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In India, justice remains elusive for trafficking victims

April 09, 2024
topic:Human Trafficking
tags:#human trafficking, #India, #sex work, #forced labour, #women's rights
by:Umer Maqbool
What's behind the enforcement gap in the country's anti-trafficking efforts?

In 2013, two young women, aged between 18 and 20, whose names were withheld for their protection, were rescued from a brothel in Pune, a major city in Maharashtra, India, famous for being the home of Bollywood, the Hindi film industry.

In their statements to the police, the girls deposed that they were lured to Pune from their homes in the Indian state of West Bengal with the promise of a better life and handsome earnings, but were in fact forced into sex work.

West Bengal has long served as a major hub for both domestic and international human trafficking in India, largely due to the state's areas of poverty and its porous 2,216.7-kilometre border with Bangladesh. It also shares borders with Nepal and Bhutan.

One month after the girls’ rescue, the police submitted a charge-sheet against two of the accused at a courthouse in Pune; the other two suspects were not apprehended and could not be prosecuted. The latter were women who lured victims with promises of employment and financial reward, only to sell them to the main perpetrator.

Finally, after a 10-year-long trial, the court on 26 December, 2023 exonerated the accused men, citing laxities by the police during their investigation.

This case, however, represents merely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to India's struggle against human trafficking. Every year, hundreds of girls, women and children are trafficked both within and outside of India's borders, primarily for commercial sexual exploitation and bonded labour.

In January of this year, India's federal Home Ministry informed its Parliament that as many as 10,659 cases of trafficking were reported between 2018 and 2022. Only about one-tenth of the suspects in these cases have been convicted.

Meanwhile, anti-trafficking charities in the country claim that the actual number of human trafficking cases in India is much higher, stating that many victims choose not to report their stories to law-enforcement agencies due to fears of social stigma and reprisal from traffickers. 

With a legal framework in place, what hinders crackdown efforts?  

The Indian Constitution prohibits all kinds and forms of human trafficking, and federal and provincial governments across the country have enacted numerous laws to deal with the crime.

The Indian Penal Code, India's primary criminal code, mandates penalties ranging from seven years of imprisonment to a life sentence for individuals involved in recruiting, transporting, harbouring, transferring or receiving someone through threats, force, coercion, abduction, fraud, inducement or abuse of power for the purpose of exploitation.

Yet official data shows that traffickers manage to evade punishment and rarely get convicted in India despite the country's effective legal framework to crack down on the practice.

As per the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), India's federal record keeper of crime data, conviction rate in human trafficking cases stood at 19. 4 per cent in 2022. 

Furthermore, a study carried out by Tafteesh, an anti- trafficking consortium in India, found that less than one percent of the traffickers charged by law-enforcement agencies in the southern states of West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh, both of which are hubs of human trafficking, were punished by courts. 

The study also revealed that only three out of the 429 people charged by law-enforcement agencies in 198 trafficking cases in these two states between 2008 to 2018 were convicted.

Inadequate investigations, meager victim support 

India-based anti-trafficking charities and lawyers cite multiple reasons for the low conviction rate in trafficking offences in the country.

Kaushik Gupta, an attorney at the Calcutta High Court, the supreme judicial authority in West Bengal, told FairPlanet that inadequate investigations into human trafficking cases are a significant reason for the low rate of convictions in court.

According to Gupta, these cases are not being transferred to anti-human trafficking units (AHTUs), the specialised entities set-up by the government to handle such cases.

"There is also lack of interest on the part of the survivors in prosecution, because they have to face double victimisation in such a situation," he said. "They have to face the police, they have to face the court, they have to face the defense lawyer."

He further stated that victims would be interested in the prosecution of their traffickers if they are compensated promptly, adding that strong prosecutions are a must for curbing the impunity of traffickers and ensuring justice to victims.

Dr Sunitha Krishnan, founder of Prajwala, an India-based anti-trafficking charity, said the police do not give due priority to investigating human trafficking cases. 

"The trafficking offences are treated as petty crimes and don’t get the priority they deserve," she said. "The police don't conduct a deeper investigation in these cases to find out the entire network or money trail in these offences."

"The police feels that it is inevitable reality and cannot be done away," she claimed, adding that that police do not consider trafficking a serious offence largely due to 'social attitudes.' 

She also highlighted that the lack of a proper care and support framework further discourages victims.

"The entire protection framework required for care of victims is weak. In such a situation, victims don’t cooperate with prosecution, eventually ending up in acquittal of traffickers," she said.

A trafficking victim who is affiliated with Bijoyini, a collective for survivors in the North 24 Parganas district of West Bengal, told FairPlanet that victims rarely receive justice from the courts. "I have been fighting for the past six years to seek justice, but the court has yet to pronounce its verdict. I now feel unmotivated to pursue my case," she said.

Her name has been withheld, as Indian laws prohibit disclosing the identities of sexual exploitation victims.

She added that fast-track trials should be held in trafficking offences to ensure justice to victims.

"The inordinate delay in victim compensation also demotivates us. The early release of compensation would also help in our quick rehabilitation and reintegration with society."

The United States State Department, in its India-specific recommendations, has urged the country to intensify efforts to investigate and prosecute traffickers, along with officials colluding with them.

"[India should] Increase efforts to investigate and prosecute alleged traffickers, including for bonded labour and complicit officials, and seek adequate penalties for convicted traffickers, which should involve significant prison terms," reads the Department's Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report from 2023.

The report also called for strengthening the existing anti-human trafficking units (AHTUs) through increased funding and staff training, and ensuring that newly-created AHTUs are fully resourced and operational.

Image by Abishek Shintre.

Article written by:
Photograph (1)
Umer Maqbool
Embed from Getty Images
Anti-trafficking charities in India claim that the actual number of human trafficking cases in the country is much higher than reported.
Embed from Getty Images
Official data shows that traffickers manage to evade punishment and rarely get convicted in India.
Attorney Kaushik Gupta.
Attorney Kaushik Gupta.
Dr Sunitha Krishnan, founder of Prajwala.
Dr Sunitha Krishnan, founder of Prajwala.