By Subir Bhaumik
BBC News, Calcutta
Traffickers take advantage of widespread poverty among women
Women leaders in India's north-eastern state of Assam say trafficking from the state has reached "dangerous proportions" over the past decade.
"More and more of our women have been lured into the national flesh trade, taken away by job or marriage offers to all over India," said Sumitra Hazarika Gogoi , a senior member of the Assam State Women Commission.
"We have rescued some recently and they all have very sad tales to say."
Mrs Gogoi told the BBC in an interview that many top politicians and police officials in the state were involved in the women trafficking racket.
"This is a huge scandal waiting to be exposed and we will do it when we have all the evidence," said Mrs Gogoi.
The Assam government last month asked all district police superintendents to take stern action against those trafficking in women and children.
That happened after the recently-concluded session of the Assam state assembly, when all 13 of its women legislators, who span the political divide, voiced grave concern over growing incidents of trafficking and demanded stern punishment for the offenders.
Many women are unaware they are being exploited
They alleged a powerful gang is running the trafficking business and earning millions of rupees.
Senior Minister Rockybul Hussain said during the debate that the traffickers lured young women belonging to poor families away from the state with promises of marriage and jobs.
"A powerful gang is also involved in systematic abduction of women and female children," the minister said.
Between 2000 and 2007, 413 people were arrested in 150 cases of trafficking registered under the Immoral Trafficking (Prevention) Act.
Charge sheets have been filed in 48 cases, final reports submitted in 20 cases and 82 cases are still pending investigation, Assam police say.
But Mrs Gogoi says the "big fish are still at large".
Kamali Basumatary of the Bodoland People's Front says most of the victims of trafficking are from very poor families.
"Their parents were totally ignorant of the fact that their daughters had been forced into immoral activities, having been lured outside the state with false promises," she said.
A police report last year said 3,184 women and 3,840 female children had gone missing in Assam between 1996 and 2006.
That's around two females on average trafficked each day.
The report was compiled by Assam police and their research branch, the Bureau of Police Research and Development.
"I feel the actual figure of trafficked women and children might be higher as many cases are not reported," the former chief of the Crime Investigation Department of Assam police, G Bhuiyan, told a seminar on human trafficking last year.
He said the problem could get worse because of rising rural poverty in Assam, the intricate relations between demand and supply in the sex market and a skewed sex ratio of men to women in states such as Punjab and Haryana where many of the women end up.
Mr Bhuiyan said that trafficked women and children were lured into marriage by making a token payment to their parents and then sold off.
"They are enticed by so-called recruitment agents who promise jobs in the non-formal sectors. The girls are later sold off to work as models or bar girls and pushed into prostitution.
"Due to our preoccupation with counter-insurgency operations and high priority for law and order duties, the problem of trafficking had been low in the list of priorities of the police," Mr Bhuiyan said.
Anti-trafficking campaigner Ravi Kant said that in some cases, minor girls in batches of four or five had been trafficked from Assam and openly put up for sale at prices ranging from 10,000 to 30,000 rupees ($233 to $700).
Women from Assam have recently been rescued from prostitution in states like Punjab and Haryana. Some have also been rescued from red light areas of Mumbai (Bombay).
"Rescuing these girls is a very difficult and hazardous operation, both for the girls and also for those involved in the rescue act. We are dealing with ruthless criminals," said Mrs Gogoi.
Most of these trafficked women are from camps of internally displaced people dotting Assam, particularly in the western district of Kokrajhar.
Nearly 800 people died in ethnic fighting in this area and adjoining districts between Bodo tribes people and non-Bodo communities over a decade-long period from 1994.
The area has been home to nearly a quarter of a million people who were displaced in the late 1990s. Although most have now gone back home, they are yet to be properly rehabilitated.
The police survey revealed an organised racket of "recruiters" who lure women with job offers outside the state.
Only the better-looking women in the displaced peoples' camps are offered jobs.
The parents are paid a few thousand rupees in advance, and told the daughters will send back money once they start working.
Once they go away, that rarely happens.