Human Trafficking
But the same smartphones could also hold the solutions to control the crime.
Image for representation.

This is the third part of the TNM Delve Human Trafficking series. Read Part 1 and Part 2.

A 17-year-old girl twiddles her thumbs constantly. “I don't know what to do when my phone is taken away from me,” she says. Her basic Samsung phone is charging for about two hours, while she is fighting somewhat of a withdrawal. Let us call her Gowri.

Last year, Gowri* returned to her parents’ house in Nedunuru village of East Godavari district after being trafficked to Hyderabad. She could return home only because she stole a phone from a lady on the bus. “I knew I was doing something bad. I knew I shouldn't have stolen it, but I really did not have a choice,” she says. So, today, she can’t keep away from the phone, which gives her a sense of protection.

Like almost everything, human trafficking is also affected by technological explosion in ways unimagined. While the oft-repeated story is of technology providing a cover to the traffickers, phones become an aspiration to most trafficked persons in order to escape unfortunate situations. And technology secures their escape.

At the age of 11, Gowri had run away from her home because she fought with her brother who is three years older. She hid herself in a bus to Kakinada, 65 kilometres away from her village. In the bus stop she, met Ramu gaaru, who offered her food and took her to Rajahmundry, another 65 kilometres away.

According to The Child and Adolescent Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act of 1986, since Gowri was only 11, she could not be employed. However, Ramu Gaaru sold her to a construction labour contractor in Rajahmundry.

For a whole year, Gowri lifted bricks, cement and stones that were far heavier than her puny hands could take. “That was the only way for me to get food,” she says. She was never paid.

The only way Gowri could escape the plight was to sneak out and call her father. Problem: The workers were forbidden from possessing phones. “The contractor would bark at us if we so much as spoke about phones, let alone have one,” says Gowri.

Her father is a farmer who owns 10 fertile acres of land in East Godavari district. He earns enough to feed his family of five. About a year before Gowri ran away, he had bought a phone. But Gowri had not memorised the number.

Everyday, while doing back breaking construction work, she wondered how much easier it would be if she knew how to contact her family.

The contractor ensured they didn't leave the construction site, except to go to a local flea market on Sundays. Since many of them were children and not paid wages, they chose not to visit the market.

The escape

One day, Gowri followed a female co-worker to Hyderabad. They had both escaped “the evil contractor.” Her co-worker, who wishes not to be named, had been sexually abused many times and therefore became protective about Gowri. “If akka hadn't been there, I would have been like a small fish amidst sharks,” she says.

In Hyderabad, Gowri stole a phone from a passenger. Sobbing, she called the police. A week later, she reached home.

Several women and girls like Gowri feel their ticket out of exploitative situations is a phone or access to the internet.

“The tendency of law enforcement has been to look at technology only as their enemy,” says Geeta Menon, a Bengaluru-based social activist who works with trafficked women. “But, technology is always a double edged sword. The trick is to use it properly,” she adds.

According to the 2011 census, India had more mobile phone subscribers than toilets. 53% of households had a mobile phone, while only 47% had a toilet. However, ‘Household Survey on India’s Citizen Environment & Consumer Economy’ (ICE 360° survey) conducted in 2016 showed that the gap had widened. While 88% households were mobile phone subscribers, the number of toilet users remained the same.

The figures indicate the importance and easy accessibility of mobile phones to a common citizen. Using the reach of mobile telephony to spread awareness is a better strategy than trying to control technological use amongst large numbers of people.  

Suspecting digital technology, though, comes easily to the government. In December 2015, the Jharkhand Police’s cyber cell tracked Facebook accounts of all users in the state to identify possible human traffickers who use social media to smuggle young rural girls and children to big cities. Cyber cells of other ‘source of trafficking’ states like Orissa, Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal are also on fire fighting mode, officers admit, most times.  

“What is the need for surveillance when they can better educate all of us?” asks Darsan Prasad, a community worker in Padmanabham village of Visakhapatnam district. “They can send mass messages, like they did during elections, for instance,” he adds.

Challenges of tackling trafficking through technology

En route from Raichur in Karnataka to Mahabubnagar in Telangana is a small village of about 50 houses. The name of the village is withheld to ensure anonymity of the people.

Sitting under a banyan tree on a drizzly July evening, a 29-year-old man exhibits his newly purchased Lava mobile. He explains how a WhatsApp group of ‘agents’ works. One agent is required to introduce a new one to the group. Unsolicited requests to join the group are not encouraged.

“Earlier, we existed in our silos,” the man, who called himself a contract labour agent, says. “But now, we are all connected.”  He goes on to say that most of them travel most of the time. And the phone has helped them connect better. “Business double,” he exclaims.

Aspiration is where it all begins. Some women aspire to migrate in search of better work, some for better lifestyles and some to rid themselves of social pressures. Once someone notices this aspiration in a woman or a bunch of people, they are approached.

Or the women who want to move to a town or a city for work, approach these “annas” in the villages.

The ‘agents’ then check on the group for available work in cities like Raichur, Bellary, Hyderabad, Bengaluru and Mumbai. The requirement is cross-checked and then the transport of the women arranged.

The man says he knows of people who would then sell the women into sex work. “I don't do such things, but you know, there are many,” he says. Women who have gathered around him concur. They pitch in with stories of their neighbours who were forced into sex work in Mangaluru and even some Gulf countries. “Sometimes even the police knows who the traffickers are, where they live etc,” says the man. Chethan Singh Rathor, SP, Raichur, was unavailable for a comment.

Rights vs safety

The law enforcement’s main challenge is to fight trafficking, while ensuring every Indian’s constitutional right to migrate for work is not violated. Women are particularly discriminated against as their agency to migrate is taken away from them under the garb of ‘security’ and ‘dignity’. Specifically when it comes to sex trade, the morality of the officer-in-charge determines the fate of the women.

Currently, migrants and trafficked victims have little awareness about safe migratory practices. Interactions with many revealed that they were fearful of approaching the police, had little knowledge about organisations working for safe migration and people to contact.

Preeti* is a sex worker in Bengaluru. She was trafficked from Allur in Tiruchirapalli District and sold into sex trade about a decade ago. Initially, she says, she felt trapped. “I didn't like who I lived with, I would resist work,” she says. No police came to her rescue then.

But, in the past seven years, things have changed for her. She has chosen to be a sex worker as it helps run her family of seven. “This work gets me money and I have begun to quite enjoy it,” she says. Now, the police harass her, she claims.

Indian laws on sex trade are vague at best and exploitative, at worst. While it is legal to be a sex worker in India, all activities related to sex work are illegal. For instance, “soliciting a customer” is illegal according to the Immoral Traffic Prevention Act 1986. Thereby making it tough for sex workers to contact their customers openly. Technology comes to their rescue.

In sex trade, the law enforcement’s major problem is to identify consent. “Even if women consent to sex work, they are infantilised and forcefully rehabilitated,” says Aarthi Pai of VAMP, a sex-workers collective. And, technology further compounds identification of consent.

There are several Facebook groups - some closed, some open, sometimes with thousands of members. Some groups even openly share WhatsApp numbers that potential customers can use to access sex workers in Hyderabad. It is impossible to say who in these groups have consented to sex work and who has been forced.

In such situations, it all comes down to the attitude of the law enforcers.

But, since those groups are harder to tackle, women like Preeti who make their consent clear are troubled. “The police call me so often and abuse me,” she says.

To dodge their calls, she uses different SIM cards to get in touch with different “regular” customers of hers. While she gets paid “thrice as much as those entering the trade,” she has found that phone sex can also earn her some quick money. “Also, it is safe. No police tension,” she says.

Preeti says many women like her could benefit with a lot more information about how to safely migrate, where to migrate, who to trust etc. “Now, I ensure I talk to women who flee their villages and help them understand the intricacies of an urban life,” she says. Preeti also explains to them how sex work happens. “I tell them it is not like in the movies,” she laughs.

*Names changed.

Also read the other stories in our human trafficking series: 

Trafficking is not just for sex work: A hard look at India’s forced labour problem

Empowering India’s sex workers: How decriminalising the trade could protect those forced into it