For long, legal provisions, civil society organisations and the media have focused on the crime of human trafficking rather than the process of rehabilitation of survivors. That is why the struggle that the latter face in getting the compensation that is their legal right often gets neglected. That is also why between 2010 and 2018 only 1 per cent of survivors received state sponsored victim compensation in India, as per a National Report on status of victim compensation to survivors of human trafficking by Sanjog, 2020.
The theme for the World Day against Trafficking in Persons, 2023, ‘reach every victim of trafficking, leave no one behind’, calls on governments, law enforcement, public services, and civil society to enhance their efforts to strengthen prevention, identify and support victims and end impunity. Victim compensation is a key facet of this support. Having a robust, inclusive and comprehensive victim compensation regime is not only vital but also significant in ensuring that the survivors are awarded just and fair compensation in a timely manner.
India is a source, destination and transit base for trafficking, accounting for almost 2,083 cases reported in 2021, as per the data published by the National Crimes Records Bureau (NCRB). While the provision to award compensation to the victims was enshrined in Section 357 of the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC), 1973, the burden to provide relief to the victims was partly on the offender. The provision made the award of victim compensation heavily dependent upon the outcome and the length of the trial of the offender, that is, the compensation could be delayed if the offender chose to appeal against the fine imposed upon him.
Amendments in the Code
Subsequent amendments in the Code in 2008 shifted the burden of the provision of compensation from the offender to the State government. Accordingly, the responsibility for the disbursement of adequate compensation, after due inquiry, lies with the District Legal Services Authority (DLSA). The final transfer of the amount became contingent upon the State Legal Services Authority (SLSA).
As the discourse on victim compensation evolved, the Central Victim Compensation Fund Scheme was introduced in 2015, granting ₹200 crore to the State governments to support victims of gender-based violence. This was further developed through the National Legal Services Authority’s (NLSA) Compensation Scheme for Women Victims/Survivors of Sexual Assault/other Crimes, 2018.
The Trafficking in Persons Bill, 2021, proposed a concrete character to the provision of interim compensation which is to be paid within 30 days of an application made by the victim. These provisions, though adequate on paper, have been plagued by implementation related woes. As a result, inordinate delays in victim compensation are routine. Many survivors have voiced their exasperation about waiting for years for the awarded amount to reach their bank accounts.
There are several factors that exacerbate the challenges faced by the survivors for the grant of compensation. State schemes like that of West Bengal till 2020, and Central schemes like that of NALSA, mandate 75 per cent of the final compensation to be kept as fixed deposits in nationalised banks for 3-10 years, unavailable for immediate utilisation.
Moreover, there have been many cases of the SLSA, especially in West Bengal, claiming a lack of funds as a reason for the non-payment of compensation, and the Central Government has acknowledged that the actual payment of compensation depends upon the “amount maintained and released by the State government”.
Mis-recording of offences
Additionally, as the award of compensation depends upon documentary evidence of the crime, in the few instances where the victims of trafficking, who have escaped their perpetrators, approach the police, they are mistaken to be a voluntary affiliate of the trafficker, which contributes to the mis-recording of criminal offences in the FIR. The misfiling of the FIR is one of the reasons behind the DLSA awarding compensation lower than that necessary for rehabilitation of the victim.
In a multiple-crime scenario, the amount of compensation awarded depends upon the number of crimes mentioned in the FIR. Any inaccuracies at this stage thus pose problems in the later stages of the provision of compensation. The need for the timely payment of victim compensation became excessively crucial during the pandemic, when gathering documentary evidence and the award of compensation became even more difficult as state resources were diverted towards dealing with the pandemic.
The NGOs endeavoring to protect the survivors of human trafficking must possess the legal expertise for getting the victims access to compensation and state-sponsored rehabilitation, as well as the funds to file protest petitions for the re-recording of inaccurate FIRs.
The current legal provisions for victim compensation need to be victim-centric, especially for the survivors of human trafficking. The knowledge-building of NGOs and survivors, establishment of a more efficient system for accurate assessment of the damages payable to the victim and closing the gaps amongst the state functionaries as well as between the state and the victim, are measures necessary to be undertaken for the victim compensation schemes to be successful in reaching the most marginalised.
The final aim should not only be short-term reparations for criminal injury, but also the long-term financial and social security of the victim.
The writers are survivor leaders from the Indian Leadership Forum Against Trafficking (ILFAT)