Ever since the Trafficking of Persons (Prevention, Protection and Rehabilitation) Bill, 2018, was passed by the Lok Sabha in July 2018, there has been a huge debate among the civil society groups and experts on whether this Bill should be passed by the Rajya Sabha and turned into a law or referred to a Parliamentary Committee to plug the gaps, that critics of the Bill think would end up targeting voluntary sex workers and impact interstate migration and informal sector workforce. However, anti-trafficking activists don’t agree with this argument, and want this Bill to be passed, for it seems to be the most comprehensive and stringent law to combat trafficking of persons, especially of women and children. Interactions with survivors of sex-trafficking from West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh, anti-trafficking activists and lawyers working on this issue provide the rationale to believe that the Bill is the first good step in the battle against human trafficking, the second largest organised illegal activity in the world, after the drugs trade. Here are a few reasons why I concur with the activists and survivors who want this Bill to become a law:
A Multipronged and Holistic Approach
The new Bill, according to experts, is the first such piece of legislation that takes a holistic approach towards creating a robust policy framework against human trafficking, by stitching together key components such as prevention, protection, rescue and rehabilitation of victims, and placing their rights and welfare at its core. The Bill lays down provisions for setting up of protection and rehabilitation homes for survivors, and sets forth their management and regulatory mechanisms. Section 23 of the Bill calls for punishment for non-compliance of the protection-home norms. It says: “If any person in-charge of Protection Home and Rehabilitation Home providing shelter and rehabilitation to victims or any person rescued, contravenes any of the provisions, shall be punished with imprisonment which may extend to one year or with fine which shall not be less than one lakh rupees, or with both.” It also speaks about the consent of survivors and gives them, in case of adults, a choice to stay in the rehabilitation home or not. As per Section 17 (4) of the Bill, an adult survivor or a person rescued, may apply before the Magistrate, accepting or declining rehabilitative services.
The Magistrate may approve such an application after due assessment of the victim’s risks and vulnerability by the District Anti-Trafficking Committee before making a final decision. Section 17(5) of the Bill mentions that during the post-rescue process before the Magistrate and during the repatriation process, the victims should be provided with psychosocial counselling by a trained mental health professional – a provision hailed by activists and experts working on the issue. Another noteworthy provision of the Bill is that it specifies timelines for interim compensation and victim compensation and makes it clear that rehabilitation of victims will not depend on criminal cases that might be going on at the time (Section 25). The Bill calls for setting up of a National Rehabilitation Fund through which funds will be made available to the State and District Anti-Trafficking Committees towards prevention, protection and prosecution of matters relating to trafficking of persons.
The Bill also seeks to build the capacity of the victims through skill development in order to empower them to access justice and protect themselves from further trafficking. The Bill also calls for repatriation of trafficking victims to be completed within 3 to 6 months, depending on whether it is interstate or cross-border. If there is any delay, that needs to be reported to the NATB and National Anti-Trafficking Relief and Rehabilitation Committee, with reasons in writing.
3-Tire Structure to Combat Trafficking
The Bill lays down the provision of the establishment of 3-tier Anti-trafficking Bureaus with clear stratification, delineation of their duties, and accountability measures. At the national level, the Bill calls for setting up of the National Anti-Trafficking Bureau (NATB), a central investigation agency which will coordinate and monitor all prevention, investigation and protection efforts taken at different levels. The agency, as prescribed in the Bill, will facilitate surveillance, enforcement and preventive steps at source, transit and destination points; and maintain co-ordination between various law enforcement agencies and NGOs and other stakeholders. The NATB will also be responsible for strengthening intelligence apparatus to improve collection, collation, analysis and dissemination of operational intelligence; and coordinate with concerned authorities in different states and in foreign countries to facilitate investigation of inter-state and trans-border trafficking cases. It will also monitor victim and witness protection protocols, rules and actions taken in this regard by various authorities established under this Bill. Activists working on the issue hope that such monitoring would help in detection of systemic gaps by agencies that have the power and authority to take steps for systems building.
Safeguarding Victims’ Confidentiality
For a survivor of sex trafficking, it’s devastating when the community she belongs to, knows about her past. The survivors’ confidentiality is often breached during trials and it leaves serious implications. She has to deal with immense stigma even though it was not her fault. The new Bill, however, has provisions that would ensure protection of the identity and confidentiality of survivors at all stages, and it criminalizes its violation. Section 42 of the Bill mentions that “No report or newspaper or magazine or news-sheet or audio-visual media or any other form of communication regarding any inquiry or investigation or judicial proceedings at any stage shall disclose the name, address or any other particulars, which may lead to the identification of a victim or witness of trafficking of person under this Act shall be published”. Moreover, the Bill lays down the provision for in-camera trial and trial by video conferencing for the victim. This will not only help protect the survivor’s identity and confidentiality, but also reduce the hassle of travelling to a different state for deposition.
Safeguarding Victims’ Confidentiality
The most common causes of the low rate of prosecution and conviction in trafficking cases in the country are the lack of deterrence among the perpetrators and threat and intimidation the victims are often subjected to. For the first time, the Bill acknowledges the gravity of the crime and increased levels of vulnerability of the victim of this illicit trade. It outlines stringent retribution for offences not covered by other existing laws, such as aggravated forms of trafficking which include trafficking for the purpose of forced labour or bonded labour, or for the purpose of marriage or under the pretext of marriage, or for bearing a child, or administering narcotic drugs, hormones, or chemical substances for the purposes of early sexual maturity, etc. Keeping or allowing premises to be used for trafficking of persons and promoting or facilitating such activities are also termed as offences in the Bill. Under Section 32 and 33, the Bill spells out punishment for traffickers, that ranges from a minimum 10 years of rigorous imprisonment to life term, and a fine, not less than 1 lakh rupees. For repeated offences, it calls for imprisonment for the remainder of the convict’s natural life and a fine, not less than 2 lakh rupees. Since human trafficking is an organised crime involving huge muscle and money power, it is important to break that nexus and in order to do that, the Bill proposes attachment and forfeiture of property used for such crimes. It also calls for freezing of bank accounts of those who facilitate such offences. Prosecution under these offences will be made timely and efficient by special public prosecutors, which experts believe would improve chances of conviction of traffickers and prosecution rates.
Why so much criticism, then?
As some experts have opined, the anti-trafficking Bill is not a perfect one, like any other law of the land. But it’s certainly a better law than before, say activists who support the Bill. They believe the criticism levelled against the Bill seems to be based on mere assumptions and fears. The Bill does not criminalize sex work or curb the right of persons to choose sex work as described by some sex worker unions. If anything, this Bill holds the stakeholders responsible for ensuring that their profession does not have the effect or by-product of facilitating or enabling trafficking. Any Bill that becomes a law, provides for the formulation of procedural rules for implementation, and the same process will also be followed in this case. So concerns expressed over the Bill can also be addressed during the formulation of such procedural rules. The new Bill, as experts have said, provides a strong framework that will uphold the human agency of survivors of trafficking. Therefore, it is essential that the Bill gets passed by the Rajya Sabha at the earliest.