By Anuradha Nagaraj
BETTIAH, India, April 18 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When Girija Devi's daughter got married, the "orchestra" did not play. Going against Indian tradition, Devi's family decided that they would not entertain their guests with music and dancing.
Devi made the decision, despite protests from the groom's family, after she heard that many of the girls in dance troupes - known locally as orchestras - hired to perform at weddings in the eastern state of Bihar were victims of human trafficking.
"I was shocked when I heard that these girls had been tricked," Devi told the Thomson Reuters Foundation at her home.
"I couldn't reconcile the fact that while my daughter was getting married, somebody else's daughter was being forced to put up a show and entertain largely drunk men," she added.
Many households in the West Champaran region say they have stopped paying for dancers at their family weddings, hoping that the dip in demand will stem the supply of trafficked girls from neighbouring West Bengal state and across the border from Nepal.
Yet cops and campaigners say the crime is tough to crack as the custom is so popular while traffickers prey on girls - some as young as 12 - and their families by promising dance lessons, good earnings and the prospect of stardom on stage or screen.
The state's comprehensive train network and porous border with Nepal have long enabled traffickers to move girls easily and sell them to dance groups, according to several activists.
"They bring unsuspecting women in droves and quickly disperse them into the 250-odd orchestras that operate in the area," said Shishir Michael, programme manager with the charity Fakirana Sisters' Society that rescues children from slavery.
"The orchestras, as the locals call them, are more than just a song and dance set-up. They are fronts for brothels as well."
Much sought after during weddings, these troupe performances have often resulted in fights, shootings and even deaths, according to the police, which has sporadically banned them.
There is a fine line between entertainment and exploitation in the orchestras, said police superintendent Jayant Kant.
"They are performing at happy occasions, making police intervention tough and rescues few and far in between. But we keep an eye (on it)," said Kant, an officer in Bettiah city.
'VALUE FOR MONEY'
For five years, Chandrika Ram travelled between his village and Kolkata in West Bengal - which recorded more than a third of the 8,000 human trafficking cases reported across India in 2016 - bringing back girls to sell to dance troupe owners in Bettiah.
"The profits were huge," said Ram, who paid middlemen and relatives of the girls up to 10,000 Indian rupees ($144) and then sold them to troupes for as much as 10 times that price.
"I didn't think about what would happen to the girls after I sold them for 10 times the price I had bought them for. It was pure greed," added Ram, who is now an anti-trafficking advocate.
Ram, who has a daughter, said he had cashed in on Bollywood-inspired wedding celebrations that became a fad two decades ago.
Young girls were considered "value for money" by troupe owners as they could be moulded and taught easily, he added.
Ram said that the state's rich cultural and artistic heritage encouraged parents to teach their children music and dance, much sought after skills for the orchestras across Bihar.
"Traffickers exploit these aspirations ... of making it big in theatre or movies ... and talk about how girls can earn from their hobby," said Subhashree Raptan, coordinator at anti-trafficking charity Goranbose Gram Bikash Kendra (GGBK).
Leela, who declined to give her real name, recalls being drugged, kidnapped and held by a dance troupe for almost a year.
"I didn't understand their language or what they wanted of me," the 16-year-old said by phone from her home in South 24 Parganas district in West Bengal, recounting how she suffered beatings as a punishment for mistakes during the performances.
"I wanted to go home and somehow managed to call my brother who then told the police. I came back knowing many others were trapped forever," she said, adding that she was lucky to escape.
The Institute for Developmental Education & Action (IDEA), a charity that works with communities in and around Motihari town, said it rescued about 50 girls from dance troupes last year, up from a dozen or so annual rescues recorded in previous years.
"Over the years, the art aspect of these performances at weddings ... has died," said Digvijay Kumar, director of IDEA.
"The revelers are drunk and fights erupt over choice of song and men trying to grab the women," Kumar said. "In February, an orchestra girl was shot and last year, a groom was killed. The girls are so young and scared, but have no way to resist."
State officials in West Champaran are monitoring the troupes through a helpline for children in distress, have organised awareness campaigns and met with orchestra owners, warning them of legal action if trafficked women are involved in their shows.
"When I was a junior official, I used to stop the orchestras but there was always a lot of public backlash," said Nilesh Ramchandra Deore, the administrative head of West Champaran.
"There is public acceptance for this crime."
As this year's wedding season wound up in March, 11 villages celebrated their success of hosting "orchestra free marriages".
"Once we realised the orchestra girls had been trafficked, we knew it had to stop," said Dhonda Mukhiya, a member of the vigilance committee of Bin Toli village, which seeks to prevent child marriages and human trafficking.
Campaigners have used stories of deaths at weddings, the cost of hiring orchestras and suggested alternatives such as screening a film in a bid to win people over and stop the trend.
Mukhiya said that first efforts were met with hostility, but that it was a matter of slowly convincing more and more people.
"It is not easy, but we simply cannot allow this anymore," he said. "Some traditions have to die."
But for Deepa Devi, ending the practice may not be enough.
She was 11 years old when she was trafficked into a dance troupe near Bettiah and has spent more than a decade performing.
"I didn't have a choice when I was taken from my home," she said, sitting in the courtyard of a house with two big speakers - a tell-tale sign that the owner is the head of a dance troupe.
"And I can't go back now. I wouldn't know where to go. Besides, I have to repay money I borrowed from the troupe owner to pay for the dress I was forced to buy for the dances."
($1 = 69.5240 Indian rupees)
(Reporting by Anuradha Nagaraj @AnuraNagaraj; Editing by Kieran Guilbert. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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