NEW DELHI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Indian police rescued 63 children and arrested 23 alleged traffickers at Old Delhi railway station in one the largest joint rescue operations between anti-trafficking campaigners, railway police and child rights groups, police and activists said on Thursday.
The operation was launched after child rights groups reported receiving a tipoff that a group of traffickers and their victims were heading for the Indian capital by train from the northern town of Raxaul in Bihar state.
"We received a tipoff from the source area that there were a large group travelling on a particular train which was arriving in Delhi on Wednesday," Sanjay Bhatia, deputy commissioner for police (railways), told Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"So we worked closely with the NGOs to ensure that we did not miss them when they arrived. It was a big operation in terms of rescuing all these children and apprehending the suspects. In fact, I think it was one of the biggest in the last year."
The children were aged between 7 and 17 and were mostly from the northern states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, said Bachpan Bachao Andolan (Save the Childhood Movement), one the child rights groups involved in the operation.
The traffickers had told their parents the children would work in factories in Delhi and other cities and would be able to send money home regularly, it added.
"I was told that a lot of money would be given to me once I reached Punjab," an 8-year-old boy in the group told the BBA. "They tried very hard to convince me that a better life awaited me."
"I was promised education in one of the madrasas (religious schools) in Delhi and was also assured of a job in a factory," a rescued 13-year-old boy said.
Thousands of Indian children, mostly from poor rural areas, are taken to the cities every year by trafficking gangs who sell them into bonded labour or hire them out to unscrupulous employers, promising to send their parents their wages.
In many cases, the children are not paid and go missing, and their families are unable to track them down.
The BBA said none of those rescued on Wednesday had ever attended school, adding that initial investigations had shown that several of the men arrested had supplied child labourers to factories before.
BBA founder Kailash Satyarthi, who alerted the police to the gang’s plans, expressed serious concern about the rise in child trafficking in India.
"This is the single largest operation to free trafficked children in transit. Among those children who have been rescued from the clutches of traffickers today, the youngest one is barely seven. He was being trafficked from Bihar to be sold as a tea-boy in Jind (Haryana state)," said Satyarthi.
"At a time when a former tea-boy has dared his detractors by becoming the prime minister of India, look at the travesty that traffickers are executing such heinous crimes right under the nose of Government Railway Police in the capital of the world's largest democracy."
Prime Minister-elect Narendra Modi, who stormed to victory in national elections last week, used to help his father, a tea-seller, on railway station platforms.