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.