Slavery, alive and kicking

Trade in human lives: The need to change existing anti-trafficking laws in India is urgent

Slavery, alive and kicking

A few months back there was a news item regarding an officer of the Indian Air Force, whose daughter had gone missing in the 2004 tsunami. She had apparently been seen in a relief camp soon after the disaster and disappeared thereafter. She was periodically seen in the company of beggar gangs in different parts of the country. There were reports that she had been spotted begging in Kolar town of Karnataka last year. The affected parents have been running from pillar to post seeking their child. It is painful to imagine the anguish and despair the parents will be experiencing knowing their child is around somewhere facing untold hardships and they are unable to help.

Multiply the tragedy a thousand-fold and we have a rough picture of how human trafficking or the forced abduction and abuse of thousands of victims, mostly children, is tearing apart the fabric of our society.

Human trafficking has been defined in a wide variety of ways, but the one commonly used is the United Nations definition, namely, the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons by means of threats, use of force, coercion, abduction, fraud, and deception for abuse or exploitation.

Human trafficking is a form of modern-day slavery. After drug dealing, human trafficking is estimated to be tied with the illegal arms trade as the second largest organised criminal industry in the world, and is regarded as the fastest growing.

 In India the definition of Trafficking is conflated with exploitation for commercial sex trade, but victims may end up in a  variety of illegal trades, including indentured agricultural work, domestic servitude, factory labour, begging/street peddling, construction work, circuses, criminal activities, sex tourism, adoption rackets, camel jockeying and even in exotic trades like the ‘Devadasi’ system.

After being trafficked, the victims lose their basic rights and their exploiters use violent and coercive methods to control them which may include beatings, burnings, rape and starvation, confinement in isolation, psychological abuse, inducing drug or alcohol dependency, withholding travel documents, debt bondage, threats of deportation, threats against the victim’s family or friends etc.

It has been estimated in the Trafficking in Persons (TIP) reports that as many as 800,000 persons, overwhelmingly minors, are trafficked within India.  Cases of persons being ‘procured’ from neigh-bouring countries like Nepal, Bangladesh and Myanmar are increasing. Incidences of persons being trafficked out of India, especially to the Gulf countries, are also on the rise .

Trafficking has not generated enough heat in the discussion circles compared to say, terrorism or money laundering. This is not surprising given the socio-economic back-ground of the victims, all of whom are poor, illiterate and socially under-privileged.
Crimes of this genre often go unreported or are deliberately ignored. The net result has been the unremitting and inhuman exploitation of minors in plain sight. This abuse leads the victims to distrust outsiders; especially the law enforcement agencies and many do not identify themselves as victims; or blame themselves for their predicament.

The Indian viewpoint of trafficking as an offence ending in exploitation for commercial sex has influenced the law makers as well. Thus the law most commonly invoked to deal with crimes of this nature is the Immoral Trafficking (Prevention) Act (ITPA) of 1986. This follows a similar legislation called the Suppression of Immoral Trafficking Act (SITA) passed in 1956. Other laws used are the Bonded Labour (Abolition) Act 1976, Child Labour Act 1986, Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act 2006, the Goa and Maharashtra Children Acts, 2003 etc.

One of the problems with these enactments has been the lack of a unified definition of trafficking. Instead, there is a propensity to define trafficking in bits and pieces depending on the fate of the victim, i.e. trafficking for sexual exploitation or trafficking for bonded labour. This has resulted in the focus shifting away from the process and patterns of forced displacement by organised gangs to the end use. Another problem has been the skewed emphasis on enforcement and not protection of the victim or prevention.

Skewed emphasis

In the field of commercial sex trafficking, the focus of the Indian laws, especially the ITPA has been to penalise the offenders, mainly the commercial sex workers soliciting in ‘public places’ or occasionally pimps and brothel keepers.

 There is little by way of identifying how the victim got trafficked and transported to her present place of work. As a result, the trafficking rings continue their sinister work unabated. The victims who are often picked up by the law enforcement agencies suffer double punishment, having first been trafficked and then having been penalised.These bookings are treated as no more than statistical highlights. The victim is forced to return to her trade and the vicious chain remains unbroken.

In recent times there has been some churning in the minds of the policy makers over the question of punishing the victims. There is also a debate over legalising or at least decriminalising commercial sex work. Proponents of this step argue that through legalisation, sex workers can have unhindered access to public health facilities and will be safe from repeated harassment by the police and may even be able to assert independence from their handlers. On the other hand, opponents of the move feel that with recognition a whole new mafia may emerge in the racket of controlling licences. It has been the common perception in India that legislations are not easy to implement. If anything, new laws imply more red-tapism and obfuscation. Legalisation, therefore, is not likely to improve things.

The traditional model to fight sex trafficking worldwide is the Protection- Prosecution- Prevention or PPP model. The victim once apprehended requires  protection from her tormentors who need to be tracked down and prosecuted, and preventive measures need to be put in place so the victim is not forced to go back to her trade and the trafficking ring is busted. The Indian legal model is somewhat attuned to this model though the prevention and prosecution aspects are often overlooked.

There has been recent overhaul in the anti-trafficking orientation in several afffected countries, particularly in the United States. The focus is on a victim first approach. To this end the agencies supplement the traditional model with a Rescue- Rehabilitation- Reintegration (RRR) formula. As the approach suggests, only the first part has something to do with the law enforcement agencies, the remaining portion looks at government- civil society partnerships. It is extremely important to provide the victim with alternative livelihood skills so she can leave her past behind. The victims are invariably torn from their native communities and transported through coercion. The third step of reintegrating them with their own people is, thus, the most important.

A good model for the Indian lawmakers to look at is the anti-Trafficking enactment of the US called the Trafficked Victim Protection Act (TVPA) which came into force in 2000. This legislation has now been supplemented by the Anti Trafficking Act, 2007 which specifically targets trafficking syndicates and networks.

Children as victims

There is an emergent need to refocus on this menace in India. The sufferers are mostly children who are ruthlessly displaced and are unable to speak for themselves. Our silence invariably emboldens the inhuman elements making a killing out of selling the childhoods and innocence of the hapless victims. India has not yet ratified the UN (or the Palermo) TIP Protocol against Human Trafficking. This may perhaps be due to the provisions in the Protocol to refer cases of trafficking to the International Court of Justice which maybe interpreted as infringing upon our sovereignty. But, this can be circumvented through a conditional acceptance (as in  the US, UK and many other countries).

The need to change existing laws is urgent. Fostering Police-NGO partnerships will multiply the abilities of the police without adding to the costs. There are already many NGOs doing sterling work and help from the police and correctional services will increase their efficiency.

Human trafficking occurs predominantly across state boundaries. Given the fact that there is no federal policing in India, tackling the traffickers depends primarily on the tenuous and often fraught relationships between the different state forces. Criminal syndicates find effective harbour in these fracture-lines. Inclusion of Human trafficking in the concurrent list of our Constitution and evolving federal enforcement platforms is a crying need.

Beginnings have been made in this field and in Bangalore, Police has set up dedicated help centres for affected women and children. There are periodic meetings with NGOs and Anti Human Trafficking Units are in operation. Correctional measures need to be accelerated.Of supreme importance is building public opinion and a consensus amongst the important stakeholders.

 (The writer is an officer of Indian Police Service, serving in Karnataka.) 

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