How Bengal, India’s human trafficking hub, is weaving a turnaround story
West Bengal seems to be writing a new story in tackling human trafficking, of which the state has been a prime hub in India, as data released by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) indicate.
In 2017, while the number of cases related to human trafficking in West Bengal had recorded a ten-fold decrease (from 3579 cases in 2016 to 357), the rescue of missing persons increased by more than two folds (53,345 persons rescued in 2017 as against 23,624 persons in 2016), the number of arrests and rate of disposal of cases by the police increased significantly.
West Bengal accounted for 25% of India’s trafficking cases between 2010 and 2016. In 2016, the state recorded a whopping 44% share of the total cases related to human trafficking in India. As of 2016, 20.64% of India’s missing children were from West Bengal – the highest among all states. In 2017, the share came down to 16.1%.
Besides, a first-of-its-kind model in the country introduced in one district – the worst-affected South 24-Parganas – in 2016 has drawn praises from many quarters, including the United States consulate, UNICEF and numerous NGOs.
US consulate’s Kolkata public affairs officer Monica Shie said that her government is going to introduce the Swayang Siddha model to anti-trafficking activists from other states during the coming edition of their anti-trafficking conclave.
The conclave, in previous years, saw the participation of activists from Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh, the three countries sharing a border with West Bengal.
“The ninth edition of the conclave will focus on inter-and intrastate collaborations using the police-led, school-based Swayang Siddha model that has proven effective in West Bengal,” Shie said.
Swayang Siddha or self-reliant in Bengali is an awareness campaign-cum-community policing programme involving the police, students, teachers, village panchayats, administrative officers, child protection committees, and NGOs.
A section of anti-trafficking activists, however, have expressed doubts about the ten-fold decrease in trafficking cases and suspected if the police were registering the cases under other heads such as missing persons, kidnapped persons and crimes covered under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act.
“There is no denying that West Bengal police played an exemplary role in rescue but the ten-fold decrease looks unrealistic, as the number of children who went missing in 2017 stood as high as the previous year,” said Rishi Kant, co-founder of the NGO ‘Shakti Vahini’ that partnered with the West Bengal police in the rescue of a number of trafficked persons.
As many as 8187 children went missing from West Bengal in 2017 (12.9% of India). The number was slightly less than 8,335 cases reported in 2016 (13.14% of India).
Incidentally, the US State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report published in June 2019 alleged, “Some authorities in West Bengal and Jharkhand allegedly ordered police to register trafficking cases as “missing persons” to reduce the number of trafficking cases in official statistics.”
The report claimed to have received these allegations from NGOs working in this field.
A senior officer of West Bengal police, who did not want to be named, refuted the charge.
“Had we registered cases under other sections, the data related to persons missing, abducted or cases under POCSO would have had recorded a significant rise, which is not the case,” the official cited above said.
According to Sanghamitra Ghosh, who served as the secretary of women and child welfare department until taking charge as the state health secretary in mid-September, the decrease in incidents of trafficking is a result of a coordinated programme involving the police, the state women and child welfare department, education department, Border Security Force, UNICEF and NGOs.
“There is a state-level body headed by the women and child welfare minister and a secretary-level body to coordinate between various departments in the fields of prevention, rescue and rehabilitation. The meetings take place frequently. Coordination and the seamless sharing of information between stakeholders is the key to the success,” Ghosh said.
State government officials involved in the anti-human trafficking programme said the state’s action picked momentum after the formulation of the State Plan of Action to Combat and Prevent Human Trafficking in Women and Children (SPAHT) in 2016.
“Coordination between various government departments and NGOs has improved, resulting in an increased number of rescues and arrests,” said Sandeep Kumar Mitra, eastern regional head of Child in Need Institute that runs the helpline, Childline.
Ananya Bhattacharya of Banglanatak dot com, one of the partners in the Swayang Siddha project, pointed out that the setting up of anti-trafficking groups in schools has not only increased awareness among students about the ways traps are laid for trafficking – mostly marriage and lure of jobs – but also multiplied sources of information for the police.
“Police officers who shared their contact numbers with students started receiving much more information,” Bhattacharya said.
Rishi Kant, too, stressed on the urgent need to replicate the Swayang Siddha model in all districts.
“Swayang Siddha has gained significant success in South 24-Parganas but the amount of hard work put in this district is missing elsewhere. Since the chief minister herself has declared Swayang Siddha as a state-wide project, every district magistrate should have taken it up by now,” Kant said.