Orchestra Trafficking in Bihar: A Dark Tale of Exploitation and Neglect

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An accused in chains involved in forcing a young orchestra girl to dance at a party in Bihar.

By Sami Ahmad

PATNA—In the heartland of India, the state of Bihar has been grappling with a silent but sinister epidemic – the trafficking of young girls, often minors, into the world of orchestras. These orchestras, meant for celebratory events like weddings and religious gatherings, have become the clandestine backdrop for the exploitation and abuse of these vulnerable young souls.

On September 16, 2023, the newspapers and media outlets in Patna buzzed with a disturbing video clip that had gone viral. The video depicted a harrowing scene: an orchestra band dancer, visibly frightened and seemingly a minor, was forced to dance at gunpoint by two men. This chilling incident reportedly occurred in Shankapur village of Shahpur Diara, in the Danapur subdivision, not far from Bihar’s state capital, Patna.

The video sent shockwaves through the community, drawing attention to a grim reality that has been festering beneath the surface for years. In response, ASP Abhinav Dhiman announced that a case had been registered based on the viral video, and efforts were underway to apprehend the two culprits.

This alarming incident is just one among countless others in Bihar, where approximately 3,500 orchestras operate. According to anti-trafficking activists, these girls are often trafficked from neighboring states like West Bengal and Nepal.

One such survivor, Saumya (name changed), was rescued from the clutches of an orchestra group with the assistance of a Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) called the Mutki Mission Foundation (MMF). Virendra Kumar Singh, MMF’s director, highlighted the vulnerability of girls from impoverished backgrounds. He recounted the story of a girl rescued from West Champaran, Bihar, who hailed from the Sundarbans area of West Bengal.

This young girl used to accompany her father, who begged on trains. She was approached by a woman who promised her family a well-paying domestic job in Bihar. However, upon arrival, she was thrust into the world of orchestras and coerced into dancing. It was only through the combined efforts of MMF, local authorities, and the girl’s father, who sought help through a journalist, that she was eventually rescued.

Riya Singh, a professional orchestra dancer, was thrust into this harrowing world at the tender age of 13 in 2014. She is currently fighting a legal battle against Manoj Kumar, who had promised her family that Riya would receive an education and secure a respectable job in Patna. However, her dreams were shattered.

Riya shared her painful journey, revealing that despite arriving in Patna for schooling, she was never enrolled in any educational institution. Instead, she was compelled to learn dance and earn money for her captors. Cut off from her family for a year, she was isolated and powerless. Even when she managed to reunite with her family, Manoj Kumar continued to exert pressure on them.

Today, at 21, Riya performs as an orchestra dancer on her own terms. She revealed that girls as young as 12 or 13 are coerced into this life. Traffickers employ various tactics, promising families a brighter future for their daughters, while some girls are deceived by their own boyfriends, leading to abandonment by their families.

Sunitha Krishnan, a Padmshree Awardee and anti-human trafficking activist heading Prajwala India, highlighted that while the plight of orchestra girls is a nationwide concern, Bihar stands out for its high incidence of trafficking, encompassing both sex trafficking and labour trafficking. Various states have different names for such practices, like ‘record dance’ in Telugu-speaking regions.

Krishnan stressed that economic conditions play a significant role in fueling this crisis. She noted that there hasn’t been a comprehensive study on this issue, with the last mention being in the 2006 National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) report.

While sporadic news about orchestra girls surfaces, often accompanied by viral videos or rescue operations, the true scale of this issue remains unknown. Social activists assert that thousands of girls are caught in this web of exploitation, yet official figures are elusive.

Although orchestras are typically hired for events such as weddings, they are increasingly used for birthday parties and religious occasions, where the girls continue to face abuse and exploitation.

Recent incidents provide a glimpse into the appalling conditions these girls endure. A video of an obscene dance performance by orchestra girls, accompanied by celebratory gunfire, went viral in Munger’s Bichchi Chanchar village, triggering police action. Another orchestra dancer in Saran district filed a gang rape complaint against the orchestra owner. And in Rohtas district in July 2021, six minors were rescued from an orchestra unit, resulting in the arrest of five individuals for forced prostitution.

In response to such incidents, Bihar’s social welfare department directed district magistrates and superintendents of police to closely monitor orchestra groups employing girls. However, Raj Kumar, a sub-inspector at the Anti-Human Trafficking Unit (ATHU) in Patna, revealed that rescue operations often depend on tips received and comprehensive data is lacking.

Suresh Kumar from Centre Direct, an NGO combatting trafficking, lamented that Anti-Human Trafficking Units (AHTUs) in many districts are either non-existent or operate ineffectively due to insufficient staff.

Shahina Parween, an anti-trafficking activist, explained that the real issue lies not in what the girls do during their dances but in what transpires afterward. She emphasized that since these girls are generally underage (between 15 and 17 years old), their involvement in orchestras constitutes trafficking.

Parween called for proactive police raids on orchestras after their performances, invoking the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act. She highlighted the absence of official records regarding the number of orchestras and their licensing status.

Parween suggested that the surge in orchestra trafficking is linked to Bihar’s anti-liquor policy. With alcohol banned at marriage parties, dance girls have become a substitute form of entertainment, further driving the demand for their services.

Senior journalist Savita underscored the absence of concrete statistics on orchestra girls but estimated that Patna alone employs at least a thousand such girls. She lamented that the orchestra industry is thriving as a hub for the trafficking of minors, while authorities remain passive in tackling this grave issue.

As the orchestra trafficking crisis unfolds in Bihar, it demands immediate attention from policymakers and law enforcement agencies. The urgency of the situation cannot be overstated, as countless young lives hang in the balance, trapped in a cycle of exploitation and despair.

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