An important part of Rishi Kant’s job as a member of Shakti Vahini, a voluntary organisation registered in Delhi but working outside as well, is to educate the police about crimes linked to human trafficking.
“In 45 days, I have travelled 7000 km in North and South 24 Parganas [in West Bengal], the hotspots of trafficking in the state,” Kant says. “I have been to approximately 62 police stations and met around 1000 investigation officers because training of new officers to fight organised crimes has also got affected due to Covid.”
Not too far from Rishi Kant’s site of work is Miguel Das Queah in Assam, leading the child rights’ group Utsah (Universal Team for Social Action and Help) in training police personnel to respond with immediacy and sensitivity when it comes to child abuse survivors, including those trafficked.
“For example, we tell the police that when they get information about a case, they should not sit on it,” says Queah. “They should either delegate or respond immediately. This first step is crucial.”
The timing and nature of police response to crimes committed on children and trafficked victims is crucial, and both NGOs train police officials at different levels. Queah believes in the “unconference” model of training—going for conversations rather than conventions. Their trainings are designed to cultivate empathy in the authorities and encourage them towards timely disposal of cases.
There were 4,423 human trafficking cases reported in India in 2019, and 4,458 cases in 2018, according to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) which claims to “empower the Indian Police with information technology”.
India’s new anti-trafficking bill, or the Trafficking in Persons (Prevention, Care & Rehabilitation) Bill, proposes to have a law that will provide justice to victims of human trafficking, which involves enslaved labour, slavery, sexual oppression and organ smuggling, among other issues. (The bill, however, has also invited concerns from activists and anti-trafficking organisations).
A 2018 World Vision report showed that around 59 percent adolescents did not know about how to keep themselves safe from trafficking, and 72 percent did not know where they could seek help. In many cases, the onus lies on the police force and it is imperative to build their awareness, say the NGOs.
Coaching the cops
Founded by Miguel Das Queah, the focus of the Assam based organisation Utsah is on addressing child sexual abuse. But since minors are routinely trafficked, the NGO also ends up working with victims of trafficking who are children.
Queah explains that as an organisation they have an ethical issue with rescue: “All the focus in on section 370 [the part of the law dealing with the trafficking of persons]. Nobody talks about prevention in POCSO (Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act).” His focus is on sensitising the authorised responders to the crime.
Can one really be trained to empathise? Empathy, Queah elaborates, can consist of seemingly small gestures that allows the child to develop trust towards the police.
“When a child comes to the thana, will you be on the phone, or tell the caller to ring you later so you can attend to the child?” – this is one piece of advice Utsah gives to their police trainees.
But do such training sessions really have an impact when the police have to deal with so many reported crimes every day?
Saved but not healed
Between 2011 and 2019, there were 38,503 victims of trafficking in India. Of these, only 77 received compensation from the government. Even after a person is rescued, the stigma associated with trafficking continues to be an obstacle in their successful reintegration within the community. Clearly, getting survivors out of the clutches of traffickers is not the end of the story.
Roop Sen, the founder of a non-profit Think Tank called Sanjog in West Bengal, says when people see a victim, the human instinct is to save, or rescue, them. Why is there not enough focus, though, on something like trauma-informed counseling when it comes to helping the survivors?
Sen responds with a question that he then goes on to answer himself, “Why do you think there is such a lot of attention on raid and rescue and so little on what happens thereafter? We love saviours.”
It is true that some of the most common stories to emerge out of incidents of trafficking are those of raid and rescue. But what happens after that? What can be done for the reintegration of survivors with society? What more can be done to prevent trafficking in the first place?
Organisations such as Shakti Vahini and Utsah have taken up the responsibility of answering some of these questions.
Networks of vigilance
In a field work video by Shakti Vahini, Kant is seen atop a shaky boat talking to villagers about the need for the police, the village panchayat and the civil society to work together in order to prevent children from going missing.
“We are trying to reach out to people through village panchayats, though we cannot have mass programmes because of the pandemic,” says Kant, speaking on the phone from a village in Bengal where he had gone to raise awareness.
The climate crisis which brought in cyclone Amphan that battered West Bengal resulted in an economically vulnerable community. COVID-19 has only exacerbated that problem.
“For 10 years, I have been working to break the networks of source and destination traffickers. Then this pandemic comes and it’s like all our work has gone to waste,” says Kant. “Income is scarce, schools are closed, people who had migrated for jobs have come back, domestic violence is on the rise.”
Kant says young women are lured on social media by perpetrators who disguise themselves as messiahs, promising them a brighter future. Some also end up in forced marriages.
“That is why it is so important to reach every house and every school, which is what we are trying to do,” says Kant, who is concerned that trafficking will be on the rise as COVID lockdowns are lifted. “Traffickers will be on the move again, especially during Durga Puja. Sitting in Delhi in northern India we cannot fight this.”
Kant said the West Bengal government has a programme called Duare Sarkar, which translates to “the government is at your doorstep”. The programme provides 500 INR to each woman.
“People are clamouring to fill up the forms for those 500 rupees,” says Kant, whose organisation is also addressing the vulnerable fishing communities across the Diamond Harbour region going upto Sunderbans and Bangladesh. “That is an indicator of how desperate the situation is.”
Economic hardship is one of the primary causes making people vulnerable to trafficking, which traffickers regularly exploit to lure people far away from their homes with the promise of regular employment and income.
It takes a village
Efforts by NGOs notwithstanding, no organisation alone has the capacity to completely prevent trafficking or ensure each survivor’s reintegration, including follow-ups.
Queah discusses strengthening village level child protection systems: “We assist in the rehabilitation of child sexual abuse survivors. But there is too much reliance on NGOs and it is not sustainable. It takes a village to raise a child and the village needs state support.”
In his view, proper implementation of social welfare initiatives would be a gamechanger so that people do not end up getting trafficked due to financial distress.
“Families should have complete social protection – from BPL benefits to ration cards, from health to education,” lists Queah, pointing to the disparity between the number of arrests and the number of convictions, leading to a feeling of impunity amongst traffickers.
Both Utsah and Shakti Vahini probably echo thoughts of all NGOs in India when they raise the need for standard guidelines.
“Anti-Human Trafficking Units have been formed but their role is not clear,” reiterates Queah. “Rescue and investigations are the police’s tasks. NGOs can assist them.”
The Report by Ankita Anand was written and produced as part of a media skills development programme delivered by Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Photo Credit: Shakti Vahini