Minister for women and child development Maneka Gandhi received a rather unusual letter last month. Signed by 23 survivors of human trafficking and sexual exploitation from villages in West Bengal, the letter expressed their hopes—and fears—of India’s first and most comprehensive draft bill on trafficking.
“We are excited with the possibility of a new law," wrote the women who were rescued from Pune, Mumbai, Delhi and Goa. “The existing system," they noted, “has not attended to our needs."
The letter listed what about the Trafficking of Persons (Prevention, Protection and Rehabilitation) Bill made the women happy and what about it had them worried.
“Nothing is said about fighting stigma against survivors of trafficking. A girl is often tortured by her very own family members after she is back, and she has no other way but to keep silent to protect her dignity in front of others," the women wrote.
India has the fourth highest estimated prevalence of modern slavery in proportion to its population in the world, according to the 2016 Global Slavery Index. More than 18 million people, or 1.4% of our citizens, live in conditions of modern slavery that includes sex work, domestic work, manual labour and even forced marriage in states such as Haryana and Punjab that have low sex ratios. The NGO Dasra estimates that 80% of all women and children in the sex trade have been trafficked.
Only 5,466 cases of trafficking were reported in 2014.
Maneka Gandhi’s bill is nothing if not ambitious. At present, India does not even have a comprehensive anti-trafficking law, using disparate legislation on a case-to-case basis. For instance, the police might use the Immoral Traffic Prevention Act to raid brothels and ‘rescue’ the women in it—including those who might not be living in confinement. Other cases might be tried under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act. Still others will come under various sections of the labour law. Begging and organ trafficking are looked at under yet other provisions.
Yet, even the draft bill fails to define either trafficking or rehabilitation, even though it recognizes it as a right with a provision of shelter homes in every district and a fund for the welfare and reintegration of rescued women.
“There is a lot of emphasis on shelter homes for rehabilitation, but if a girl is above the age of 18 who wants to return to their home from the special home, no provision is there for them," wrote the women.
In addition to shelters and a rehabilitation fund, the draft legislation, up on the ministry’s website, provides for special courts to expedite cases of trafficking. It also provides for anti-trafficking committees down to the district level. For the first time, a special investigation agency will coordinate work between states and collect intelligence on trafficking.
“There is a lot of detail and considerable improvement from the first draft to the third one in circulation," says Roop Sen, a researcher on migration and violence with Sanjog, a think tank working to end violence, particularly against children. Yet, ambiguities persist. What, for instance, is the relationship between the special investigation agency and state units? Where will the manpower and resources come from? “If you are talking about setting up an anti-trafficking fund, then what will it cover?" asks Sen.
When a woman is trafficked, she is robbed of her freedom of choice, says Chandrani Das Gupta, a psychologist who has been working with trafficking survivors. “Now, she will find herself in the same situation after being rescued and placed in a shelter home," she says.
It’s a fear that is shared by the survivors. With very few exceptions, shelter homes function like jails with no freedom of mobility. “Girls and women staying in the shelter homes are often subjected to torture and ill treatment as well as substandard services. There’s no mention of punishing people who torture the girls in this way," wrote the women who fear that rescued women could be kept ‘indefinitely’ in shelter homes. “We have seen during our stays in homes that many girls are kept there for years," they say.
The draft bill does not recognize the many nuances of a survivor’s life. “There’s a difference between a woman in a brothel who was trafficked six days ago from a woman who was trafficked six years ago," says Das Gupta. “Over the years, some survivors develop an affinity with the brothel keeper and may hesitate to give evidence against him."
With its focus on trafficking in the sex trade, the draft bill is silent on labour trafficking, organ removal and forced marriages, says lawyer Kaushik Gupta.
Trafficking, Gupta says, is an organized crime and a human rights issue. The silver lining is that the draft bill recognizes for the first time in independent India the enormity and gravity of this crime. The bad news is that there’s still a long way to go before it can be regarded as a comprehensive, positive piece of legislation that will empower survivors of trafficking as well as make a serious dent towards its widespread prevalence.
Namita Bhandare is gender editor of Mint.
Her Twitter handle is @namitabhandare