The barrage of criticism of the Trafficking of Persons (Prevention, Protection and Rehabilitation) Bill, 2018 from self-appointed spokespersons of sex workers, and trans communities may threaten its speedy passage in the Lok Sabha. Critics suggest that there is a need for more public discussion and discussions with law and policymakers before the bill is passed, in the interest of arriving at a model that could accommodate interests of all relevant stakeholders rather than harming interests of one or multiple vulnerable communities for the rights of survivors of trafficking.
The process of bringing reform in the law against human trafficking began in 2015 with findings and recommendations from a Supreme Court appointed commission (to review the need for reform) which found that the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act (ITPA), 1956, needed reform to be able to combat human trafficking more effectively and ensure justice to its victims. It’s been three years since then. The Bill has been drafted and revised at least 16-18 times and survivors in large numbers along with other stakeholders, have given their inputs directly and through consultations. The Ministry of Women and Child Development (MWCD) itself has hosted several rounds of consultations with CSOs.
One particular group of sex workers, which chose not to engage with the process despite having information about it, is now opposing passage of this Bill. The same group has reached out to the MWCD through Dr Shashi Tharoor, seeking amendments to ITPA, demanding for this Bill to be held back until such amendments are in place. Survivors of labour and sex trafficking, on the other hand, are asking for a speedy passage of the Bill. It is expected from activists that they’d pay attention and listen to voices of victims who have been trafficked. However, it seems that survivors’ voices are being shut down, and their interests dismissed by voices of the sex workers’ collectives. There’s no dialogue even taking place before this blatant dismissal.
Are the voices of the victims not urgent and legitimate enough? The current laws are completely failing them, and the one question that is being asked is what about the other vulnerable groups. The discourse seems to have become about everyone else but about the victims of trafficking.
Those who have spoken up against the Bill have refused to be identified as trafficked victims. The people in the intersection, who identify as trafficked victims, as well as sex workers, have not really articulated their stance in media. We have actually seen posts from experts and collectives who don’t wish to be identified as victims, and want to be seen as agentic adults who have chosen sex work as their livelihood. While in the opposition there are mentions of people engaged in begging, surrogacy, etc there’s no clear distinction of their issues with the Bill from the issues stated by the various collectives and experts.
There is a common thread in the opposition – the oppositions posed by them are coming from a fear that the clauses, which may be affirmative to survivors of trafficking, may be used by implementation agencies to further harass sex workers and trans persons.
For example, the clause criminalizes use of hormones for the purpose of trafficking and exploitation. While it’s a reality for trafficked survivors, some members of the trans community feel afraid that it can harm them. Theoretically, it shouldn’t, because the hormone is not being taken for exploitation, there’s clear agency of the person in taking the hormone. Practically, this fear stems from the fact that other laws are often misused to harass trans persons. Similarly, sex workers feel that the law may be misused against them, because of ITPA.
The opposition is essentially towards the potential misuse of the provisions of the Bill, because nowhere in the Bill does it criminalize sex work, or trans persons. This fear is legitimate and this is one of the major reasons why the communities are vulnerable to potential misuse of any law. Until ITPA is repealed, or affirmative laws protecting rights of sex workers, transpersons are introduced, any law can be misused to prosecute them.
My issue with this entire opposition is how ignorant this is to what this Bill means for survivors of trafficking. For the first time, it has provisions for interstate investigation, there’s a definition of rehabilitation, and there’s a rehabilitation fund, victim compensation is delinked from prosecution, survivors are entitled to independent legal counsel, and they don’t have to depend on the Public Prosecutors for applying for video conferencing, or for compensation. The opposition completely invisiblises all this, and the survivors’ concerns in favour of interest of the sex workers’ voices.
A dialogue can only take place when there are queries and engagements. When the stance starts from a clear demarcation between one’s rights over others, a dialogue is not a possibility. The opposition essentially holds interests of survivors hostage to some communities’ fears of misuse of the law. The question then becomes, should the survivors of trafficking who are any way suffering from lack of appropriate laws and policies wait more, because the government refuses to ensure safety for another vulnerable community?