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The trafficking bill can be misused against victims and activists

This vagueness in definitions gives more power to the police and judiciary, who will become the interpreters of the law

analysis Updated: Aug 02, 2018 13:28 IST
Trapped in the ugly world of human trafficking, many young women recieve no legal or police help.(Photo: Shutterstock)(Shutterstock/Representational photo)

The Centre has passed the Trafficking of Persons (Prevention, Protection and Rehabilitation) Bill, 2018, in the Lok Sabha that leaves out millions of victims of sex trafficking from its very definition. While the Bill mentions that “trafficking in human beings may be for sexual and physical exploitation,” sexual exploitation is not mentioned either in the definitions section or in the criminal provisions.

In 2011, India ratified the Palermo Protocol to prevent, suppress and punish trafficking in persons, especially women and children. So, it has an obligation to implement it domestically. The definition says that human beings are trafficked for different types of exploitation, which “at a minimum includes the exploitation of the prostitution of others, sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs.” Even under aggravated forms of trafficking, the Bill lists forced labour, begging and marriage but omits sexual exploitation and “prostitution of others”.

The Bill refers to another law — Section 370 of the IPC — to define sex trafficking. But by not explicitly mentioning sexual exploitation in definitions, while explicitly mentioning trafficking for labour, marriage and begging, the Bill creates ambiguity. This vagueness in definitions gives more power to the police and judiciary, who will become the interpreters of the law.

Combined with powers of surveillance that the Bill bestows on the National Anti-Trafficking Bureau in the name of investigating cases and coordinating between law enforcement agencies and NGOs, it is likely to be used against victims and activists. Thousands of victims, many of them illiterate, will have to depend on the mercy of the thana (station) officer, to interpret the words in the Bill’s statement of objects, to even register a police complaint against their traffickers.

Similarly, frontline social workers will have to depend on the whims of the judiciary to interpret the law or furnish them with older laws for definitions of trafficking for sexual exploitation. Multiplicity of laws mostly confuses victims and creates their dependence on educated lawyers and judiciary.

Interestingly, the Bill places the blame for trafficking exclusively on “poverty, illiteracy and lack of livelihood options,” and not in any way, shape or form, on sex/gender/caste inequality as a significant vulnerability to being trafficked. This lets the government off the hook in punishing buyers and traffickers for sexual exploitation. It also takes away any obligation to address the vulnerability of gender or caste inequality through increased budgets for marginalised groups.

The existing 16 million victims of sex trafficking in India today are mostly Dalits, Adivasis, OBCs and denotified tribes. They may be listed in government data as victims of trafficking. Or not. Omission from definition in the so-called comprehensive law on trafficking will leave out large numbers of victims in reported data.

The passage of the Bill, bypassing the demands of several MPs to send it to a Standing Committee for further scrutiny, is decidedly odd. It is similar to 2016, when, by removing millions of children in family based-enterprises and audio-visual entertainment from the definition of child labour, in the Child Labour Act, the government was able to show that child labour had come down in India.The National Crime Records Bureau revealed that rapes of children spiked by 82 % in the following year. These invisible children pushed out of schools and into the workforce may be missing in the data, but they continued to exist for the perpetrators.

The same will be true for victims of sex trafficking. They will continue to be raped for profit and their numbers will increase, as there will be impunity for traffickers and difficulties for victims in even defining who they are. Government data may show that child labour and sex trafficking have come down, but the flesh and blood experiences of millions of vulnerable girls will tell a different story.

Ruchira Gupta is founder of the anti­sex trafficking organisation Apne Aap Women Worldwide. The views expressed are personal.

First Published: Aug 02, 2018 13:28 IST