Tafteesh legal strategies took off to a new high in 2020

The ability of survivors of human trafficking to access and achieve justice in India is severely impaired by a series of challenges ranging from lopsided investigation, identification and prosecution of traffickers. Besides that, the negative attitudes towards survivors, and a lack of sensitivity towards them are also barriers to their access to justice.

Strengthening this “access to justice” for survivors by empowering them with required knowledge and legal support is one of the strongest pillars of Tafteesh – a programme co-led by a highly committed team of human rights lawyers, survivor leaders, activists, social workers, researchers and mental health professionals who have all joined hand with a shared vision to help strengthen the country’s anti-human trafficking ecosystem.

Since the beginning of the programme in 2013, the team of legal professional who we fondly call Tafteesh lawyers have been helping survivors in identifying the gaps in their cases, providing them all legal options and guide them in their fight for their rights and justice. At present, a total of 307 survivors associated with the programme are fighting for their legal and rehabilitation rights. They are also making efforts to bring to justice more than 480 accused persons named in their FIRs and charge-sheets.

At present, a total of 307 survivors associated with the programme are pursuing their legal cases in which more than 480 accused persons have been indicted.

­In March this year, when the country entered into a nationwide lockdown following the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, the legal justice programme also got impacted as activities and mobilities on ground have all come to a standstill. The situation worsened in West Bengal which was also hit by the devastating cyclone Amphan. Courts were closed for indefinite period; lawyers could not reach out to survivors to understand their needs; survivors were found struggling not only to meet their basic needs like food and medicines, but also reported unsafe without having their own shelter in some places. They have also reported that the situation impacted on their mental health as well.

As an urgent and important action at that point in time, Tafteesh social workers and associated community-based organizations swung to action and facilitated relief actions to survivors, their families and other vulnerable families in their localities. Despite the personal hardships, survivor leaders from different collectives such as Bandhan Mukti, Utthan and Bijoyini in West Bengal and Vimukthi in Andhra Pradesh also initiated relief measures in coordination with their mentoring organisations as per their own capacities and external supports they received.

Rising up to the occasion

After initial emergency relief support, Tafteesh partner organisations as well as the survivor leaders they work with took this as an opportunity to identify and call out systemic gaps such denial of free ration and relief due to lack of ration cards, bank accounts of many vulnerable families. This ignited the group to undertake advocacy efforts with local governments to ensure the no needy family fails to receive the relief measures announced by the Centre and State governments. These system-strengthening efforts paid great dividends on ground.

One of the key steps was taken at that time was to ensure access to mobile phones and internet connection to survivor leaders and tafteesh team, as well as to train many of them on usage of gadgets and technologies like zoom. This helped survivors and Tafteesh team to start a new way to engage with duty bearers and demand justice.

We at Tafeesh were honestly clueless on how to ensure legal justice as courts were operating only for very urgent cases and trafficking appeared to be not a so urgent and important issue for the legal justice system. That was very frustrating for survivors waiting for trials of their cases.

The first step of our legal justice programme to restart was to ensure meetings between survivors and their legal counsels. These meetings were facilitated by our frontline social workers to understand survivors’ contexts and their lives in this “new normal” and analyse their cases together and think of the next steps. In the pre-Covid situation, many survivors received legal counsel from the District Legal Service Authorities (DLSA). So, together we decided it would be better to approach them along with private lawyers to take up some cases for faster hearing. This strategy worked very well and reenergised the legal case management aspect of our programme.

New strategies that worked well

We as Tafteesh recognized the rights of victims to have legal counsel on their own, so that their voices get heard in the legal justice system. After this successful experiment by Tafteesh lawyers, they focused on experimenting with the legal aid system, so that the system recognizes the rights of those who do not have support from any NGOs or programmes. After DLSAs accepted survivors’ demand to provide free legal aid service, the next challenge was how other lawyers, especially those empanelled with DLSAs, would adopt Tafteesh experiments and successful strategies and represent trafficked victims to ensure prosecution of traffickers and the survivors’ access to victim compensation as their rights.

What is exciting for us in 2020 was to witness DLSA empanelled lawyers expressing their interest to have conversations with Tafteesh lawyers and wanting to make practice of those experiments.  One of these experiments included filing ‘naraji’ or protest petitions in cases where they found the investigation by the police has been poor and proper sections are not pressed in the charge sheets. This practice helped strengthen the cases of survivors which were otherwise very weak to prosecute the traffickers.

In another achievement last year, Tafteesh lawyers won an order from West Bengal State Legal Service Authority (SLSA) that all victim compensation cases will be heard through video conference as a new strategy in this pandemic times when survivors’ travel to and from the courts became a nightmare. The outcome of this verdict was that the pandemic would not halt survivors’ access to victim compensation, which is an urgent and important need for their sustenance and well-being. This order will not only helpful for Tafteesh survivors but any survivors whose VC case hearing stalled because of pandemic.

Tafteesh lawyers have also got a favourable order from the Culcutta High Court ruling that the SLSA cannot hold back 75% of the victim compensation money awarded to a survivor of human trafficking as ‘fixed deposits’ in banks for 10 years in monthly interest scheme. in the ground that the survivors have the rights to choose how to use their money. Later, SLSA challenged the order and Tafteesh lawyers are fighting this case with SLSA

­Coming back to track gradually

Legal case management once stalled because of pandemic has now found a new way to experiment. It is heartening to see that our strategies and programmatic learnings are now being used by other anti-trafficking organizations outside of the Tafteesh consortium. Some of them have also succeeded in getting positive outcomes through these strategies.

One such example has been the Rs 9 lakh compensations awarded by DLSA, Kolkata, to a survivor of human trafficking whose case was facilitated by a team of lawyers and International Justice Mission. This particular case represented by a young lawyer who successfully argued for this highest-ever compensation claim on the grounds of a 2018 Culcutta High Court judgement on a trafficked survivor’s compensation appeal handled by Tafteesh lawayers.

This has reaffirmed Tafteesh’s belief in system strengthening, which will not only help the survivors associated with Tafteesh, but also to survivors across the country fighting for their rights and justice. In 2021, we are all committed to amplify our work on ground that would help strengthen the system and enable survivors of trafficking access to their rights and justice in a much better and easier way.

Snigdha is a social development professional with over 20 years of experience. She is currently the programme manager for Tafteesh.