Policy reform to deal with human trafficking: Will the new govt at centre act?

In its last term between 2014 and 2018, the BJP government tried reforming the Indian law on human trafficking. The Ministry of Women and Child Development initiated drafting a comprehensive law, not just for sexual exploitation, but for all other purposes including trafficking for forced labour, organ trafficking and any form of servitude.

The Bill was passed by the Lok Sabha amidst opposition from the Congress and several other parties who had concerns over the Bill being anti-migration, being oppressive towards consenting adult sex workers, and not having adequate safeguards to protect the people it claimed to serve. The Bill, however, was not tabled in the Rajya Sabha or in the Budget session despite being in listed several times. Unlike the Bill on Triple Talaaq, the government did not try to pass it as an ordinance either.

There are speculations on whether the BJP having returned to power now will re-introduce the Bill in its current form or start the process afresh. The reason for not pushing the Bill aggressively through an ordinance, despite it having crossed the lengths through the Lok Sabha, are speculated by many.

Some believe that there may have been doubts about passing a Bill that relied on institutional care approach in the wake of several incidents of exploitation of children and women in shelter homes across the country. Others believe that the critical questions around the feasibility of its implementation may have also seeded doubt in the minds of policy makers.

Now that the government has returned to power, it has to deal with the demand for legal reform on human trafficking by several organisations and survivors’ groups across the country. There is also pressure from the Supreme Court of India that’s advising the government to reform the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, 1956, and to address concerns of sex workers and transgender people about its misuse and criminalisation of sex workers and trans persons.

Discussion on New India has emerged in recent political debates during the recently concluded election campaigns in the country. Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke about inclusiveness in development being his agenda for the next five years of governance. People who are most vulnerable to, and victims of human trafficking, are Dalits, OBCs, Muslims; the rural and peri-urban poor; women, men, adolescents and children from socio-economically backward families.

In less than a week since the election results were declared, in separate incidents, women, children and men have been rescued from bonded labour and sexual exploitation from Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh and Delhi who were trafficked from other states and indentured into forced labour and sex work through debt bondage. The state response of rescue remains pitifully inadequate due to lack of appropriate rehabilitation measures. The criminal justice system’s approach to prosecution remains dismal as is evident from the poor success rates of prosecution in achieving convictions of the accused. The Nirbhaya Funds continue to be poorly accessible to survivors of trafficking to claim compensation. Victims of sex trafficking continue to be detained in closed institutions projected as rehabilitation homes. Survivors of trafficking continuing to protest these forms of incarceration that do nothing for their rehabilitation apart from the immediate post-rescue shelter and basic needs provision.

Meanwhile, international aid continues to fund a few anti-trafficking organisations in cities running rescue operations and shelters, to whom the governments relegate the state responsibility towards victims without taking financial responsibility, and therefore are unable to enforce accountability.

The trade of entrapping people with false promises of decent work, wages and labour continues to grow and flourish in the most impoverished districts of the country. Vulnerability of the landless and marginal farmers, women-headed families and children from dysfunctional families continues to grow. New India will demand equal partake for this huge section of people in its economic growth and development, social security and greater transparency and accountability of the bureaucracy, law enforcement and panchayats.

Trafficking is one of the most complex crimes in India today. Despite the long-held political rhetoric about India being a victim of people smuggled and trafficked from across the borders, less than 2% of trafficked people come from its neighbouring countries Bangladesh and Nepal. The large majority are trafficked between and within Indian states due to distress migration, demand for cheap labour, and sexual exploitation of young people.

The distress of economic and social divides manifest not only in human trafficking, but exploitation of all migrants in unorganised and semi-organised labour sectors. Even an organised sector like Tamil Nadu reports a marked increase from 5% to 35% in migrant women. Adolescent girls from Bihar, Jharkhand and north eastern states in the textile sector, wherein neither the labour department nor Whe Women and Child Development Ministries have set up monitoring systems to address their vulnerability to abuse and exploitation.

A recent research in north east India found that construction projects initiated to strengthen India’s Look East policy, funded through external aid to the state governments, have no checks to prevent debt bondage or exploitation of labour, or children being recruited by contractors from Jharkhand, Odisha or other states. These cases are poorly reported and investigated due to lack of investment towards law enforcement and the criminal justice system to cope with demands that these cases require. For example, amongst the 220 odd anti-human trafficking units constituted across India under the directive of MHA since 2008, less than 12 of them are notified. Therefore, they are not resourced with dedicated officers for investigation of crimes.

Human trafficking can neither be countered through a penal law alone nor by only making committees and creating SOPs. It needs accountability setting through monitoring and coordination, building systems to link inter-state mechanisms, building inter-state and centre-state systems of coordination. It all boils down to governments prioritising anti-trafficking measures, and therefore, investment into them.

Will New India look at economic growth and increasing numbers of industrialist billionaires alone, or will it also measure its success through indicators of greater safety for its migrant workers, women and children as well? Will the people and parliamentarians in New India look for their pride in militaristic retaliations or will they, along with being mindful of national security, also prioritise justice delivery for victims of the country’s class exploitations against perpetrators who may be within their own ranks and file?