introduce technology to help farmers earn more income at home.

Under a "rice intensification" effort, families in 100 villages in Nalbari and Baksa districts in Assam are getting training in how to grow rice with much less water and commercial fertilizer. The system, developed in the 1980s in Madagascar, has been successfully used in other parts of India.

"Water shortage and erratic rainfall is a global phenomenon due to climate change and we expect this to continue. We will have to improvise our agricultural methods accordingly to cope with the vagaries of nature," said Ramani Kanta Sarma of Rashtriya Gramin Vikas Nidhi, an Indian development NGO that gives training on rice intensification techniques.

The organization, which began introducing the system in Assam two years ago, plans to have trained farmers throughout the state within three years, Sarma said. This new technology has produced an enthusiastic response from farmers in some of the state's poorest and most remote districts.

"As community water resources were drying up, many of my fellow farmers were contemplating giving up rice cultivation. But we are looking forward to this new technology now," said Basistha Talukdar, one Nalbari district farmer.

"We have to arrange for our own water," added Ananta Kalita, a young farmer from Teteliguri village, near the Bhutan border. "There is no system to procure water from far-off places. We will have to make the best of what we have."

Teresa Rehman, 5 May 2010
Teresa Rehman is a journalist based in Northeast India. 

 A value-based ethical framework for evaluating social and ecological events, conditions and practices  Anita L. Wenden

Ecological sustainability
• How has climate change brought degradation to the Earth’s resources in Northeast India? Are people in the community or the government making any efforts to control this degradation? If so, how?

• How has the impact of climate change in North East India led to violence against young women living in poverty? Has the problem been resolved ? If so, how ? violently ? non violently?
• In such a situation is it possible that the impact of climate change on people’s lives could lead to other forms of violence or conflict? Why? What problems might be the cause of such conflict?

Social Justice
• How has climate change exacerbated the poverty of people living in Northeast India? Is the government using its resources to help people living in poverty? If so how?
• Do a web search on ’deforestation in Bhutan’ to determine whether the farmers affected by the deforestation are responsible. If so, why? If not who is?

Intergenerational Equity
• How will the impact of climate change on this community affect the quality of life of members of the community’s future generations if it remains unchecked?

Participatory Decision-making
• What action have citizens taken to deal with the impact of climate change on their community? In dealing with these problems, have the concerns of individuals and groups been solicited?
Refer to the Earth Charter's ethical principles to determine whether or not the strategies used by the people in the Nalbari district for dealing with the impact of climate change are acceptable? Discuss syour views with a friend or share them with