Human trafficking survivors braving crisis within crisis

Prashasti Awasthi Mumbai | Updated on June 23, 2020

Human trafficking victims’ dwellings razed to the ground in West Bengal by cyclone Amphan

The lockdown has dealt a severe blow; for those in West Bengal, the cyclone added to the woes

Twenty-nine-year-old Mona (name changed) has always been a resilient survivor, courageously braving the unfathomable realities of life. From being trafficked thrice as a teenager to being a single parent to three children today, one out of which is struggling with thalassemia, she has survived it all.

However, this time, it is different. Nature’s fury has wrecked the little hope she holds for a better life. The lockdown and cyclone Amphan that swirled its way in the Sundarban area of West Bengal last month, the area where Mona hails from, has brought her life to a miserable standstill.

Mona’s abode was reduced to a rump. Her essentials are soiled with saline water. And, her garment business has come to a long halt post the lockdown.

“I was kidnapped and sold in 2009 when I was in my Class VI. My father was uneducated, so he took the help of the DGP to file a complaint. I was rescued by the State collector. I came back to Bengal to start my life afresh by establishing a micro-business of garments. However, life has something else in store for us.”

“The cyclone disrupted our lives. A tree smashed our house and now we are sleeping on the verandah. The essentials are soiled. Hospitals are filled with coronavirus patients and so my youngest daughter, who needs blood every month because of thalassemia, is unable to go there. Everything is destroyed,” mourned Mona.

Mona is one of the many human trafficking survivors from West Bengal and an Indian Leadership Forum Against Trafficking (ILFAT) leader whose life is teetering on the edge.

Roop Sen, a researcher at Sanjog told BusinessLine: “The phenomena of bonded labour and sex slavery came at a time when India had an extremely feudal culture. But as feudalism started to get weaker, and the caste and Dalit movements grew stronger, that kind of slavery was no longer available. So, some business owners had to resort to trafficking, to get people from other states to come and work for them as bonded labour or sex slaves.”

He added: “The reason why they get trafficked to cities afar off is to completely take them away from the social security system so that they will be unable to seek external help.”

Twin disruptions

Shabnam (name changed), another survivor from Bengal’s Parganas district, told Businessline that she was trying to recuperate from the horrors of trafficking. However, the pandemic and the cyclone disrupted her business and made her stare at an uncertain future.

“After spending a few years at a brothel at GB Road in Delhi, I finally managed to escape the capital and come back to my native village. I started sewing work here and became an ILFAT member to rescue people like me. After the lockdown, my life has been completely disturbed. I am unable to get work now. I urge the government through you to provide us with employment so that we would be able to stand back on our feet,” appealed Shabnam.

Traffickers constantly looking for targets

According to Shambhu Nanda, Programme Manager, Partners for Anti Trafficking (PAT), survivors in West Bengal have been facing problems since March 24, when the nationwide lockdown was announced. The crisis was magnified because of the stigma attached to the survivors.

“The condition of the survivors who are associated with our organisation started to improve in May when the government extended financial aid and ration essentials to below poverty line (BPL) people. However, even the stock that they received got soiled because of the saline water. Now, they have no place to go, nothing to eat, and no livelihood to depend on,” stressed Nanda.

He further told BusinessLine that the fresh arrival of migrants has led to an increase in the number of cases of Covid-19 in the hinterlands.

Traffickers have now taken a back seat, he said. However, they are constantly on the lookout for targets, who can be attacked or coaxed into the vicious trade. He said: “They are going to turn this unemployment crisis into an opportunity to trade people. They are waiting for transportation services to resume completely so that they can get back to their shady business. The situation looks calm now but trafficking will grow at an unprecedented scale in the near future.”

Covid-19 lockdown, another psycho-traumatic horror

The crisis runs deep in the survivors’ community. Sumti (name changed), who hails from Jharkhand, faced similar consequences as Mona and Shabnam. Now, the memory of surviving the trauma of being locked away in Delhi for days resurfaced during the lockdown. “The lockdown tormented us and reminded us of the days when we were kidnapped and trafficked. Now, we again need time to let that sink in,” Sumti said.

The mental health condition was also corroborated by Sen, who told BusinessLine that the survivors had had psycho-traumatic triggers of their previous lockdown. This triggered memories of being incarcerated as they were cooped in brothels or small rooms. “Psychological triggers have created a whole new problem for these survivors and there is nobody to help them,” said Sen.

Inadequate ration supplies

Another worker from Odisha, who had served as a bonded labourer in a brick factory in Andhra Pradesh’s Guntur district, told BusinessLine about his financial constraints and the story of his survival amidst the lockdown.

Narrating his ordeal, Mohan (name changed) said: “I was sold to a brick factory owner and my family including my children were made to serve for six months for free. We were not allowed to leave the campus and talk to any stranger. A meagre amount was given to us for food. Later, the District Collector rescued us and we came back to Odisha.”

“The condition has not improved since. After the lockdown, there is hardly any work we could engage ourselves in as daily wagers. Businessmen also take work from our children for free. After the lockdown, we had been given 15 kg of rice for the whole family for three months. I had to take a loan of ₹8,000 from local moneylenders to help my family survive this difficult time. I am still looking for work to pay back the moneylenders,” said a frantic Mohan.

“The ration aid given by the government is not enough for the rural population and that explains the prevalence of high malnourishment in the country. They have been given only rice. How do you expect them to eat and cook only rice?” Sen asked.

He added: “Secondly, a large number of people who do not have ration cards do not get any ration at all, as they don't have an identity card or formal document after getting sold.”

Trafficking in India highest in South Asia

According to the National Crime Records Bureau data, there were 38,503 victims of human trafficking between 2011 and 2019. However, the figures reported by the 2016 Global Slavery Index tells a different story. In India, 1.4 per cent of the population is living in modern slavery, i.e. 7,989,000, the highest in South Asia, and equal to the population of the Netherlands. India ranks 53 out of 167 countries vulnerable to modern slavery.

India does have legal recourse in place to safeguard the victims and provide them with financial aid and assistance. Section 357A of the Code of the Criminal Procedure, 1973, inserted in 2009, mandates every State government, in coordination with the Centre, to prepare a scheme to provide funds to compensate victims or their dependants who have suffered the loss.

Currently, various schemes have been designed and implemented in 25 States and seven Union Territories (UTs) under the Victim Compensation Schemes for various crimes, including rehabilitation for human trafficking.

Sanjog, a non-profit, engaged in strengthening security of migrants and preventing human trafficking, compiled data from 30 States and UTs to get an idea of how well the schemes have been implemented and reached out to the survivors. It revealed that a quantum of funds has been sanctioned by the Centre to states; however, their utilisation remained abysmally low.

Of the 32 States and UTs, 11 recorded zero applications for victim compensation. Of the remaining 21, 12 responded with no data. Financial aid to victims is provided after the court’s recommendation. However, eight States had reported zero court recommendations for victim compensation.

Gaps in data

The research study disclosed that Kerala and Rajasthan kept no records whatsoever on human trafficking as they provided an overall number of applications filed under victim compensation in various crimes.

Meanwhile, Kerala maintained that it has utilised 95.27 per cent of the funds earmarked for the purpose, Haryana 95 per cent, Gujarat 83 per cent, and Odisha recorded over-utilisation of 104 per cent. Uttar Pradesh remained lowest, at 0.8 per cent.

Sanjog also compared the data received from various States through RTIs with the data provided by the District Legal Service Authority (DLSA). The comparison revealed significant disparity as the information given by the State governments did not align with the DLSA. This showed the under-utilisation of funds and intentional fudging.

Commenting on the improper implementation of schemes, Sen said, “Some are making money by trafficking them and some by rehabilitating them. The Government of India came up with a Victim Compensation Law in 2012. The research that they did, which was released a couple of months ago, showed that in eight years, there will be less than 100 survivors who've been given compensation.”

Sanjog’s researchers stated that no single agency, institution, or stakeholder has taken official responsibility to inform survivors about their entitlement under the law.

Furthermore, if the victims successfully get a court recommendation, the compensated amount goes into a fixed deposit (FD) than cash-in-hand so that the victims can use it readily.

“Seventy-five per cent of the compensation has to be kept in a fixed deposit for 10 years. But, if people are struggling with poverty and stigma in the present, why do they have to rely on authorities to take a decision on when to use the compensated money?” Sen asked.

Helping one another

He further noted the importance of trafficking survivors forming their own entity and mobilising people like them instead of depending on the saviours to become the frontrunner in their battle for justice.

“The job of NGOs should be to facilitate communication among the survivors rather than being their guides and projecting them as helpless, hapless creatures. Leaders come from rural areas and find it difficult to interact with each other due to language constraints,” he said.

On January 17 and 18, a national consultation was convened in Kolkata on the status of victim compensation for survivors of trafficking.

The panel also backed the findings of the Sanjog research and maintained that the system of rehabilitation is broken and disorderly. They noted low awareness among survivors, lack of cross-learning, loosely-framed guidelines of DLSA, stigma, traumatisation, incorrect sections filed in FIRs, not compensating survivors who ran away from brothels instead of being rescued, and lack of legal assistance for survivors, as reasons for the malfunctioning.

However, discussions, meetings, and redressal mechanisms confined to paper have failed to reignite the lost hopes of the survivors who continue to fight one battle after the other for their existence and dignity.

Published on June 22, 2020

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