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regular-article-logo Friday, 14 June 2024

Trafficking survivors resolve to vote for a second shot at life of dignity, rehabilitation policy at grassroots level

Going by the manifestos, no political party seems to have trafficking survivors in mind

Debraj Mitra Calcutta Published 05.05.24, 05:51 AM
The trafficking survivor’s home in North-24 Parganas. The floors are cemented but the roof is a tin shade with multiple holes covered by a tarpaulin sheet

The trafficking survivor’s home in North-24 Parganas. The floors are cemented but the roof is a tin shade with multiple holes covered by a tarpaulin sheet

Entire south Bengal is praying for rain to end the heatwave. But a 28-year-old woman is not.

For her, rain inevitably means a leaking roof and walls. A structure in North 24-Parganas that she calls home has one room and a kitchen carved out of the same room. The floors are cemented but the roof is a tin shade with multiple holes covered by a tarpaulin sheet. The walls have cracked.

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The woman, now a mother of two, is a survivor of human trafficking. She was taken to Budwar Peth, the infamous red-light area in Pune and allegedly forced into prostitution. She spent six months in the hellhole before being rescued in a police raid. She was 15 then.

Her life has not been any smoother since. She has braved stigma and poverty but has not given up on hope. For the past two years, she has been earning a semblance of a steady income in winter by trading in date palm jaggery.

It is the same hope that will take her to a polling booth in Barasat on June 1.

“I never miss a chance to vote. Polling day is the only day I feel like any other citizen. All I want is a government that will think about people like us,” the woman told this newspaper.

She is not alone. Many trafficking survivors are fighting hard for a life of dignity but the lack of institutionalised government support is pushing them back.

Elections come and go. But there is hardly any change in their lives because they don’t stack up as a vote bank, said rights activists.

“They keep waiting for punishment for their tormentors; they keep waiting for compensation; they keep waiting for an end to stigma. They keep waiting,” said Sambhu Nanda, programme manager at Partners for Anti-Trafficking, a network of NGOs that helps in the rehabilitation of trafficking survivors in North 24-Parganas.

Going by the manifestos, no political party seems to have trafficking survivors in mind. The BJP manifesto or Modi ki Guarantee does not mention human trafficking. The only trafficking that Congress Nyay Patra deals with is drug trafficking.

The Trinamool manifesto says: “To tackle the backlog of crimes against women, we will establish 766 fast-track courts, 1 in each district of India.”

The CPM has promised to “support victims of sexual violence and acid attacks through a fully funded rehabilitation scheme” and “a law against trafficking of women and children”.

North and South 24-Parganas are the two trafficking hotbeds of Bengal.

Survivors’ collectives in the two districts have sent a charter of demands to poll aspirants. One such letter was sent last month to Shantanu Thakur, the sitting MP and BJP aspirant from the Bongaon Lok Sabha seat, in North 24-Parganas.

In South 24-Parganas, last month another charter was sent to Pratima Mondal, sitting MP and Trinamool candidate from Jaynagar.

Mondal told this newspaper: “I am yet to see the demands. There is an established system. The rescued survivors are first brought to a shelter home where they receive counselling. The process to bring them into the mainstream is lengthy. Whenever I receive a specific request for help, I do what I can.”

Thakur said on April 27: “I met them today. I have plans for them. Let the elections get over”.

The survivors want a rehabilitation policy at the grassroots level. Their top grievances are:

  • Lengthy trials: Only a fraction of survivors dare to take legal recourse for bringing their tormentors to justice. Many survivors lack the resources, financial and otherwise, to undertake multiple visits to the court. The trial often drags for years, draining whatever little resources they have.The alleged traffickers secure bail and pressure the survivor and her family to withdraw the case.The dismal rate of conviction highlights the absence of a robust mechanism to investigate human trafficking cases that often span across state borders, said lawyers and rights activists.“In most cases, the investigation is perfunctory and localised, rarely interstate. The low conviction rate is therefore due to the problem and fallacies in the investigation,” said Kaushik Gupta, a human rights lawyer at Calcutta High Court.
  • Stigma and mental health: Many survivors return to a hostile environment, where they have to fight stigma from family and neighbours. They are trapped in what psychologists call a “vicious circle of guilt and shame”.The survivors are vulnerable to anxiety, memory loss, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and often end up in substance abuse. There is hardly any support.Only some of the block primary health centres — usually the first go-to point for villagers in case of a serious medical condition — have a counsellor. Travelling to a district hospital or one in Calcutta has too many logistical challenges.
  • Delay in compensation: The West Bengal Victim Compensation Scheme, 2017, was set up to give interim compensation to “the victim or dependants who have suffered loss or injury as a result of crime and who require rehabilitation”. In practice, victims of human trafficking, sexual assault and acid attacks are among those entitled to compensation under this scheme, said lawyers.A long time is usually spent between application and a favourable order. But a compensation order is not enough. Many survivors have to wait for a long time before the money is credited to their bank accounts. The State Legal Services Authority, custodians of the compensation corpus, points to empty coffers for the delay.

A 23-year-old woman in Canning, South 24-Parganas, was rescued from Maharashtra in June 2017. The trial has been underway at the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (Pocso) court in Alipore since July 2019. She filed for victim compensation the same year. She is yet to get justice or money.

The woman, now a mother of a three-year-old boy, is part of Bandhanmukti, a collective for survivors in South 24-Parganas. She was part of the team that had approached Mondal, of Trinamool, with the list of demands. “I am continuing the fight because I still believe in the legal system,” she said. The woman is a voter in Jaynagar, which goes to polls on June 1.

A 29-year-old survivor, who lives in a village around 20km from Bongaon in North 24-Parganas, has been granted a victim compensation of 1.5 lakh. The order came in July 2021. However, the money is yet to be credited to her account.

“I want to buy a new stitching machine with the money. The government should make a law to disburse the compensation within a month,” said the woman, who does odd tailoring jobs. She was trafficked to red-light areas in Maharashtra and Gujarat before being rescued from a brothel in Nadia in December 2018.

On May 20, she will queue up at a polling booth in Bongaon.

“We can approach a panchayat candidate and place our demands. A Lok Sabha candidate is out of reach. But I will vote because I still hope for a better future,” she said.

Lakshmir Bhandar and free ration are the only schemes that most of these survivors have access to. Some of them are part of self-help groups that help in getting loans so that they can start small businesses.

Several survivors have applied for housing benefits under the Pradhan Mantri Gramin Awas Yojana. Despite running from pillar to post, they are yet to see any progress.

“If I get any money, I will spend it on strengthening the roof,” said the 28-year-old woman in North 24-Parganas.

Bengal topped the list of Indian states in human trafficking in 2016 with as many as 3,579 reported cases, according to the National Crime Records Bureau.

The 2022 figure is 62, according to the NCRB. The steep plunge may be misleading, said Gupta, the high court lawyer.

“Now, for a case to be treated as a case of trafficking, it must be handled by the anti-human trafficking unit of the police. On many occasions, the local police station does not transfer cases to the unit,” he said.

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