Saturday, September 30, 2023



I was watching #Jailer a super-hit film that was certified U/A by CBFC on Amazon Prime. What caught my attention was scenes after scenes where the #Hero was either beheading a person or chopping their ears off. The number of times people were murdered in multiple ways which was practically glorified as it was the hero who was indulging in the same, made it almost a normal affair in the entire film. 

Now why did this catch my attention and why was I bothered so much?

A few weeks back I was personally running around to get my Hindi feature film #DahiniTheWitch certified by CBFC. The committee with an officer from CBFC was singularly objecting to a scene where a #Mob was beheading a woman. The entire film by the way is on witch-hunting and is a social thriller based on true events of women being branded as witches and a vigilante mob chasing them to kill them. The film is a heroic tale of this woman who fights back and survives that experience. The director of the film who had accompanied me for the CBFC screening was trying to reason out with the committee the importance of that scene. Perhaps his method of persuasion meant he gave examples of other films where scenes of crime most probably irrelevant to the story were shown without even a cut. We were repeatedly told not to compare our film with other films. Which made me wonder, is there are  different sets of rules that apply for different films?

This difference I felt from the time I received a call from the CBFC office for the screening. It was 7pm in the evening when I was informed that our screening would be next day at 11am. When I told the person that we are coming from another city the gentleman was gracious enough to change the time to 3pm. But one question rankled me ‘who is your agent’? The response I received when I told we do not have any agent, left an uncomfortable feeling within me. For a moment I wondered whether there were Government authorized agents that I was supposed to route my film? I checked the website there was no such thing. So, who is this agent…this thought lingered in my mind? 

Next day when we reached for the screening, the gentleman who had called me the previous night told me that the application we had filed online was not complete. I told him that we are happy to rectify the same if he can point out what is the mistake (to my knowledge there were no mistakes, but who knows what these guys can point out). He asked me to come to his office. When I reached the office, there was one more gentleman standing there perhaps a superior officer. After looking at me for a while he told me they have condoned the mistake and there was a pause. By this time my intellectual looking director also entered the room. There was an uncomfortable silence. After a while they asked us to leave. Something unsaid was in the air…we let it be. 

We then had to go to the technician with our #DCP for the screening. Again, both the technicians asked the same question ‘who is your agent?’ When our response was in negative, there was again an uncomfortable silence. Then the technician took our #DCP and very quickly declared that it does not work. Luckily for us, my director had kept multiple versions ready. So, he gave another #DCP in another format which worked. We had two more hours before the screening took place. So, we sat in the lobby for our turn. I then received a call from the technician asking me to come alone to their projection room. Prime facie it was to tell me the importance of the receipt they were issuing for the screening fees of Rs 11,000/ and then he asked me why I have not kept an agent!

By this time, this repeated question was irking me and I told them that we chose to do this ourselves and avoided an agent as we do not have any budget for the same and asked why is that bothering everyone so much?  To that the technician responded that if we had kept an agent an amount would be paid to complete this certification which would also include the amounts that had to be given to everybody at #CBFC!

So, I asked him what will happen now, since I am not going to be paying any amount to anybody and I was told everything will take its own course. And everything thereafter did take its own sweet time!  

During the censor screening, when the Committee told us to mute the cuss words of the mob or reduce the impact of the single beheading scene by 40%, it was not very surprising that they were not ready to listen to any of our arguments or anything that we had to say. The fact that it is a vigilante mob with blood in their eyes who are using the cuss words just went above their heads. A sarcastic dialogue mentioning the names of few gods also caught their wise attention which was also something they wanted to be removed. We ended up with four cuts and an ‘A’ certificate.

The next one month saw the entire process being delayed by constant cherry-picking real and imaginary mistakes. One officer who was playing the ‘good cop’ was definitely in touch and kept asking us to revise multiple times including changing the font size of the letter! I even had to give a declaration that I have enough validation that the film is inspired by true events. After exhausting all possible errors finally one fine day, the online message said that I have to upload the script. I promptly did so. 

Now the good cop, who was perhaps not always sitting online did not know that such a message had come. So, he sent me a message many hours later on Whatsapp asking me to upload the final script. I told him that was already done & the message online was that the script was approved and I had to bring the CD for sealing. Well, if he had any more corrections up to his sleeve the chance was over for good now.  


Now I wonder, whether not having an agent is the reason for us getting a ‘A’ certificate and also delaying it for weeks together? Our film in question is a social thriller whose message is to not only to denounce witch-hunting but also those who inflict violence in any form. This message gets an ‘A’ certificate and a film that glorifies violence as the main protagonist indulges in the same throughout the film gets a U/A! What is the purpose of certification? 

Would I have got a U/A certificate if I had an agent and all the payments meant for the #CBFC officers was done?  

The Government in good faith brings systems such as online application and online payment to nip corruption at the root but institutions whose DNA is fed on bribery will always find better ways to sustain their greed.

When we talk about CBFC, this kind of double standards has become the reason for useful content made with constrained budgets never reaching a larger audience. 






Thursday, July 20, 2023

Is a woman’s body a pawn in your hand?


On 19th July,2023 a shocking video of a mob watching a woman being raped and another woman being paraded naked surfaced on social media. I was stunned and outraged. Quickly my numbness  wore off and I started reacting. Tweets after tweets tagging the head of nation, ministers concerned, all statutory bodies was a small way to vent my anger.

And then slowly as nation-wide reactions flooded the social media and the leaders concerned  were compelled to break their silence questions started nudging me.

This incident happened in the first week of May and the FIR was lodged on 18th May,2023. Not very clear whether the case was reported immediately or there was a delay. But definitely the video was recorded on the day of the crime. Who made this video?  In whose possession was the video for so many weeks? Was the timing to release/leak the video have a political motive? 

No matter what the motive is, the fact is two women were publicly molested and humiliated and one of them raped while a mob watched. A statement of one of the victim indicates police presence when all this was happening. The fact also is police did not make a single arrest till 20th July until a national outrage compelled them to do so and one of them was arrested.


It also fills me with deep anger that the Chief Minister of the state concerned behaves as if this is a sudden news for him especially when more than 2 months have already passed after the incident. How does a Chief Minister not even know about such a huge mob violence in his own state? Is it an intelligence failure? Is it a break-down of the entire law and order system in the state? Or is it a calculated inaction? And how many more such instances have happened in that state in the last three months? 

Then I look around on the larger happenings around the country based on what is happening on social media.  The video is the focal point of all discussions, reading between lines one wonders are these people really concerned about the victims or is this a weapon to hit back at their political opponents.

Simultaneously, the other side is now finally speaking. All statements being made to show stringent action is being taken. Why were all them silent for so many months when the state was burning and a large number of women and children were pushed into relief camps?

Who benefits from this silence? Who is benefitting with infight between communities?

While political silence is deafening, the silence of the media all these months is also frightening. Where are the investigative journalists? Where is third pillar of democracy? How come they did not come to know of such a dastardly public act? Who is playing safe and for what purpose? 

But the most pathetic of all is how depraved is humanity! There are those among us who watch in silence when women are raped right in front of their eyes…there are million others who will not only record this but will also disseminate it again & again. Can we face our own self in the mirror?  

Ironically for me, eight years back I had started a campaign against rape and gang rape videos being circulated and for the last few years we are fighting an ongoing battle in the Supreme Court to make social media platforms accountable for the content on their platforms and today a viral  rape video is the reason for the nation coming to know about atrocities in a state where internet has been shut down for the last three months, a viral video becoming the reason for all silences being broken including that of the Apex Court. And I wonder, have we moved even an inch from 2015? Rape videos continue to be made with impunity and rapists rest with ease confident never to be caught. 


At the end of the day, one question lingers in my mind? Is women’s safety a priority for any political leader? Or is it a weapon to be used to gain brownie points in an election? Is woman’s body, her honour, her dignity just a political pawn for anybody and everybody to throw around. 

A belief system I always carried is when an elected leader is given a responsible position within the government he or she should cease to be from a caste, creed or religion and even a political party. This person’s identity should be only as an ‘Indian’ and nothing more. He/she represents India, is a voice of all Indians in all its diversity. In fact I am also of the belief that such persons should not be allowed to campaign for any elections. Afterall if they are in power they already have the opportunity to demonstrate all their good work so what is the need for further branding.  


When a state burns and mobs with impunity rape and humiliate women in public it means to me a massive failure of political leadership.  When a woman’s body is used as a weapon of war it means that elected leaders have failed in their responsibility to safeguard the interests of all and a woman is being a made a pawn in this power war. 


This is not acceptable…this will not be tolerated.  


And finally, although not the right way to do it but the ‘video’ has made its point… now it is important to remember every time it is  re-posted and shared somewhere out there two young women are revictimized again and again. 

We failed in protecting them…at least let us not be party to retraumatising them.    




Tuesday, July 18, 2023



From the time I got into the domain of social activism many of my friends and relatives have asked me whether I would join electoral politics. To their disappointment my answer has been always negative for I have somehow built a strong reservation about political leaders. How I developed it…or where it came from, I have no clue. But politics and all that it represents is something that I have carefully avoided. Perhaps it is for the same reason that I mindfully kept away from cultivating any relationship with any political leader. On, their part since I do not make any business sense in terms of ‘vote bank’ they have also maintained their distance. 


So, it was a pleasant surprise for me when my good friend Shafi Mather whom I had met in the TED Conference in 2009 called me and told me to come urgently to Kerala to make a presentation on human trafficking before the Honorable Chief Minister. This was in 2011. 

I rushed to Kerala not knowing what to expect. With a minimum of fuss, I was conducted to the CM’s chamber and I saw that a projector and screen was arranged at one end. It was a temporary arrangement. The first time I saw Shri Oommen Chandy the Hon’ble Chief Minister of Kerala I was blown away. His twinkling smile captivated me and what happened next humbled me to no end. OC Sir as I went on to call him in the later years was in a meeting. He excused himself from the meeting, came towards me, wished me and courteously seated me on the sofa profusely apologizing about a few minutes delay as he had to sort out some urgent matter.

The only face of OC Sir that I saw 

I was an absolute ‘nobody’, I had not even got my civilian honor then. But here was a man who was honoring me with great respect just based on what he had heard from a trusted aide. When I made my presentation a little while later, I could see tears in the corner of his eyes several times. The first meeting ended with OC Sir assuring me to do something concrete. While there were no great promises made or pledges taken, I left OC Sir’s chamber with a great sense of contentment of meeting somebody whose grace left me both at ease and at the same time speechless. 


When somebody asked me what was the outcome of the meeting with CM I simply said ‘time will tell’. And definitely time did tell the amazing level of commitment OC Sir had about safety of women and children and his extraordinary ability to bring diverse personalities together. When the committee was constituted a few months later to draft a policy he made sure at every step even in the constitution of the committee I was in the loop. Perhaps it was that unconditional faith and respect that made me put my heart and soul to draft the ‘Nirbhaya Policy’. During this course I had several opportunities to meet him and brief him about the progress of the committee and every time I would be left with these confused feelings on how much is this one individual taking up on his shoulders. There was always a crowd in his chambers. He would speak to each one of them. One day I even heard him talking to an Inspector questioning why an FIR was not lodged and in my petty mind it was why is he micro-managing? It took me years to understand what OC Sir was to his people and how his whole life revolved around making every hope and aspiration real for his people.


Over the years I was also recipient of his personal care and concern. When I faced backlash for some of my work in Hyderabad, he was perhaps the only one who called up the then Chief Minister and requested to ensure safety for my life. And this he did without me even telling him anything about what I am going through or even requesting for any support. That was OC Sir, a person whom you can rely in the worst of your times without even asking.

When in 2013 I produced my Malayalam feature film on sex trafficking ‘Ente’ I had requested him to come for the premiere. He not only came but he brought the entire assembly with him for he felt every legislator should be sensitized on this subject. This was the first film OC Sir was seeing in 45 years! For the next few months, he would constantly remember the last scene of the film and tell me that it left a deep sense of guilt about how the efforts to ensure safety for women and children were rather inadequate. 


Every time OC Sir felt my expertise would be of any help, he immediately called upon me. Never once did he make me feel like an outsider, valuing me for the body of work that I have accomplished and according me the respect I deserve and more. To me those days Cliff House was a comfortable place to quickly update Sir on the various developments related to the implementation of the policy before I rushed back to take the flight back to Hyderabad. 


We lost touch after the new ruling party got elected. Our paths crossed once or twice mostly at Cochin Airport. Both the times it was like connecting with a beloved friend eagerly sharing our thoughts on what more can be done. 


My ears were tuned to OC Sir and his activities. I watched him handle all the challenges of public life with grace and dignity. With every passing day I realized the need for a political leader like OC Sir who had the capacity to be fair and neutral, had the ability to bring together diverse people, felt deeply for the pain and anxiety of every commoner and had the moral compass of conscience highly embedded in his soul. Today more than ever the country needs such a leader to navigate us through these troubling times.     


This morning when I heard OC Sir passed away…for a few minutes I was numb, I could sense deep vacuum, is this the end of an era? No words adequate to pay the right tribute…no thoughts tall enough to capture this brilliant statesman, no gesture big enough to give back what he gave us.

OC Sir…Om Shanti! Till we meet again…        


Sunitha Krishnan    







Thursday, April 6, 2023



Last week two students claiming to be from IIT just landed at our office wanting to complete a college project on human trafficking. Among other things they also wanted to interact with survivors. While our team explained to them our protocols and send them back, what continues to surprise me is the sense of entitlement somepeople have when they come to a civil society organization and how offended they are when they are told that there are protocols that have to be followed. 

This makes me reflect on how we view social work and those who have committed their lives to social change. A small but significant number in India who make financial donations believe that the beneficiary organization should feel extremely grateful for the support given, provide enough publicity and branding for receiving help and should also be beholden forever. This group of people in their overwhelming generosity conveniently forget that the organization that has taken the initiative to change that specific problem in the society is doing it on their behalf and that if anybody has to be grateful it should be the other way around.

This takes me to the next point on how a significant number of people view shelter homes. First of all, only a human being who is in difficult circumstances will land up in a shelter home whether it is for long or short duration. No doubt this person feels the need to belong, of being cared for and the assurance that not everybody in the world will cause harm. But does this person need to feel like a beggar dependent on the benevolence of others? 

Mindful ‘giving’ is an alien concept to most givers. Many don’t even bother to seek information on what does the home require? It is like, I have to distribute food and fruits and I will just do that or I have to cut my birthday cake here and I will just do that. Maybe some of the logic for such acts is that the donor wants to be 100% sure what is given is going straight into the stomach of the beneficiary. The fear that cash given might be swindled by the organization might also be a reason for such actions. 

No doubt such fears stem from repeated scandals that take place in the garb of running shelters but that is where each one of us are duty bound to make our own due diligence before we extend our support. 

But this problem is not so one-sided as it is also a fact that many donors would use such homes to clear their black money to get rid of their guilt. Loose cash given is always a breeding ground for corrupt practices as the organization will be unable to show this amount in their books of accounts and temptations will lead to corrupt practices as unaccounted amount does not fall into the accountability framework. 

While corruption is rampant everywhere and social organizations are no exception but unethical practices in the social sector can be easily curbed if we make social work more about dignity and justice rather than altruism. 

In the West, volunteering for social work is about being accountable for the privileges you enjoy. The value system is ingrained through the schooling system and becomes more and more tangible as you go higher in the ladder of education. Working for a cause through a civil society organization increases your credit score. Taking a break from formal education and getting educated in the university of life by deeply engaging in a social cause even far away from home adds value to your future life perhaps even your career prospects. Employee Giving is matched robustly by the Employer. It is an eco-system that nurtures the giving side as a ‘duty’ and not as a ‘dole’! 


In India you see some traces of such ‘duty’ in spiritual efforts that has a component of social work. The journey of salvation by serving others is a spiritual quest. This path is taken by many which ensures devotional dedication is translated to serving those in need.  The scale and magnitude of dedicated volunteers using this method is perhaps humungous and sustainability of such methods is also 100% as there is a perceived sense of being in a win-win zone. The volunteer needs spiritual gratification and the organization wants to address a specific social concern.  Both gain, there is no giver or taker!  This business model which has worked for spiritual leaders has not extended to other civil society organizations who take up a social problem to change without any other baggage.  

Bringing professionalism in social work has brought in good governance, transparency and accountability. Today social work has broadened its scope as development work and has also become a viable career option going beyond volunteering, but the fact remains that it is largely dependent on giving/grants/donations. This dependency is largely because the social sector is ‘not for profit’ and fills the gaps in state interventions for social/community transformation. In several areas, the social sector takes up those issues and provides services that the state does not find it as a priority.

While the social sector is not monolithic and the organizations big and small have their own versions of financial sustainability for their teams but what is universal about the sector is that each one involved wants to change somebody else’s life positively. The method, strategy and scale might be different. But the core concern that it is predominantly dependent on grants and donations means it executes all the attitude and perceptions that a ‘giver’ carries. 


If the ‘giver’ suffers from a ‘savior syndrome’ then all that follows which includes the method, the process and the execution is tailor made to satisfy that end. 

If the ‘giver’ recognizes the social problems around and acknowledges that he/she is unable to respond due to various commitments and liabilities and seeks to find people who are trying to change that social scenario and shares his/her own financial privileges to contribute to that change then it will automatically change the way the doer is executing the efforts on the ground. 

If the ‘giver’ is seeking spiritual gratification and believes all his/her resources including material and human has to be committed to bring certain social change and that is the only way to enrich their soul then the way the person engages with the organization also changes as they believe it is in their personal best interest. 

It is rare to find a sense of autonomy among the ‘dependent class’. These rare few gain their confidence from efforts that they have put on ground and the exposure they have to a wide range of givers which secures them with an understanding that there are significant number who genuinely want to change the existing anomalies in the society but are unable to physically commit to taking initiative and are willing to share what they have so that efforts to bring change remains unabated. These ‘rare few’ are constantly in search of these kind of givers and are able to build not only certain ethical standards in execution of work but also draw the lines on anything that may infringe either the dignity or social justice for those who are served. 

Social change is an immense responsibility, social change agents have the enormous job of finding ways to cope with resistance, hostility, rejection, apathy and insecurity which is intrinsic to the vocation they have chosen; the larger world of givers, sympathizers, facilitators and moderators at the least should build an eco-system where change agents can function without ethical compromise.                  







Friday, May 27, 2022


The recent Supreme Court directions in the Budhadev Karmasakar 135/2010 case is worrisome both in the way it is worded and the lack of application of mind in understanding ground realities. 

Before I elucidate my concerns let me state what the Apex Court has reiterated regarding the existing legislation ie. The Immoral Traffic Persons Prevention Act. It has very clearly stated in its directions that the existing legislation should be implemented strictly by all states which essentially means the following will remain criminal offences:

1.     Brothel keeping

2.     Pimping

3.     Living on the earnings of prostitution

4.     Detaining a person in a place of prostitution

5.     Procuring, inducing or taking a person for prostitution

While the existing legislation defines prostitution as sexual exploitation for commercial gains it is silent on whether it should be prohibited or banned. Further it is completely silent on selling sexual services independently without a pimp or a keeper which has perpetuated a notion that selling sexual services independently is not a crime in India. 

Coming back to the directions of the court; brothels will be closed; pimps & keepers will be arrested and human traffickers who will bring women & girls for prostitution will be apprehended. So, this has not changed on the contrary it has to be strictly implemented by all states.  


So, what is worrisome about the recent directions? Let me pick out three of the directions which are going to have long term implications.


1.     Firstly, the Apex Court liberally uses the term ‘Sex Work’ and accords it subtly a status of a profession. While stating that a person selling sexual services is like any other citizen and is entitled to all rights that our constitution provides, it is somehow worded in such a way that indicates that selling sexual services is a dignified profession. Let me personally reiterate that every human being who is a citizen of this country is entitled to all rights enshrined in our constitution and that is non-negotiable. But what work is dignified and what takes away every ounce of dignity is a separate matter and needs deeper understanding on what constitutes this form of work and its impact on self. 

I am deeply concerned how something which is intrinsically harmful for body, mind and soul can be dignified. It is also rather confusing as all these directions are in the context of rehabilitation of persons who are selling sexual services. If you notice I am mindfully avoiding using the term ‘sex worker’ as I do not accept this as a profession and considered it as the oldest form of sexual slavery. I can understand dignity out of the situation which is ‘rehabilitation’ but what is dignity in the situation I am unable to fathom. The learned Bench in their wisdom failed to clarify this in their direction.   

2.     It is universally known fact that significant number of women and girls are lured in the name of job, marriage, love and induced or forced into prostitution. It is also well known that the revenue from selling sexual services is very high, in fact it is considered low investment high profit industry and has been ranked as one of the fastest growing criminal enterprise. It is not very uncommon that the combined forces of social stigma and criminal intimidation coerces most victims to normalize the exploitation and they are easily tutored to say that they are doing it voluntarily or by their free choice. In the given situation pray tell me how will a law enforcer prime facie differentiate between a voluntary seller and trafficked person especially when all them are parroting the same lines taught to them?  So, by blindly directing that the police should not touch any voluntary worker, the learned Bench has only exposed their lack of understanding of the ground realities.  In my opinion what would have been more balanced position was to direct all concerned parties to come together and draw out a protocol that would help the law enforcer differentiate between a voluntary seller and a trafficked person. Even there I would think it is rather fishy if a voluntary seller is found in a brothel. If you are voluntarily selling it should be without a pimp/broker or brothel as per the law so what is voluntary worker doing with a pimp or a brothel keeper? Check out the modus operandi used by the police or NGOs for the rescue operation and you will know the number of ‘in between’ people involved before the actual person is found.  


3.     From my own personal experience of establishing and managing Protective Home for the rehabilitation of victims, it has been our observation that most victims take 2-3 months to disclose the true facts of their ordeal. In the mean time they would give us fake names, fake national identities and acknowledge all the pimps and brokers as their relatives in the court and constantly reinforce that they are in it voluntarily. It is only when a home investigation is done the conflict between all that is stated and the true facts surfaces. 

So, when the Apex Court directs that all Protective Homes should be checked and all adult women should be released, it indicates the myopic perspective that only minor girls are trafficked and adult women do it voluntarily. Have the wise judges contemplated on what the protocol should be followed to release the adult women so that they do not go back to the same situation especially if the rehabilitation is their primary concern! 

By the way, the directions speak extensively on the attitude of the police and the need for sensitization, I would say the judiciary is no better with this myopic understanding of the ground realities.


There are several other issues such as Aadhar Card and sexual assault that comes in the directions which are much welcome; but the proposed method of handling them leaves you with the feeling that this bunch has no clue what is the ground situation.  Most victims admitted in all the shelters are neither a member of any CBO or have any connection with AIDS Control Society. In fact, most of them do not want any such membership or affiliation. So, if NACO or SACS is the only way to get a Aadhar Card a good number will still not get it. 


I understand one of the Judge in the bench was to retire the next day and that was perhaps the reason for such hurry in issuing these directions, but whether it will benefit the intended group only time will tell. 

I can foresee a huge amount of confusion in rescue operations, increased police bashing and large contingent of criminals escaping under the grab of ‘voluntary work’.       


Tuesday, July 13, 2021


 Imagine, you or someone dear to you is going through a difficult time due to financial or emotional issues. You find yourself in a vulnerable situation, and as the days go by you are unable to see any solutions. A certain bleakness enters your being. Coincidently, all the support systems you usually banked on, have also failed you.


Add to this scenario, a bunch of people keeping an eye on you, watching your every move outside your house, your school, your work place, or even the social media platform that you frequent.  All this just to find an opportune moment to offer you lucrative options that you are desperately waiting for. Only that you don’t realize that this is a trap, which will gradually push you into a state of exploitation. On the face of it, these offers may appear beneficial to you under the circumstances, but in the long run they are largely favorable only to the ones making these offers. 


Human traffickers are all around us, on the ground and in the virtual world and their eyes are perpetually on the lookout for their next victim. It could be an abandoned or a runaway child, a broken family, communities devastated due to natural disasters, persons who have lost their livelihood, or persons who are emotionally deprived of attention and love. It could be just anybody.


Are these traffickers a small number? 

Unfortunately, No! Just looking at the thousands of children rescued from labor exploitation every year during Operation Muskaan or the number of women and girls removed from commercial sexual exploitation every month give us an insight into the numbers and the depth and breadth at which these networks operate.  If that does not convince you, try rescuing one victim from a place of exploitation and ensure that the victim is kept in a safe home on the directions of a legally competent body. You will soon see an endless line of persons at the court filing for custody of the victim. You will see how the network of traffickers works like a well-oiled machinery, while people are busy questioning organizations involved in rescue and rehabilitation of victims of trafficking. Maybe you could  try with a poor child begging outside an upscale mall or restaurant, try rehabilitating the child instead of reaching out for your wallet and experience the organized network of criminals! 


The business of exploiting the vulnerability of human beings for commercial gain is what the organized crime of human trafficking is all about. In a country like India, with a large population and a significant percentage of them below poverty line, human trafficking is largely an internal problem impacting hundreds and thousands of women and children within the country. Only a small percentage of women and girls are trafficked from across the borders into India. However, the number of persons from other countries being trafficked into India has slowly increased over the years, with persons from Bangladesh, Nepal, Tanzania, Ghana, Uzbekistan and Thailand sporadically being reported from different parts of the country.  

It is not as if men are not trafficked. But on the scale of vulnerability, and taking into consideration our regressive patriarchal norms, women, children and transgender persons find themselves more affected than men.


So, if human trafficking is such a great threat to internal security of the country why has the Government not taken take proactive measures to address the problem?                 


The drafters of our Constitution, perhaps, foresaw the pernicious capacity of this crime against humanity and therefore included prohibition on human trafficking under Article 23. The earliest form of human trafficking that the Government of India took notice of was the trafficking of women and girls for the purposes of commercial sexual exploitation. The special legislation ‘The Immoral Traffic Persons Prevention Act, 1956 did not criminalize the sale of sexual services by an individual but ensured that when it involves sexual exploitation of a person by another person and an institutional set up such as a brothel, a pimp, and other mechanisms of procuring of human beings for the purposes of sexual exploitation, it becomes a criminal offence. While laws like these were enforced to address not just sexual exploitation but also the issue of labor exploitation of children, a comprehensive mechanism to address the issue of human trafficking was sadly lacking for over 68 years till 2015. 


On the civil society front, organizations emerged from time to time that worked on various aspects of human trafficking. But it was only in early 1990s that these efforts became publicly visible and an internationally acceptable language in addressing the problem of human trafficking became clearer. This also corresponded with all international conventions and protocols that India ratified. Organizations such as Bachpan Bachao Andolan founded by Nobel Laureate Kailash Satyarthi became one of the strongest voices, both nationally and internationally, on child labor trafficking. Several organizations such as Prajwala, Prerna, STOP, Sanlaap, Save The Children, Rescue Foundation, Shakti Vahini, Impulse etc. became powerful voices against trafficking of girls and women for commercial sexual exploitation. 


Civil society interventions led to many of us filing several Public Interest Litigations (PIL) praying for remedial action against this organized crime. One such - PIL 56/2004 - filed by Prajwala for bringing victim protection protocol and a comprehensive anti-trafficking legislation saw results 11 years after it was filed in 2015 when the Supreme Court directed the Government of India to draft a comprehensive legislation to combat trafficking. Thus, another chapter began in independent India to address an organized crime that is an absolute threat to life, dignity, and liberty of every disadvantaged Indian.


A big part of Prajwala’s petition was a demand for an organized crime investigating agency. This demand arose from the situation on the ground where practitioners not only from Prajwala but also from other grassroots organizations observed the highly organized manner in which human beings were procured and exploited. Combined with this was the fact that the state police could hardly do anything in crimes that started from another state due to jurisdictional issues. The situation of those human beings who belonging to another country was another reality completely. 

It is in this context that the need arose for an investigating agency that had pan-India powers for investigation and one that could provide focused attention on inter-state and cross-border human trafficking cases.               


In 2016, when the initial drafting of a comprehensive Trafficking in Persons Bill started, ideas ranging from setting up of a new body to designating Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) for investigating trafficking cases were thrown around. But gradually more clarity was gained and the Government decided to designate National Investigating Agency (NIA) as the Organized Crime Investigating Agency. 


I was very skeptical at this stage. How could an agency only dealing with terror related cases that impacts the national security deal with human trafficking cases, which are more layered and difficult to unearth in terms of one single agency or a single chain of events.


My doubts were put to rest when we got an opportunity to work with NIA on two cross-border trafficking cases. By the way many of you might not know that the National Investigating Agency has been handling human trafficking cases from 2019. 

Giving human trafficking cases high priority on par with high profile cases changed the tenor and handling of the case. Cases dealt by the state police would definitely apprehend the traffickers seen at the place of exploitation, but thereafter it would be just another routine case that would forget even the victim, leave alone the chain of traffickers who were involved in the crime anywhere. The cases would take the trajectory of any other petty case, the alleged offender getting bail much before perhaps even the victim being admitted to a safe home, and most cases going to an acquittal and perhaps, also the victim being re-trafficked. That said, I definitely cannot generalize that all cases handled by state police have met the same fate. This is so because I have personally witnessed the dynamic efforts of compassionate officers who changed the way human trafficking cases were dealt and perceived by the police. But this, I would humbly point out, is more due to the leadership, commitment, and vision of an individual charisma than a concerted, institutional effort. 


Coming back to NIA as dedicated institution for investigating human trafficking - in the two human trafficking cases involving several foreign nationals that I mentioned earlier, NIA ensured high quality of investigation and the alleged offenders could not get bail even a year after their arrest; the victims were supported through Prajwala and given all protection so that they could safely testify against the traffickers. I need to specifically mention this as most of us practitioners constantly lament about how quickly bail is given to traffickers and how they are all over the place trying to intimidate the victims.In one instance, when we as an organization felt that the victims should be safely repatriated to their country and any further court proceedings could be done virtually, NIA strongly opposed it legally. It took a while for us to understand the wholesome nature of their interventions and the long-term impact it might have on traffickers. 

I have personally worked on this mission for over 30 years and Prajwala the organization that I have founded has been here for 25years; but never have I heard fear in the language of a trafficker until the NIA cases came up. For the first time we witnessed victims absolutely confident that they will get justice sooner than they imagined. 


It is 2021 and the anti-trafficking bill has come full circle from the time it was first introduced in the parliament in 2018, which after being passed in the Lok Sabha, lapsed in the Rajya Sabha. Now the amended, draft Trafficking in Persons (Prevention, Care & Rehabilitation) Bill is available in public domain and I sincerely hope it will be placed in one of the sessions of the parliament after all due diligence is completed. 


This Bill truly is a comprehensive draft that not only addresses all forms of human trafficking but also ensures that the organized crime perspective is not lost. Newer trends such as cyber-trafficking has also been brought into its fold. Apart from stringent punishments, accountability of all stakeholders including those managing protection services, has been mandated. 


For those who have never worked on human trafficking issues directly, it might be difficult to understand how this Bill is the most comprehensive effort ever and how an agency like NIA can play a critical role. Needless to say, our expectation is that a dedicated wing in NIA will be handling trafficking cases at the inter-state and cross-border level and the intra-state cases will be handled by the Anti Human Trafficking Units which are empowered as independent police stations.  

I just hope lack of understanding among some will not lead to misinformation about this critical Bill. Each one of its components is vital and will have a long-standing impact. A strong legislation is usually labelled ‘draconian’ by many. But let’s face facts, any matter related to external or internal security of a nation should be given the importance it deserves. 

In case you are genuinely concerned about the misuse of the provisions, which is possible in all legislations, then apply your mind on the safe-guarding mechanisms that should be incorporated into the draft Bill to protect it against misuse. So instead of panning the Bill, contribute to strengthening, what could be a landmark legislation in our fight against human trafficking.  But please do so now before the Bill goes to Parliament for discussion! Together, through this Bill, we all can shake the very existence of an exploitative criminal enterprise that is a threat to security of our nation. 



Wednesday, October 21, 2020


Many people have asked directly or indirectly why I am opposed to the advisory on ‘Human Rights of Women in the context of Covid19’ issued by NHRC to the Government. 

So, at the outset let me clarify the advisory is a laudable effort to ensure that all women including women in “sex work”(I have serious problems with this word) who have gone through extremely challenging times due to the Covid pandemic have been recognized and some recommendations have been made to ameliorate the situation. 

So where is the problem?

There are two from my perspective:

1.     Recognizing women in sex work under the ‘Women At Work' category and describing them as work in informal space.

2.     Directing the Government under Clause III B(ii) to provide registration to these women as workers which states “sex workers may be registered as informal workers and be registered so they get worker’s benefit”   

So why I am I outraged? 

As a deeply convinced abolitionist I personally believe that flesh trade is the oldest form of oppression in the world. Triggered from a patriarchal framework which believes in commodifying a woman’s body as a sexual object & has normalized the sale of sexual services as a matter of social/community requirement flesh trade has been here for centuries in various forms. In India it has also been an oppressive means to force and coerce women from the lowest caste to remain in a submissive state.  

But today for those fighting for ‘sex workers’ rights it is their firm belief that it is a matter of woman’s ‘self-determination’ to decide what she wants to do with her body. 

How I wish it was as simple and straight forward as people make it sound. 

Before we go any further, let’s understand the Indian law.

Is sale of sexual services illegal in our country. ‘No’ so long as it is between two consenting adults in a private space. 

But the moment the selling or buying comes into a public space it become illegal. So, soliciting is illegal, maintaining a brothel is illegal, living on the earnings is illegal and even detaining a person in a brothel is illegal.

Prostitution as we see it today is about pimps, brothel keepers and whole lot of other stakeholders who live on the earnings of a woman who is selling her body. 

Are these the persons who have to be registered? Because all of them are part of this outfit called ‘sex work’.

The thousands of women I have met who were removed from brothels, kept repeating multiple times during the time of removal/rescue that they were ‘here by their voluntary choice’. The same women when removed from that influence and relocated to a safer place spoke at length of a journey of constrained choices, deception and exploitation. A significant number of them were children when they were inducted into the trade. All this and more pointing out to trafficking in persons. This apart when you study the socio-economic profile of these persons, a huge majority are Dalits or tribal. Communities who have been socially oppressed for centuries and are forced, coerced or deceived to choose this option. So, by using fancy names does the oppressive systems become now liberating.  

The question then is how will the registration as ‘workers’ rule out that a victim of organized crime ie. Trafficking is not shown as a person who has voluntarily chosen this trade. 

Prostitution is a term which our law defines and so I will use that with confidence. The Immoral Traffic Persons Prevention Act defines ‘prostitution’ as sexual exploitation of a person for commercial gains. And that is the world of exploitation that I have witnessed across the country from red light areas of Budhwarpet (Pune), GB Road(Delhi), Kamatipura(Mumbai, Sonagachi (Kolkatta) to houses, apartments, resorts, hotels, spas, beauty parlors across the country. 

No police officer raids a place where two consenting adults have ‘paid sex’. It is mostly through a ‘pimp’/broker’ that a contact is made and thereafter the commercial transaction with multiple third parties such as organizers, brothel keepers and agents established, which is followed by a raid/rescue. 

So, when we say registration, are we saying ‘register’ these layers of exploitation and provide it legitimacy.


So, what does the Civil Society want? 

First of all, civil society is not a homogenous body. The larger civil society has three schools of thoughts one who believe this is a ‘necessary evil’ and should continue as it provides safety for their daughters, the second who believe that ‘sex work’ is a liberated term and provides safe framework for operations and a third group who believe that this should end.   

In terms of those who are working directly for this cause from multitude & diverse position I would say again there are largely three groups. 

The first group who works for the rights of ‘sex workers’ and believe that dignity and liberty is within ‘sex work’ and it should be considered as a ‘voluntary choice’ and represents ‘self- determination’ of those persons. Organizations such as SANGRAM(Sangli), Saheli (Pune), National Network of Sex Workers, Lawyers Collective come under this category.

There is a second group who also believe in ‘sex workers’ rights but have intwined themselves in the anti-trafficking brigade and prefer to be identified as anti-trafficking organizations and believe ‘sex workers’ should have rights at the same time the institutional elements such as brothel keepers, pimps and brokers should be eliminated. Organizations such as Sanjog(Kolkatta), HELP(Ongole) fall into this category.

And there is a third group with organizations like Prajwala (which I have founded), Shakti Vahini, Arz(Anyay Rahit Zindagi) and some others who are not only part of the anti-trafficking brigade but also believe that a person’s dignity and liberty is outside ‘sex work’ as this trade is intrinsically exploitative and is essentially a human rights violation and therefore work towards ‘sustainable exit options’.

What is common for all the groups? We all believe unanimously that relief and support must be provided.

While the pro ‘sex workers’ believe that it has to be done by maintaining and legitimizing ‘sex work’, those of us who belief that ‘sex work per say is fundamentally flawed and has only sustained oppressive systems believe all relief should be given paving way for rehabilitation. 

The position held by us, is the same position taken up both by the Government and the Hon’ble Supreme Court. 

In an important case in the Apex Court, Budhadev Karmasakar Vs State of West Bengal, Justice Gyan Sudha Mishra clarified and I quote :

“1. While concurring with the views of my learned brother Justice Altamas Kabir, I prefer to add in regard to the second issue that this Court should not be misunderstood to encourage the practice of flesh trade or advocate the recognition of sex trade merely because it has raised the issue to emphasize the rehabilitation aspect of the sex workers, for which this Court had taken the initiative right at the threshold. I consider this essential in order to allay any apprehension which prompted the Union of India to move this application for modification, by highlighting that the sex workers although have a right to live with dignity as the society is aware that they are forced to continue with this trade under compulsions since they have no alternative source of livelihood, collective endeavor should be there on the part of the Court and all concerned who have joined this cause as also the sex workers themselves to give up this heinous profession of flesh trade by providing the destitute and physically abused women an alternative forum for employment and resettlement in order to be able to rehabilitate themselves. I, therefore, wish to reiterate by way of abundant caution that this Court should not be perceived to advocate the recognition of sex trade or promote the cause of prostitution in any form and manner even when it had stated earlier in its terms of reference regarding conditions conducive for sex workers who wish to continue working as sex workers with dignity.

2. Thus, when we modify the earlier term of reference and state regarding conditions conducive for sex workers to live with dignity in accordance with the provisions of Article 21 of the Constitution, the same may not be interpreted or construed so as to create an impression or draw inference that this Court in any way is encouraging the sex workers to continue with their profession of flesh trade by providing facilities to them when it is merely making an effort to advocate the cause of offering an alternative source of employment to those sex workers who are keen for rehabilitation. When we say conditions conducive for sex workers to live with dignity, we unambiguously wish to convey that while the sex workers may be provided alternative source of employment for their rehabilitation to live life with dignity, it will have to be understood in the right perspective as we cannot direct the Union of India or the State Authorities to provide facilities to those sex workers who wish to promote their profession of sex trade for earning their livelihood, except of course the basic amenities for a dignified life, as this was certainly not the intention of this Court even when the term of reference was framed earlier. 

3. We, therefore, wish to be understood that we confine ourselves to the efforts for rehabilitation of sex workers which should not be construed as facilitating, providing them assistance or creating conducive conditions to carry on flesh trade for expanding their business in any manner as it cannot be denied that the profession of sex trade is a slur on the dignity of women. Conditions conducive for sex workers to live with dignity in accordance with the provisions of Article 21 of the Constitution be therefore understood in its correct perspective as indicated above. “


 So why has NHRC given such an advisory which is even violative of the Hon’ble Apex Court’s position?  


What should NHRC do?

I believe it should modify the contentious advisory without compromising on providing all relief and support to all marginalized women. 

With respect to women in prostitution, the advisory should direct the Government specifically through the Ministry of Health & National AIDS Control Organization(NACO) to reach out to all the persons in prostitution whom they are already directly in contact through their Targeted Interventions Programs to provide sustenance support till the end of Covid  pandemic and through Ministry of Women & Child Welfare, Ministry of Labor & Employment and Ministry for Skill Development and Entrepreneurship to provide support for alternate livelihood, livelihood training and micro-credit support. As NACO is in direct contact with these vulnerable groups they could facilitate through a special cell all of them receive civic identities such as Aadhar Card and Voter Card on a priority basis to access the Government schemes.

I believe the Government should take this up as this is the need of hour. For all of us who  are witness to the plight of the most the vulnerable this group stands out. Each one of us have in our own capacities reached out with support but at the end of the day it is only the Government which has the capacity to provide sustained support. Our committed support stands with the system to ensure that the last beneficiary is identified and supported.

We are standing today at an important point of history where we have to collectively take a decision whether we want to legitimize centuries old oppressive system (u may call it any fancy name) or bring in a new world of equality, liberty and dignity by building bridges for the oppressed to exit and access support.