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By Conviction for human trafficking is made especially difficult by the complicated and fluid nature of the crime, writes Sreyashi Dastidar
  • Published 16.10.07

“Trafficking is about completely reducing accidents,” the smug, paunchy constable on the screen was saying, causing much amusement among the audience. But the laughter faded away — when a policewoman started talking about how her calls always got transferred to the vehicular traffic department when she called her headquarters and asked for the anti-trafficking section.

If this is the response of a large section of the law-enforcement establishment to the phenomenon of human trafficking — only seven per cent of Indian police personnel is known to have received any training in the subject — what exactly does it mean to say the two words in India? Or for that matter in Bangladesh, Nepal and the host of countries bunched together as south Asia? The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime may have realized that giving some age-old crimes an umbrella name does precious little by way of curbing them. Hence, perhaps, the idea of GIFT (the Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking) and the keenness to have the government as the running mate — resulting in a two-day conference in New Delhi (October 10-11), which brought together NGOs, bureaucrats, ministers, filmstars, artists, corporate leaders, journalists, and, of course, policemen.

But where were the victims/survivors? It would be understandable if the decision to keep them away from the public forum was taken to show sensitivity to their “complex tragedy”. But what about their stories, the specifics of their cases, in the absence of which any discussion could only become a general exchange of pious intent? Case studies were too few and far between. Perhaps the idea was to show that exploitation and atrocities are the same everywhere?

One wishes the circumstances were the same, but they seldom are. How does one equate a girl lured away from a village in Meghalaya to a brothel in Delhi with the one pushed into beedi-binding by her own parents just so there is enough money to feed all the mouths in the family? Or a boy thrown into the laps of paedophiliac foreign tourists in Goa with one who runs away from starvation and poverty at home, to be picked up and employed by a brick-kiln owner who gives him a paltry daily wage and lunch? Which arm of the State — women and child development, labour, police, or home affairs if there is border-crossing — has failed to do its job in each of these cases, and which is responsible for ensuring that the trafficked person gets a livelihood and a respectable life?

This is why trafficking is such a tricky crime in developing countries with their many areas of darkness. In Haryana, for instance, where it is acceptable to destroy female foetuses and kill baby girls, young women are trafficked from Bengal and the Northeast and forced into marriage to keep the family line going. How does one, in the absence of a complaint from the girl or her family, initiate criminal proceedings against those who claim the girl as their daughter-in-law?

Not surprising, therefore, that three convictions are all that the anti-human trafficking campaign has to show for itself in India. Three is also the number of states — Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal and Goa — where anti-human trafficking units have been formed within the police force. But, as a senior bureaucrat pointed out, such cells tend to get identified as the ‘social’ desks (implying soft responsibility) and are put under weaker officers, while the complexities of the crimes require the most competent policeman at the helm.

It will be unfair to say, however, that any of the three states mentioned has a weak officer handling human trafficking, and the success of decoy-based raid-cum-rescue operations proves that law-enforcement agencies are waking up to the seriousness of the crime. But the problem here is that the anti-human trafficking units are located in the police headquarters in the state capitals, while the thanas in the districts and villages — from where most trafficked persons are sourced — are still largely oblivious to the threat.

More important, in the balance of power, the beneficiaries of trafficking — from the local dalals to the higher criminals who have the money both to buy human beings and to hush up investigations — have far too much advantage over those they buy, sell or exploit. In south Asian countries, where corruption is endemic to the system, how realistic is it to expect that the victims — raped, battered and psychologically wrecked — will be able to fight the unequal battle?

Of course, the NGOs are there to help with rescue, rehabilitation, and the all-important legal support. But most of them have not had it easy. An NGO worker from Hyderabad recounted how a rescued Nepali girl was repeatedly called to depose before the prosecution and asked embarrassing questions over and over again, in the hope that she would break down and withdraw her charges. It was a minor triumph that she did not, but what then? Going back to her squalid village in Nepal, waiting for the next lot of traffickers to pounce on her?

Rehabilitation and repatriation continue to be a sticky area in the discourse on trafficking in developing countries. For the State is unable to offer viable livelihoods to the rescued individuals, who often go back to sex work simply to ensure a steady income. If the State and the NGOs were better equipped with an infrastructure of shelter homes and self-employment schemes, most stories of trafficking could have had happy endings.

They may still, if the Delhi Declaration drawn up by the UNODC and the government of India, on the basis of the recommendations submitted by the working groups (connecting trafficking with business, law enforcement, HIV, and other issues), translates into any action. Thankfully, the UN label can still make the administration sit up and take note in countries like India. The UNODC intervention has already helped anti-trafficking units acquire a vehicle for operations, ensure victim-witness protection (extremely crucial if the rate of conviction is to be raised) and pool resources to house the rescued victim for a few days till he or she can be sent home or to a shelter. The Union minister for women and child development was heard promising changes in the Immoral Traffic Prevention Act, so that trafficked girls are not doubly victimized by being charged with soliciting customers for sexual services. Bureaucrats and ministers from the labour and home affairs ministries seemed equally committed, but the NGO workers seemed to know better. They preferred taking a break for tea while the ministers waxed eloquent on the many challenges ahead.

While the conference was drawing to a close in Vigyan Bhavan, a murky drama was unfolding in another part of the capital. An American citizen of Indian origin and three accomplices were arrested for trying to traffic folk artists from Punjab to the US. Since the artists were charged Rs 15-20 lakh each, this is probably a case of smuggling of migrants rather than trafficking (smuggled migrants are consenting individuals, while trafficked persons are coerced or lured). But the outcome of the case — whether it results in prosecution and conviction — could indicate what lies in store for those fighting to stop human trafficking in this part of the world.