Will Modi Government’s Trafficking of Persons (Prevention, Protection and Rehabilitation) Bill, 2018 Remain as a Toothless Tiger?

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Photo by Ben Sutherland

Trafficking[1] of humans for the purpose of forced labor or commercial sexual exploitation is an organized crime.  Currently, India does not have a comprehensive and strong anti-human-trafficking law. As a result, the Indian police sometimes depends onImmoral Traffic Prevention Act, sometimes Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act and some other times a few existing labor lawsto deal with the human traffickers. Due to lack of proper prosecution and insufficient punishment,the crime rate in India has significantly been increased. The situation is grave and is now being blatantly exploited by the powerful crime syndicates and deceitful individuals to kidnap and enslave thousands of poor people.

Thanks to mounting pressure from NGOs, human rights activists and social workers,Prime Minister Modi’s cabinet has just approved India’s first anti-human trafficking bill. Once the bill gets approval by the Cabinet, it has to be tabled in the Parliament and should then be referred to a select committee before being taken up for further debate and pass it finally as an act of law. The bill is expected to be submitted before the parliament in the currentsession,which begins on March 5. This article examines the prospectand potential of the proposed law in the context of the omnipresent ‘everyday violence’ and increasing modern day slavery in India.

Everyday Violence and Modern Day Slavery

In 2014, Gary A Haugan and Victor Boutros wrote in their much acclaimed treatiseTheLocus Effect[2] about the hidden crisis of modern day slavery in the world,which seriously undermines the best efforts of governments to help the poor to come out of poverty. These authors argue that “ beneath the surface of the world’s poorest communities, common violence – like rape, forced labor, illegal detention…has become routine and relentless…There is nothing shielding the poor from violent people… Basic public justice systems in the developing world have descended into a state of utter collapse.”Structural violence also prevents the poor from accessing basic services distributed as part of the welfare measures in these countries.

These authors further observed that most of the developing countries of the world have absolutely no system to deal with everyday violence. By citing examples from life stories of men and women who work in diverse settings such as brick kilns and brothels across India and other countries, they concluded that end of poverty requires end of violence. In these author’s own words: “…what is the direct solution to violence? In modern societies, it is the law enforcement. That is to say, acts of violence are declared to be against the law and then the state is authorized to use coercive power to enforce the law by restraining and punishing those who commit illegal, violent acts”. Systematic use of violence by criminals intimidated the poor and kept them in perpetual poverty. Social and religious norms of many countries supported such use of violence against the poor, while the public justice systems remained ineffective.

Violence andHuman Trafficking in India

Human trafficking is not confined to any particular country though it is widely prevalent in India. Human trafficking and complex forms of slavery are rampant in many parts of the country. On the false promise of jobs, traffickers kidnap poor women, children and men – mostly belonging to the backward Dalit and tribal communities from remote villages. Poor people are also kidnaped and made into domestic helps and sex slaves through fraudulent recruitment practices, debt bondage, charging of recruitment fees and even through a false promise of marriage.In many cases, victims have been paid a loan which they had to pay back to the lender through generations of manual hard work. Modern day slaves in India’s brick kilns, farms, and sex trade are silenced, intimidated and programmed to obey the lenders through systematic use of violence which included provision of narcotic drugs and hormonal injections administered intravenously.Violence is being used to oppress and manipulate individuals, families and communities to remain under slavery.

Modern day slaves areoftenplaced under strict confinementand are forced to work in inhuman conditions of brothels, farms, mines, factories and even in the streets as beggars. Their movements are monitored and restricted. They are routinely subjected to physical, mental or sexual abuse. Atrocities committed against bonded laborers reported from India range from injecting hormones for early sexual maturity in the brothels of Kolkatato chopping of hands[3], and unleashing dogs[4] against men who were trying to escape slavery.Because of the huge profits involved in trafficking, this crime is managed by well-organized and trained criminals. According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), forced labor alone (one component of human trafficking) generates an estimated $150 billion in profits per annum.

According to a recent report[5] by the International LaborOrganizationand Walk Free Foundation there are 40.3million such slaves across the world in 2016. India has the most number of victims of slavery in the world and estimates of modern slaves in India is between 14million and 18million people. An annual report called The Trafficking in Persons Report[6], released by the U.S. State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons ranks governments of the world based on their perceived efforts to acknowledge and combat human trafficking. Their recent reports consistently places India among Tier 2 Countries whose governments do not fully comply with US government’s Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000. The latest Trafficking in Persons Report states that India has become a “source, destination, and transit country for men, women and children subjected to forced labor and sex trafficking”.

The Government of India discredits estimates of such international agencies and call them as attempts to tarnish the image of the country. Indian government does not have recent and reliable national data to counter such data provided by the international agencies. As per India’s National Crime Records, only 5,466 cases of trafficking were reported in 2014 and only 8,132 such cases were recorded in 2016. A survey conducted as per the directive of the Supreme Court of India as early as in 1996 estimated 29016 bonded laborers in India.However, NGOs working on the issue of bonded labor in India are consistently coming up with much higher figures. For example Jeevika, an NGO in Karnataka estimates 9 lakh modern day slaves in their state. Similar reports emerging from other states are also indicative of the huge problem of modern slavery in India which has reached to a dangerous level.

The salient features of the proposed law

Trafficking of Persons (Prevention, Protection and Rehabilitation) Bill, 2018 is obviously hailed by the Government of India,besides some of the renowned personalities in the NGO sector like Kailash Satyarthi as “historic”, “one of compassion due to its focus on rehabilitation of the victims”, and “pioneering”. It has also been called “omnibus” as it unifies all existing anti-trafficking laws.

It prioritizes the survivor’s needs and prevents victims from being jailed by making a clear distinction between the trafficker and the trafficked.Rehabilitation of victims will not be contingent upon criminal proceedings being initiated against the accused.Under the new law, the victims will be entitled to access a rehabilitation fund from which they can rebuild their lives. Victims will also be able to give evidence of trafficking without being identified. The salient features of the Bill are listed below.

  • The elite National Investigation Agency of India will investigatehuman trafficking offences
  • Anational anti-trafficking relief and rehabilitation committee headed by the secretary of women and child development ministry will be established.
  • Designated courts in every district for quick, time-bound trials as well as for protecting those rescued from traffickers will be set up at the earliest.
  • Anti-trafficking committeesare set up at district, state and national levels to oversee the prevention, protection and victim rehabilitation.
  • It focuses on helping victims, as it has provisions for rescue and rehabilitation of the survivors as well as protection of witnesses and complainants. It sets up a proposed fund to help rebuilding lives of victims including education, legal aid, physical and mental support.
  • Increased minimum punishmentfor perpetrators from7 years to 10 years in prison.

The Bill has many salient features which make the proposed law a trend setter for other countries. However the bill has many critics too. A summary of such criticisms are listed below.

  1. Omissions:Absence of proper definitions of ‘trafficking’ and ‘rehabilitation’ and absence of issues such as ‘organ removal’ and ‘forced marriages’ are conspicuous in the bill. The bill does not give enough importance to labor trafficking
  2. Ambiguities: Gray areas in the Bill may make the implementation difficult. For example there is no indication on from where the manpower and resources to implement this Bill would come from.Also the relationship between the special investigation agency and state units are not clearly delineated in the Bill.
  3. Freedom of sex workers:Representatives of a section of sex workers oppose the Bill by saying that it has no provision for consensual/voluntary sex work. “The offences listed in the bill pre-suppose that doing sex work always entails trafficking and can never be voluntary”.
  4. No scope for community based rehabilitation:The emphasis of the bill seems to be more on shelter homes for offering rehabilitation. Most shelter homes in India now function like jails with substandard services. Girls in the shelter homes are often subjected to torture and ill treatment, There’s no mention of punishing people who torture the girls. If survivors want to return to their homes from the special home, no supportive provision is provided in the bill. For instance, the bill is silent on fighting stigma against survivors of trafficking. Girls who return home are often harassed by own family members and neighbors. Without addressing this stigma ultimate rehabilitation of the survivors back to the community is not possible.
  5. Possibility of less convictions: The more stringent the punishment, the less is conviction – this is the experience of increasing punishments in similar domains like ‘rape’. NGO workers who work in the field reports that it is the certainty of a punishment which acts as a deterrent to offenders, not the severity of the punishment.Therefore the law should have provisions that ensure conviction of the offenders.
  6. Stockholm syndrome: Over the long time of their stay in a brothel, some sex trafficking survivors may develop an affinity with the brothel keeper and may hesitate to give evidence against the perpetrator. This may make it difficult for the authorities to file proper FIRs and charge sheets.

Though these criticisms may have some merit, these are not serious enough to stop the bill from becoming a law. Many of these criticisms such as omissions and ambiguities in the Bill could still be addressed. ‘Freedom’ of sex workers is still a debatable area. It is true that all sex workers are not trafficked[7] and some of them might like to be in the profession by choice. However, the NGO Dasra estimates that 80% of all women and children in the sex work have been trafficked.

Challenges and Way forward

There is a widespread denial of the problem of modern day slavery in India. Government is worried about the implications on the image of the country as well as its potential impact on the Indian exports, if there is an official admission of slave labor in the supply chain of Indian products.Human rights activists may have to pressurize the government to acknowledge the existence of Trafficking in India, as this is an issue which threatens country’s development. Resource requirements for large scale structures and systems as proposed by the Bill is huge. The government may look for unconventional and innovative ways to mobilize resources and expertise – even if these have to be sourced from nongovernmental and civil society channels.

The societal perceptions on bonded labor and acceptance of it as a reality of life etc. in India needs to be challenged. This acceptance is partly due to religious sanctions on caste system etc. which also contribute to the issue. A huge challenge for implementation of this act will be dealing with vested interests who are being currently benefitted from the Human Trafficking. They are also funders of political parties, relatives of bureaucrats and at times people who do ‘respectable businesses’ and even philanthropic activities. Society needs to be helped by activists and think tanks to change their perceptions on bonded labor and human trafficking and should be ready for the larger good and positive social change.

As the way forward, we need to support the Bill to get it passed and to become a law. Secondly there is a need to generate data and strategic intelligence on existence of this heinous crime, for use of the government and other agencies to effectively address the issue in a holistic way. Extensive judicial reforms and massive police training programs are essential to tackle the problem of human trafficking.  Government should also be serious to fight all atrocities committed against scheduled castes and tribeswhich include human trafficking.

The bill is a very significant piece of legislation coming up in the Budget session of the parliament. It is the first time independent India has acknowledgedthe enormity and gravity of Human Trafficking. Will the act remain as a toothless tiger or not is something which the future will have to tell us. Like in the case of many of the legislations in India, creation of a law will not automatically result in the required social change. However, it is an essential first step in the right direction. Modi government should be applauded and supported for enacting this Bill. It will be appropriate to conclude this article by quoting Martin Luther King[8]: “It may be true that law cannot change the heart but it can restrain the heartless. It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me but it can keep him from lynching me and I think that is pretty important.”

(Kandathil Sebastian is a social development professional, novelist and researcher based in Delhi. The views expressed in this article are personal and do not necessarily belong to the organization where he works currently.)

[1]United Nations Trafficking in Persons Protocol defines trafficking as “the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labor or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs.”

[2] Haugen, Gary A. and Boutros, Victor. “The Locust Effect” (2014) Oxford University Press, New York

[3] “Punished by axe: Bonded labour in India’s brick kilns”. See at http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-27486450

[4] “Coorg’s Bitter Brew: Bonded labour in India’s biggest coffee estate” See at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rjCjOrFkT0U

[5]  See Global Estimates of Modern Slavery: Forced Labour and Forced Marriage at http://www.ilo.org/global/publications/books/WCMS_575479/lang–en/index.htm

[6]See 2017 Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/j/tip/rls/tiprpt/

[7] See ‘Should India Legalize Sex Work?’By Kandathil Sebastian at https://www.countercurrents.org/sebastian091114.htm

[8] King, Martin Luther, “Social Justice – Conscience of America Series”. Western Michigan University Read Fieldhouse (1963)


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