Say you were a bonded labourer rescued by the police. All that is likely to happen next, is that you would be produced before a committee in the district where you were found. Nobody knows what would happen to you after that, if the anti-trafficking draft bill were to be passed in its current format. It’s like being given just one half of a book. The story suddenly stops, with no hope of finding out how it will progress.
This is the general impression that the Trafficking of Persons (Prevention, Protection and Rehabilitation) Bill has created in the minds of people who have read its provisions.
“Trafficking is an organized crime, and so you need to tackle it in an organized manner. You need an inter-disciplinary, specialised body. But what the draft bill does, is prescribes committees,” says Sunitha Krishnan, a social worker and co-founder of Prajwala, an organization which helps trafficking victims re-integrate into society.
The draft bill stipulates the formation of anti-trafficking committees at the district and central level to deal with trafficking victims after they are rescued, a central anti-trafficking advisory body and a special investigating agency.
But none of these bodies are actually tasked with any work, except for this vague outline for the scope of a district anti-trafficking committee: “… for exercising the powers and performing such functions and duties in relation to prevention, rescue, protection, medical care, psychological assistance, skill development, need based rehabilitation of victims as may be prescribed.”
While some argue that procedure would be specified in the rules to law, advocate with Bengaluru-based Alternative Law Forum Ramya Jawahar says it isn’t entirely tenable. “We don’t know what these committees are going to do.”
In contrast, she says, the Juvenile Justice Act is a far more detailed law, which clearly specifies the procedure to be followed when children either need care and protection or are in conflict with the law. It also lists the functions of each committee. For instance, the members of the Juvenile Justice Board (for children in conflict with the law) are to ensure “the informed participation of the child and the parent or guardian, in every step of the process”.
Ramya argues that the draft bill also needs to address the fact that trafficking occurs for different purposes – sexual exploitation, physical labour and domestic work, etc. “Right now, all of it is clumped together under one umbrella term of ‘prevention, protection and rehabilitation,’. But you need to take into account the different contexts that these victims come from,” she says.
Geetha Menon, secretary of Stree Jagruti Samiti, agrees. Her work with domestic workers is a classic example of how the lack of a definition of trafficking creates room for ambiguity.
“Tracking trafficking for domestic work is harder because it happens more on an individual level, sometimes within households, when relatives or acquaintances promise employment in another place,” Geetha says.
Inherent in this situation is another problem. “Protection from trafficking should also be for persons who willingly seek employment but are misled about its nature. I have seen so many cases when people are not paid salaries, kept locked up in the house, not allowed to speak to anyone else,” she adds. The law should ideally include protection for such people too.
After studying the draft, ALF sent a response to the ministry. One of the points it raised was about the trauma of the process of rescue. The bill is glaringly silent on this.
“Rescue operations can often be intensely violative of the rights of victims, and can cause them additional trauma,” the response to the ministry says, adding that there is also no provision for enquiries to be made into the manner of rescue.
The existing system of state homes for rescued people “take away the agency of rescued people”, Ramya says. Protective custody, ends up dividing families into men, women and children which adds to the trauma, she says.
A classic example of this, is Shubha, who was placed in a state home for eight months, and her daughter had no idea where she was. “Such a system of rehabilitation does not recognise that people have lives beyond their immediate victimhood,” Ramya says.
Sunitha however thinks that the law also fails to understand that nature of trafficking because of its focus. “Ultimately, trafficking is a crime. A minister or specialist will not know how to deal with criminals. So you need a police officer at the helm,” she explains. Police are not part of the district-level committees but are members of the state committee under the draft bill.