Stopping the Traffic

Slavery is not dead in India. Fuelled by trafficking, it is spreading far and wide. Thousands of Indians, especially women and children, are trafficked everyday to some destination or the other and are forced to lead lives of bondage. They survive in brothels, factories, guesthouses, dance bars, farms and even in the homes of well-off Indians, with no control over their bodies and lives. Women and children are also being trafficked for illegal adoptions, organ transplants, the circus and the entertainment industry.

In 2000, the United Nations defined trafficking as: "The recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of persons, by means of threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception...for the purpose of exploitation...Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labor or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs. "Although cross-border trafficking of women and children has been a problem in India for the last two decades, NGOs and academic researchers say that there has been a phenomenal growth in inter-state trafficking in the last five years. While India is both a source and conduit for international traffickers, 89 per cent of trafficking in India is inter-state.

Shakti Vahini, an NGO working on anti-trafficking issues, claims that traffickers are not just getting women and children to brothels or to tourist spots: young women from conflict-ridden states like Assam or drought-prone states like Andhra Pradesh are being sold as 'brides' in  Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh. It is well-known that due to rampant practice of female feticide in the last two decades, Haryana has a severe shortage of women. The traffickers, who include even women, lure young girls with the promise of a job or simply abduct them and bring them to Haryana. Here, they are not married, but kept as 'wives' by men. Shakti Vahini says these women are caged in homes and undergo rape almost everyday.

Several tribal women and minors from states like Jharkhand and Bihar reach Delhi and NOIDA to work as domestic labor. A few months ago, the Human Rights Law Network, the National Domestic Workers movement and the National Commission for Women organized a public hearing of domestic workers (some as young as eight years) in Delhi. They all had horror tales to tell: some children said they are beaten with brooms, rods and belts. The women are often raped and if they try to leave, they are not paid their wages. Several of these women come from 'placement agencies' which have mushroomed all over Delhi.

In some parts of Punjab, women and children (mostly dalits and tribals) from states like Bihar, Orissa, West Bengal and Jharkhand are increasingly being used as farm labor. They are sold to rich farmers who use them as bonded labor: they get no money, no rest and no freedom. One researcher has described what these persons face in the first few days of being trafficked. "They are starved, locked up in dark rooms, burnt with cigarettes butts, bound and tortured and sometimes killed for not trading their bodies. Children usually relent in seven to 10 days..."

While earlier women and children were largely trafficked from poor states, today the northeastern states - Nagaland, Assam and Manipur - have also joined the list.

In 2004, a report, 'Action Research on Trafficking in Women and Children in India', commissioned by the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) - in collaboration with UNIFEM and the Institute of Social Sciences - revealed that every year over 22,000 women and 44,00 children are reported missing in India. Of these, more than 5,000 women and 11,000 children are not traced. Many of the persons missing are actually trafficked. In states like Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland and Tamil Nadu, the rate of missing children had increased from 100 to 211 per cent!

Like slavery, trafficking offers huge profits. According to the NHRC report, transactions in prostitution itself are worth Rs 185 million a day Rs 370 billion per year. Human trafficking is globally the largest source of profit after arms and drug trafficking. And, comparatively, the least risky. Experts feel that the government, law enforcement agencies, politicians and the general public should be more pro-active in tackling the issue. In 2004, the US government put India on the Tier 2 Watch list (along with six other Asian countries), for its inadequate response to the trafficking issue. The US government has also threatened to impose sanctions if the situation does not improve.

The Indian government has made efforts to prevent trafficking in the last few years. But a lot more can be done by engaging with important stakeholders from the judicial and law enforcement sectors. Strengthening of inter-departmental (government) collaboration and cooperation and bringing in accountability and transparency in government actions are areas that need to be worked on.

In 2002, Shakti Vahini filed a public interest litigation seeking to know how far the states had been able to implement the recommendations (made in 1998) of the Report Committee on Prostitution, Children of Prostitutes and Plan of Action to Combat Trafficking and Commercial Exploitation of Women and Children. Two years later, the states submitted their replies: none, except Andhra Pradesh, appeared to have taken any concrete steps. Some states have not even formed the basic committees to coordinate work on anti-trafficking. None of the state governments have conducted any mapping activity to determine the extent of trafficking, an essential requirement under the plan.

Training police officers to handle cases with greater sensitivity; setting up minimum standards of care for survivors of trafficking; coordinating law enforcement in the case of missing persons - the states have not set these processes in motion. Despite the enormous number of people trafficked, very few traffickers are arrested and prosecuted.

Of course, despite the cracks in the system, there are rays of light beaming through. Small, though significant, initiatives have been taken in recent years by NGOs by creating awareness on the issue, rescuing trafficked persons and getting the traffickers arrested.

However, this is a mammoth task. War against slavery needs a multi-disciplinary approach. Women and Child Development, Labour, Home and External Affairs - all these agencies must move beyond rescue operations to rehabilitation and integration of trafficked victims.

But this is not the government's problem alone. Ordinary citizens - those who don't mind hiring children in their factories or homes; who discriminate against the girl child; who look the other way when the issue of the use of children in sex tourism is brought up; who buy organs without bothering to check how the donation has been made; and who cannot see that the largest number of poor people are women - can be major agents of change.

The foundations of several ancient civilizations were based on slavery. Global India must not repeat history. 


More by :  Malvika Kaul

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