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Seduced, imported, sold...

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime identifies India as a top source, transit and destination country for human trafficking, reports Namita Kohli.

india Updated: Oct 14, 2007 04:37 IST
Namita Kohli
Namita Kohli
Hindustan Times

It’s a two-way street: of greed and need. When traffic flows, at the dead end are unsuspecting people, bartered every day in a consumerist society. As the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) identifies India as a top source, transit and destination country for human trafficking, the spotlight is, yet again, on the issue and its million victims.

Prerna, 14, was lured from Andhra Pradesh to Delhi, by her aunt. On reaching the city, she was sold to a brothel for a paltry sum. “I don’t know who raped me, but there was blood on my body when I got up the next morning. We were told that if we escaped, the police would beat us black and blue,” she says, adding, “Those who don’t manage to escape, eventually turn into traffickers themselves.”

One crime, many faces

For those working against trafficking, one of the biggest challenges is its ‘multi-faceted’ nature. In a rapidly transforming society, demands are ever-changing: prostitution, domestic work, friendship clubs, child sex tourism, migrant labour, forced marriages, even adoption. The human trafficking market feeds on all these.

“A low female sex ratio in Punjab and Haryana has given rise to trafficking in brides from poorer states like Jharkhand and Chattisgarh. They are brought for marriage, but many times they are forced into the sex trade,” says Rishi Kant, anti-trafficking activist at Shakti Vahini, a Faridabad- based NGO. In a city like Delhi, says Kant, domestic help placement agencies — all unregistered — are also trafficking women and children in droves. In one recent case, Darjeeling’s Priya Tamang, 12, came to Delhi with an IB official who promised her parents to educate her. The child later fled and told the police that they treated her as a maid. She is now staying in a Nari Niketan home in Karnal.

“It’s a colonial mindset of ‘master’ and ‘slave’,” says Bharti Sharma, chairperson, Child Welfare Committee. Sharma, who works with minor victims at the Nirmal Chaya Complex in Delhi, says she hears stories of multiple abuse inflicted upon children in domestic work. Away from their families, the child is not allowed to build a social network. Sexual, mental and economic abuse follows. In a fight or flight situation, more often than not the latter happens. “It’s here that either the child is restored to the police or goes untraceable.” Of late, she says, traffickers have also been tapping yet another market: adoption rackets. “It’s a complex crime, with multiple layers.”

To and fro

Even more complex are the routes charted by traffickers. According to a 2005 National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) study by Dr PM Nair and Sankar Sen, trafficking from neighbouring countries like Bangladesh and Nepal is about 10 per cent; 89 per cent of the crime takes place internally. The UNODC report clearly shows the major ‘harvesting’ zones: Bihar, Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal, Assam, Jharkhand and Orissa. High demand areas point towards Goa, Maharashtra and Delhi. “As a transit point, Delhi scores on good connectivity — international airports and railways stations — so criminals are using it for trafficking people to Pakistan and the Middle East,” says Delhi Police PRO Rajan Bhagat. “Girls from predominantly tribal areas like Jharkhand are easy to lure,” says Manju Hebrom, member, National Commission for Women. Due to poverty, she says, young people become easy prey for the traffickers, who have extensive links in remote areas. From there, victims are transported in an organised way, with bodies changing hands and transaction made at each stage in the process.

The law is an ass

“The Immoral Trafficking Prevention Act (ITPA) concentrates more on prostitution, than the other forms of trafficking. Labour laws that permit the movement of people also need to be amended,” says SC Raina, professor in charge, Campus Law Centre at Delhi University. A constitutional mandate under Article 23, the Indian Penal Code and a host of other laws like the JJ Act complete the legal framework against trafficking. But implementation is the problem. Prosecution is often delayed, witnesses are not protected and the ‘victim’ is made the criminal. “Also, the police often don’t even register an FIR,” says Hebrom.

“We need to kill the source of demand,” says Renuka Chowdhury, minister for Women and Child Development, referring to Section 5C of the ITPA, one of the proposed amendments that penalises the customer. She points to the prosecutions in Andhra Pradesh : 1,008 traffickers and over 300 customers were arrested this year.

“As of now, the victim doesn’t even have the right to represent,” says lawyer Aparna Bhat, pointing to the situation where the ‘victim’ turns into a mere witness. She stresses the importance of anti-trafficking units (ATUs) and regional cooperation. This year, for the first time, ATUs were set up in Andhra Pradesh, Goa and West Bengal.

Rescue to restore to rehabilitate

But this is only half the battle won. The NHRC study found that 24 per cent of the ‘rescued’ victims are pushed back into the trade. At the UNODC conference, Chowdhury rattled off a slew of rehabilitation schemes and stressed that state governments should take action. Meanwhile at the same event, corporates waxed eloquent on ‘strategic philanthropy’. But on the ground level, things aren’t as simple.

“In a country where even the Below Poverty Line card is possessed by only those who can buy it, schemes don’t reach the needy,” says Sharma, recalling instances of children being re-sold by parents as bonded labour in Bihar.

“A successful rescue operation is a lost effort without rehabilitation,” says Kant. Ask the authorities to define rehabilitation and most talk of making the victims self-reliant by giving them stitching, knitting or beauty training. “None of these vocations is lucrative enough and soon, leads to frustration,” argues Gary Lewis, UNODC representative.

But time is running out for victims like Rekha, who was rescued from Delhi’s red light area in 2001. She was only 14 when she left Jharkhand to work in Delhi as a domestic help. One day, she decided to return home. While waiting at a bus stop, a friendly ‘auntie’ offered her a drink. The next thing she remembers is waking up in GB Road. “I was beaten, assaulted and raped,” says Rekha who was rescued a month later. Two years later, she was still languishing in a rescue home, waiting for the verdict. One of the many stories that NHRC has recorded, Rekha says, “I wish I hadn’t been rescued.”

Piecemeal efforts are on to ensure that these girls don’t end up as mere case studies. Perhaps, as Nair suggests, well-coordinated community policing that’ll emerge from the concerted effort of the law-enforcers and the vigilant citizens can prevent the menace.

(Names of the victims have been changed)

First Published: Oct 14, 2007 04:25 IST