In a country where the commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC) is rampant, no one knows or understands the sheer magnitude of the problem. Even the voluminous reports that the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) publishes every year on all things related to crime and death in India, children trapped in sex trade slip through the cracks here.
And without knowing the magnitude of the problem, it becomes difficult to frame effective policy measures to tackle it, experts in the field say.
â€śBooking a case of trafficking becomes complicated as it involves police officers of different jurisdictions coming together, invoking different sections of the law and it requires overall understanding of how these crimes take place,â€ť said Roop Sen, founding member and advisor to Sanjog, an organisation that works in India to strengthen state policies and implementation of anti-trafficking laws.
â€śWhile traffickers, brothel managers, agents and pimps from different states are in a nexus, the police force is mostly disjointed. We cannot blame the officers on the ground as the current system in place does not allow for an efficient implementation of the law when it is across states,â€ť he added.
While some estimates suggest that there could be anywhere between 24 lakh and 36 lakh children trapped in commercial sex trade, there is no reliable or official data on these numbers. Currently, when a case of commercial sexual exploitation of children is booked, the police files cases mainly under two Acts - the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act (POCSO Act) and The Immoral Trafficking Prevention Act (ITPA).
The latest NCRB report recorded 36,022 cases under POCSO Act, with Uttar Pradesh alone recording 4,954 cases. Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh came a close second and third with 4,815 and 4,717 cases respectively.
The NCRB, in itâ€™s latest report, recorded that it changed its way of recording cases of CSEC. In earlier reports, annual statistics of trafficking were collected by clubbing various sections of the Indian Penal Code. "However, for the present edition the information is based on the Monthly Anti-Human Trafficking Data furnished by the AHT Units of State/UT police,â€ť read the report.
In 2016, some 15,099 cases of human trafficking were booked. Of this, 9,034 were below the age of 18, and 4,911 of them being girls.
Theses numbers donâ€™t match the ground realities, say grassroots NGOs involved in rescue operations.
â€śThe entire business is so underground and hidden, especially when it comes to trafficked minors. Dubious massage parlours, lodges, and residential houses on rent are the new fronts for brothels, housing even minors, making it difficult for cops to book cases,â€ť said Anita Kanaiya, Director for Freedom Project India. â€śEven when minors are rescued, POCSO has only been added in the last 3 years or so. The numbers in NCRB are only of the registered cases and in no way indicative of the actual problem.â€ť
While POCSO encompasses any kind of sexual abuse against children, the ITPA deals with trafficking for sexual exploitation. However, it differentiates whether the person is a minor or now only at a very superficial level - the quantum of punishment may differ.
â€śSome 80% of cases booked under POCSO are for several other reasons like eloping or where the accused is a known person,â€ť said Sen. â€śSeveral different and important social issues are being documented as one. It serves no purpose and at the end of the day, no one knows the magnitude of the problem at hand.â€ť
In all this, the trafficker - the main culprit behind the crime - is allowed to walk free. The trafficker can travel between states easily, taking the children with him. However, the police cannot follow the culprit outside their jurisdiction.
â€śEven if they want to, they have to take permission. To pursue the case, they will have to spend money from their own pockets - which will be reimbursed only years later,â€ť said Sen.
A member of Chennai Child Welfare Commission also expressed similar concerns during a previous interaction with TNM. â€śSome children are taken to neighbouring cities like Bengaluru. We have no clue what happens to them once they leave the state,â€ť said the MP Nirmala, the Chairperson of Tamil Naduâ€™s Commission for Protection of Child Rights, adding that there needs to be a robust system where the movement of children can be tracked even when they leave the state.
The proposed Trafficking of Persons (Prevention, Protection and Rehabilitation) Bill, 2018 is set ot be tabled in the Winter Session of the Parliament. â€śThe Bill proposes the formation of a national investigation agency which will have the authority to look at cases at the interstate level. It also has a monitoring agency to ensure the law is implemented well,â€ť said Sen.
The Bill also proposes to fast track all cases and talks about comprehensive rehabilitation for victims. â€śAnd for these reasons, I welcome the Bill,â€ť said Sen.