KIDS SOLD FOR OXEN IN ARUNACHAL!

VICTIMS: In Arunachal Pradesh, according to a report in the Quint, 11-year-old children are trafficked on the excuse that they will be educated. The ground reality is that they are used as child labour. This is true of many North Eastern states such as Meghalaya where minors are used in open cast coal mining.

In a Union Territory which was described as the jewel of India by Union Home Minister Amit Shah, there are still practices among the tribes of selling children for settlement of loans.

When Agang Soja was just 11 years old, a man took her away from her home in Sangchu village, which is a settlement of the Puroik tribe in Arunachal Pradesh’s East Kameng district. Her family did not dare question the man, Yulo Tajo of the Nyishi tribe, too much: He was, after all, the “malik” (owner) of Agang’s father.
Sitting in a dimly lit hut in Sangchu village, Agang’s sister Papi Soja, 22, said the family hasn’t seen the 11-year-old since that day in October 2019. Recalling the incident, Papi told ThePrint: “He (Yulo Tajo) came one day and took her away saying that he will make her study… we are very worried.”
Asked why her family hadn’t registered a complaint, Papi said, “He (Yulo Tajo) is like my father’s Nyishi brother… We are thinking of complaining, but if bhaiyya (big brother) is making her study, then that’s fine.”
Behind the idyllic charm of Arunachal Pradesh, which attracts tourists in droves, thrives a tribal feudal system that’s akin to slavery. The victims of this system are the Puroiks, who were once called “Sulungs”, a derogative term signifying vassal status.
While Puroiks are spread across six districts in Arunachal Pradesh, a majority of them reside in East Kameng. For hundreds of years, Puroiks have served as ‘slaves’ to the Miji and Nyishi tribes in the district, working on their fields, tending to their cattle, and taking care of household chores.
In March 1999, the East Kameng district administration issued an order banning the feudal practice after over 3,000 Puroiks were found to be working as bonded labourers. However, 23 years since the order was passed, members of this tribal community continue to be ‘bought’, especially by the Nyishis (also known as Nishings or Bangnis) in pockets of Arunachal Pradesh.
Even the Nyishis acknowledge the existence of this practice. “If the Sulung people sell their children, then we (Nyishis) will have to buy them. These people then work in our farms and as labourers at construction sites. They work for their own food, etc. There must be a few Sulungs here,” Khyabing Bagang, the gaonbura (village headman) of the Nyishi village of Jayang Bagang, about a 60-minute drive from Agang Soja’s village, said. He is among those who still refer to the Puroiks as Sulungs.
Nearly three years since she last saw her sister, Papi Soja said it is “common for girls to be bought during marriages”. Papi, too, has been a victim of this archaic practice. “My husband’s malik bought me, and gave my malik money instead of the usual mithun (wild oxen or gayal),” she said.
Sitting across from Papi, another villager, Yaro Soja, narrated a similar ordeal. About eight years ago, her daughter, Meijo Soja — 12 years old at the time — was taken away by a Nyishi man, who was a malik from an adjacent area. “We aren’t even allowed to see my daughter. We were told that they won’t give her back. We are only thinking of getting her released,” Yaro said.
Roots of tribal feudal system run deep
History indicates that this form of bonded labour has its roots in economic dependence and debt, Robin Hissang, principal of the Government College in East Kameng’s Seppa, told ThePrint.
“According to oral narratives, the Puroiks and the Nyishis had a certain economic relationship. The Nyishis were well to do. The Puroiks had taken loans from them, but couldn’t pay back the debt,” Hissang said.
A 1994 report by the Ministerial Committee on Resettlement of Puroik Families describes the genesis of the skewed equation between the Nyishis and the Puroiks. “According to the Puroiks…the Nishings [Nyishis] somehow entered their area and made friendship with them and brought them into close contact by persuasion and by offering salt, beads, clothing, daos [swords], local beer etc,” the report says.
“Gradually they made the Puroiks work in their agriculture fields and thus, by and by, the Nishings exploited the Puroiks who have had a number of obligations to the Nishing and in fact till recent years were virtual serfs,” it adds.
In 1996, following a Supreme Court order, the Centre directed all states to undertake a survey of bonded labourers and ensure the implementation of the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act of 1976.
The survey conducted in East Kameng at the time had found that at least 80 per cent of the over 3,000 Puroiks in the district were under the servitude of either the Nyishi or Miji tribes. It was only in March 1999 that the East Kameng district administration banned the feudal practice.
Subsequently, in a note from 1999, titled ‘Information on Bonded Labour’, the district administration recorded that following the ban, 2,992 of the 3,452 bonded labourers in the district had been released.
However, authorities are still struggling to stamp out this exploitative practice. “On paper, no one is bonded now. But there are a few pockets in the Sawa area and one or two places in Chayangtajo where it still happens,” a district official said, on condition of anonymity.
“In East Kameng, the situation has become better for 50 per cent of the Puroiks. But, in Kurung Kumey district, the situation is even worse and none of the Puroiks have been released,” Takeya Soja, a member of the Arunachal Pradesh government-constituted Autonomous Puroik Welfare Board, said.
‘Will hack us to death if we say anything’
As far back as 1975, the Arunachal Pradesh government had implemented a village regrouping scheme to help the Puroiks get back on their feet. Prior to the scheme, Puroiks did not own land and lived in small and scattered settlements.
Like Sangchu, Tagampu village in Chayangtajo was one of the resettlements built for the Puroiks in the 1970s and 1980s under the state government scheme.
“When we came here during the resettlement, we got some freedom. In the past, we would have to collect rangbang (wild sago palm, from which a staple flour is made), bamboo, and other things for the Bangnis (Nyishis). We would also have to give them whatever we had hunted from the jungle,” Siang Saji, a member of the gram panchayat, said.
Siang and most of Tagampu’s residents have broken free from this feudal system, but others in the district are still trapped.
Located 26 km from the circle headquarters, Mara Tassar is among the nine villages in Chayangtajo built for Puroiks. The only way to reach Mara Tassar is an arduous 90-minute trip through mountainous terrain that ends in a clearing surrounded by hills. In this clearing stand just five wooden huts with tin roofs.
“I helped make this settlement in 1981. The government gave this land to us along with Rs 2,500 to each of the 22 households. Now, most people have left [for job opportunities or education], and only five houses are left,” Thukik Kapek, 65, told ThePrint.
The Puroiks who still work for the Nyishis in the region are forced to live in or near the homes of their malik.
Kapek’s daughter was married to a boy working in a Nyishi household in another village, Jayang Bagang. “The boy was bought by the Bangni (Nyishi). They gave us three mithun (oxen) at the time of marriage and she lives and works in that house now,” he said.
Khyabing Bagang, the village headman of Jayang Bagang, said some Puroiks do have their own houses, but built close to that of the malik‘s. They are dependent on their malik for food and clothes and typically do not receive salaries. Their movement is restricted and they aren’t allowed to visit their families or return to their villages, another villager from Mara Tasssar, Lago Kapek, said.
A second district official, who did not wish to be identified, told ThePrint that he hasn’t received a “single complaint so far” in this regard.
In the rare case that a complaint is lodged, a committee comprising the officer-in-charge of the local police station, a doctor, the child development project officer, and social workers, is constituted to look into the matter.
“They (members of the committee) check whether there’s been exploitation and then call in the two concerned parties, following which there’s a hearing before the additional deputy commissioner (ADG),” the official said, adding that the person is freed if he/she is found to be engaged in bonded labour. They are either sent back to their families or are trained in skills that will help them earn a livelihood.
“There are a few Bangnis who buy our ladka (boys) and ladki (girls) for mithun. The maliks do this even now. If they refuse to work for the Bangni (Nyishi), they are beaten,” Lago Kapek said.
“Who will complain? Everyone is scared. They say they will attack us with daos (traditional swords). They say they will hack us to death if we say anything,” he added.
Complex Puroik-Nyishi ties
Living in close proximity to the Nyishis across generations, some among the Puroiks in Chayangtajo have accepted this serfdom-like system. This has further emboldened some Nyishis to see themselves as the guardians of the ‘lesser’ tribe. Indeed, the belief that Puroiks are dependent on their largesse has embedded itself in the Nyishi culture.
“The Sulungs are on their own now, but we have taken care of them for hundreds of years, given them clothes, food, everything. Today also if they fall sick we help them. We should be given some compensation,” Kamko Tongi, a village headman from Sawa circle, said.
Given the complexity of this problem, crackdowns and rescue operations can only accomplish so much. “This is a deeply sociological problem. In some cases, those released went back to their so-called master. This will take more than just a simple legal approach,” Pravimal Abhishek, Deputy Commissioner of East Kameng district, said.
To bring about systemic change, there also needs to be a push for awareness, education, economic stability, political representation, and better job prospects for the Puroiks.
While the onset of cultural change in this part of Arunachal Pradesh has been slow, there has been some progress. For example, the establishment of ‘Arunodaya’ — a Puroik-only colony in Seppa by the district administration — has led to an increase in the growing number of educated villagers within the community.
“We have benefitted from the setting up of a colony in Seppa. The Puroiks have been able to come here, live here, study… some have even gotten jobs,” Kumar Janju, 35, who hails from East Kameng’s Lada circle, told ThePrint.
Nevertheless, employment prospects are still limited for the Puroiks.
“Many people from the community are now educated, but there are not enough who have steady jobs. If Puroiks don’t get jobs now, how will they eat? This has pushed us back into darkness,” Puni Puroik, 56, the first woman from the tribe to hold a government job (as a supervisor with the Integrated Child Development Services), said.
Another impediment to change is that despite having a distinctive language and culture, according to researchers, the Puroiks are classified as a “sub-tribe” of the Nyishis.
“We don’t have any reservation or quota. The Nyishis take all the reservations,” Tarang Soja, the gram panchayat chairperson of Sangchu, said.
“There are 46 Puroik villages and several gram panchayats, but not a single zila parishad member from the community. We always have to fight for work or political representation,” he added.
So far, there have only been two members of the legislative assembly from the Puroik tribe, and both were nominated by the then government of Arunachal Pradesh: Dambing Saria in 1980 and Siji Jully in 1985. In 1989, two years after Arunachal Pradesh became a full-fledged state, the system of nominating MLAs was scrapped, and since then there has been no MLA from the community.
In 2020, the All Puroik Welfare Society wrote to the chief electoral officer demanding that one MLA seat be allocated to someone from the Puroik community.
ThePrint tried to reach State Election Commissioner Hage Kojeen through phone to find out where this demand stands, but did not get a response until the time of filing this report. This article will be updated if a response is received.
Meanwhile, some Puroiks are working to plant the seeds of change in the community and are speaking out against the feudal system. Some like Siang Saji of Tagampu, are asserting themselves by challenging the power equation through how they use language and practice local customs.
“We don’t say malik (owner) anymore, even if they give us mithun during our wedding. I will also help them during their weddings by giving them mithun,” Saji said.

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