A mass migration of tens of thousands of people from rural India, sparked by the worst drought in decades, is fuelling concerns they may be trafficked or exploited.
The migrants are searching for water, food, jobs and other basics of life, activists say.
About 330 million people, almost a quarter of the country’s population, are now affected by drought, the government estimates. Destitute women, children and older family members left behind in the villages are most at risk of exploitation.
“People in the rural areas have always been vulnerable because they want better jobs, better lives,” said Mangala Daithankar at non-profit Social Action for Association and Development in Pune, in western Maharashtra state.
“The drought has aggravated the situation because they are so desperate now. They have absolutely nothing,” said Daithankar, who has worked in the state’s drought-hit Marathwada region for about two decades.
Maharashtra is one of the worst-affected states, with successive years of poor rainfall ravaging crops, killing livestock, drying up reservoirs and forcing farmers into indebtedness that has led to thousands of suicides.
In the state’s Jalna district, scores of villages house only destitute women and children left in the care of older relatives who keep an eye on their homes and parched fields.
“There’s no water, so there are no jobs to be had on the fields and no food to feed their families,” said Vishwanath Todkar at non-profit Paryay in Osmanabad district, which is helping build water management systems in some villages.
“The women and children are particularly vulnerable, as there is no one looking out for them,” he said.
Men and their wives have moved to cities like Mumbai and Pune in search of jobs on construction sites and as day labourers, sleeping under overpasses and on sidewalks. Some have been reduced to begging on the streets, activists say.
Others, with their families, have been lured to work for little money in harsh conditions in one of the hundreds of brick kilns in the state. Many single women and widows have been trafficked into prostitution in the cities.
“Disasters are the ground zero for trafficking,” said Dhananjay Tingal, executive director at Bachpan Bachao Andolan (Save the Childhood Movement), which says it has rescued more than 85,000 children from modern slavery in India.
“Everyone’s so focused on just getting by, that they are easy prey,” he said.
A police spokesman in Mumbai said police had not found cases of drought-related human trafficking but were aware of the rise in migration and remained vigilant.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has pledged a nationwide drive to conserve water, but activists and economists have slammed the government’s lack of “compassion” on the issue.
In an open letter to Modi, 170 activists, academics and economists said the drought had resulted in “massive distress movement of populations, causing broken childhoods, interrupted education, life in camps, city pavements or crowded shanties.”
In Maharashtra, among the wealthiest states in the country, the drought has not stemmed the flow of migrants from neighbouring Karnataka state and elsewhere, seeking work. The drought has hit an estimated 10 million people in Karnataka.
In some places the drought is spurring the migration of entire families, including the elderly and children who would traditionally have been left behind, activists say.
“The crisis is by far the worst the region has seen in many years. There is no fodder, no water and no agriculture in the region as of now,” said Amlan Aditya Biswas, regional commissioner in Gulbarga in North Karnataka.
“We are concerned about the spurt in migration,” he said.
The state government is working on building farm ponds and desilting tanks in the hope that the monsoon rains in June will fill them and provide some relief to small farmers, he said.
For now, those left behind in the villages are tending to their fields, digging wells and laying down drip irrigation systems as they await the monsoon rains — which are expected to be above average this year, easing some fears.
“It all depends now on the rains,” said Daithankar. “People will come back to the villages if the rains are good. Otherwise there is nothing for them to come back to.”