The bill covers prevention of trafficking and self-evaluation of the victims.
When I first met 19-year- old Bhavani in 2002, I was taken aback by her vehemence and aggression. Bhavani was rescued from G.B. Road red light area in New Delhi — an infamous prostitution zone close to Kamala Market police station filled with many kothas (brothels) with girls from all over India and a significant number from Andhra Pradesh. My dear friend Roma Debabrata, who heads STOP, had assisted the police in that rescue where hundreds of Telugu girls were rescued. What struck me about this girl is her aggressive stand that she was “doing this by her willing choice” and why were we harassing her?
When she was brought to my shelter home in Hyderabad, she tried to escape twice. It took her more than six weeks to settle down. And when I finally spoke to her the first few question she asked “how can I trust you? The same police who were taking haftas (bribe) every week from each brothel are now removing us from that place? And you people were with the police, so how much do you get?” I was stumped by her questions.
Over a period, after many counseling sessions, she confided that she was 12 years old, when she was brought to Delhi from Ananthpur in Andhra Pradesh by a friendly neighbour who had promised a good job as domestic help in an affluent family. The lady left her in a brothel and disappeared. In an unknown city and an alien language, Bhavani could not understand when the Malkin (brothel keeper) told her to change her clothes and be ready for a customer. As soon as Bhavani realised what was happening to her, she tried to escape. The henchmen in the brothel traced her and brought her back to the same place. Physical torture, threats and intimidation followed. When Bhavani felt she had no choice, she gave up resisting. In the seven years that she lived in that brothel, she had to cater to 20-30 men a day, was given injections to enhance her body, became a substance abuser to handle the men, met hundreds of police men who took their ‘weekly cuts’ to provide protection to the brothel and had four abortions. As Bhavani’s story unfolded before my eyes in the next few weeks for the first time, I was able to see how much we have failed not just Bhavani but also hundreds of girls like her who have been sold in sex slavery and have over the period of time normalized the experience of being exploited.
Who will take accountability for this irreversible damage? This is the question that plagued my mind over the next few months as I met hundreds of such victims in my shelter home. One thing that was clear in my mind was that no stakeholder looked at either the law or post rescue services from the perspective of the victim.
For them she was a burden to get rid of at the earliest. There was not even an iota of empathy to reflect on ‘what is making this person behave in this particular manner’.
At my own level, I started advocating for a comprehensive policy in the state of Andhra Pradesh. In 2003, after much lobbying, the first-ever Anti-Trafficking Policy came into effect.
My close interactions with hundreds of girls removed from commercial sexual exploitation opened my eyes to a world of slavery and also an organised crime. While society at large looked at it as a moral crime and formed prejudiced opinion about the victim, I was able to see a different side of the coin. Every time there was a rescue and girls were admitted in my shelter, a very powerful counter-force would be in the court trying to get the release of the victim. In Delhi, we faced even high-profile lawyers rushing to the high court, stalling the transfer of the Telugu victims to their home state. Back home, this resistance was felt at multiple levels including physical attacks on our shelter, assaults on our staff, personal attacks on my life and also as threats, intimidation and ultimatum of eviction.
This set me thinking, how come these girls who come from such poverty-ridden families have access to such powerful groups who will go to any extent to get the girls out of the “shelter home”. In a country, where there is no value for life, girl children are considered a burden and worthy of only feticide or infanticide, a rape victim is victimised for being a victim and socially excluded, how come in the same country these girls who have been sold into prostitution and have been raped by thousands of men have such a “high value” that people are willing to stake their money and their lives to take them out of our “shelters”? Claimants with best lawyers would go even to the high court or Supreme Court to take custody of a victim sheltered in a “safe home”. Organisations like mine were vilified and were recipients of constant abuse, threat and attacks.
The pattern of the criminal syndicate was slowly becoming more and more clear to me as the days passed. While the trafficking syndicate wanted the girls back in the brothels to ensure their steady flow of exponential revenue, there were also others who wanted them back for their own reasons; I think it is best left to them to explain their motives. I also came to understand the vicious cycle of the crime, wherein a victim, over a period of time not only normalised the experience of being exploited but also slowly became a perpetrator of the crime. The inter-dependence of a young victim and an aged woman in prostitution is a frightening reality of perpetuation of the crime.
In 2004, I finally decided to file a public interest litigation in the Supreme Court, demanding victim protection protocols for victims of sex trafficking, ensuring that victims are treated with dignity and respect not only during rescue operations but also in each of the post-rescue process putting an end to any form of secondary victimisation and also ensuring rehabilitation as a right of a victim. For 11 years, the case was argued in the Supreme Court. Although I started with Human Rights Law Network, when Aparna Bhat moved out of that firm, I requested her to argue for me. For a very small retainer fee, Aparna argued the case for us for 10 years. Towards 2014, I requested Dushyant Dave, a prolific advocate to represent us as senior counsel. Mr Dave argued the case pro bono. In 2015, the court passed its final direction. The court directed the Central government to bring a comprehensive legislation on trafficking of persons (not just sex trafficking but all forms of trafficking).
For the last three years, the ministry of women and child welfare has held hundreds of consultations and inter-ministerial dialogue to draft the Trafficking of Persons (Prevention, Protection & Rehabilitation) Bill. All my recommendations in the Supreme Court now takes the form of a legislation; of course, the canvas is larger and encompasses all forms of trafficking. For the first time in the country, trafficking is now being recognised as an organised crime and a framework is envisaged in the form of National Anti-Trafficking Bureau which will address the local, national and international implications of all forms of trafficking. It is also the first time that this framework will address both inter-state and cross-border trafficking. As I mentioned earlier, I started with a narrow framework of sex trafficking but the bill addresses practically all forms of trafficking such as labour exploitation, surrogacy, commercial sexual exploitation, forced marriage and beggary.
The bill also legally mandates that budgets are provided for all activities aiming at prosecution of offenders and protection of victims ensuring it is not a mere rhetoric but an implementable goal. Among many other components, two important aspects that the bill covers is prevention of trafficking and self-evaluation by way of Annual Trafficking in Persons Report.
Maybe this is not a super-perfect legislation, but it is a start. It takes the next step in crystalising Section 370 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act and ensures a legal statute in providing an organised framework to fight the most heinous organised crime “trafficking of persons”.