In this desperately poor corner of India, villagers with handicapped children were among the few people making any money. For years, they sent their children - deformed by burns or birth defects - to Saudi Arabia to beg.
The practice was little-known until Saudi Arabia deported 76 Indian girls last week. Now, Indian officials are investigating the exporting of beggar children to wealthy Arab nations, and the girls are coming home to families less than happy to see them.
“We will have to starve now as we do not have any other source of income,” said Altaf Hossain, who described how he had sold his 16-year-old daughter to a trafficking ring for beggars.
Hossain, who lives in Murshidabad, a farming district 120 miles north of Calcutta, said his daughter, Begum Khatun, was among the girls flown from Jidda, Saudi Arabia, back to Bombay, India, on Jan. 12.
At first, police and social workers in Bombay were baffled by the arrival of the girls, some as young as 6 years old and many with physical handicaps or deformities.
They were being cared for at four children’s homes in Bombay while authorities traced their parents and tried to arrange to send them home.
Hossain said his daughter’s feet were damaged during birth. She could not walk properly and therefore could not work. In fact, there is little work to be had in Murshidabad - there are no factories or other large-scale businesses. Most people farm, but seasonal droughts and floods prevent farming for most of the year.
So Hossain sold his daughter for $800 to traffickers who arrange passports and transportation for children to go beg in rich Arab nations. Disabled children are prized as beggars because they elicit sympathy.
The West Bengal government has ordered an investigation and plans to question the girls once they return to the state. But those involved say the traffic in beggars has been going on for about two decades and that children are being taken from villages across West Bengal and other Indian states.
Traffickers accompany the children on flights to Arab nations, posing as relatives.
One man, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said he has invested in the racket, supplying money to pay parents and buy forged passports, visas and plane tickets.
He said an investment of about $3,000 could be doubled in three months from what is collected by the children in Arab nations.
Villagers in Murshidabad said “investors” include schoolteachers, government office workers and local politicians.
It was not immediately clear how long the girls had been in the Persian Gulf region. Apparently, they lived and begged around mosques.
Social workers in Bombay said there are tattoos of flowers and fish skeletons on the hands of most of the girls - perhaps branding them as belonging to a particular boss in Saudi Arabia.
Social worker Anil Gite said one of the girls sent home from Saudi Arabia told him she had made about $100 a day and turned all of it over to her “uncles.”
The girl, Abdul Sanjana, is about 7 years old and has burn marks on her legs.
She said she was burned in West Bengal before leaving, but it was not clear if traffickers deliberately had disfigured her for the trip.