The Centre has instructed state governments to strengthen Anti Human Trafficking Units. Meanwhile the state’s Disha Act is still pending approval.

Silhoutte of a woman with long hair seen from her left Image for representation: Picxy.com/rajastills
news Human Trafficking Saturday, July 25, 2020 - 17:42

Earlier this week, a sixteen-year old girl was brought from Kavali town in Andhra’s Nellore district to Singarayakonda, Prakasam district. “She had been sold by a trafficking agent for Rs 20,000, and was being forced to do sex work,” says NVS Ram Mohan, an anti-trafficking activist from Andhra Pradesh. “The Circle Inspector handling the case had worked with an Anti-Human Trafficking Unit (AHTU) earlier, so he was familiar with the processes and took proactive interest in the case,” he says. 

However, he added, more often than not, investigations in trafficking cases get sidelined because of lack of dedicated, trained police staff to handle the cases. 

With the COVID-19 lockdown and subsequent economic crisis increasing the debt burden on many households with low-income, activists say that women and children across states are at increased risk of being trafficked. “Many workers have returned from the places they had migrated to find work. There is very little work in their native villages and many are also left out of MGNREGA work. Dependence on financers and money lenders has increased, and with difficulty in paying off debts, many women end up becoming vulnerable to trafficking,” says Ram Mohan. 

Recognising the increased vulnerability of women and children to trafficking in the middle of the COVID-19 crisis, the Women Safety Division of the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) recently issued an advisory asking state governments to strengthen their Anti Human Trafficking Units (AHTUs). The MHA in its advisory stated that Rs 100 crore from the Nirbhaya fund was allocated for strengthening existing AHTUs and to establish a unit in every district.  

State governments are being urged by the Centre to make the AHTUs functional “on most urgent basis.” But activists say that in the past, AHTUs were set up after funds were released but went defunct eventually from negligence and lack of staffing. In a statement on the issue from a national platform for anti-trafficking stakeholders called Tafteesh, Kaushik Gupta, a Kolkata-based lawyer noted that for AHTUs to be effective,their funding needs to increase substantially. “The MHA’s contribution to the AHTUs is towards vehicles, computers and printers, travel funds — but the bulk of the salary-funds falls entirely on the state government.” he noted. 

In this context, activists in Andhra Pradesh have proposed that the 18 Disha Women’s Police Stations be announced as AHTUs as well, to combat the increased trafficking risk and to give AHTU’s a much-needed police-station status to be able to follow through with complaints from registering the case to carrying out the investigation, to filing the chargesheet, and following up with the trial process to ensure justice to the victims through due process. 

Why AHTUs alone haven’t worked in the past 

AHTUs are integrated task forces with trained staff dedicated to prevent and investigate trafficking cases. While there are seven AHTUs in Andhra Pradesh at present, Ram Mohan, Secretary of the NGO Help which has provided training for AHTU staff in the past, says that they are mostly understaffed. First set up in 2007, Ram Mohan says that over the years, they have become under-funded as well. Moreover, without the status of a police station, they are unable to effectively deal with any cases, he says. 

“Since they do not have the same status as a police station, any cases have to be registered at the local police station. If they can function as police stations on their own, they will be able to conduct the investigation and file the chargesheet on their own, and also follow-up with cases properly. Since the staff would be specially trained to deal with trafficking cases, and would be familiar with the procedures, they would be able to deal with cases in a better way, rather than regular police staff who are already burdened with other work,” Ram Mohan says. 

He adds that conviction rates in trafficking cases have been especially low in Andhra Pradesh. As per NCRB (National Crime Records Bureau) data, the conviction rate in human trafficking-related cases in the state was only 11.7%, and in 2017, it was only 6.9%.

The MHA has said that funds have been released for upgrading infrastructure in AHTUs and setting up new AHTUs in March. As per the MHA’s comprehensive scheme for establishment of AHTUs issued in 2010, each unit is expected to have one Inspector, two Sub-Inspectors, two Head Constables and two Constables, apart from furniture and other equipment. 

While the infrastructure and equipment are to be set up with funds provided under the Centre’s scheme, state governments would provide the police personnel and officials from other departments (Women and Child Development, Labour and Employment etc.) for managing the AHTU. Recurring expenditure is also to be borne by the state government, apart from the salaries. With this, activists suggest there’s a danger of the newly set-up AHTUs becoming neglected again over the years, without consistent funding and support. 

Disha Act remains unenforceable 

Meanwhile, the Andhra Pradesh government has implemented a series of measures under the name of Disha, as a tribute to the veterinary doctor gang-raped and murdered in Telangana last year. Eighteen women’s police stations were upgraded to Disha Women's Police Stations. It was announced back in February that apart from the existing women’s PS staff continuing their functions, additional staff headed by a DSP level officer, would deal with crimes covered under the Disha bill, including IPC section 376 (rape and gang rape), 354 (assault or criminal force to woman with intent to outrage her modesty), 509 (word, gesture or act intended to insult the modesty of a woman) and the POCSO Act.

A special allowance of 30% was also announced for the Disha police station staff, apart from an investigation expenditure of Rs 1 lakh per month.

However, the Disha Act is still pending approval from the Centre, and cannot be enforced until then. Meanwhile, activists say that the economic crisis resulting from COVID-19 has put women and children in a very vulnerable position when it comes to trafficking for sex work or labour. 

Trouble with integrating Disha stations and AHTUs 

With special training for the Disha PS staff, these stations can be also announced as AHTUs so that the rising instances of trafficking can be prevented or dealt with properly, says Ram Mohan, as this will also mean that the AHTU would have the powers of a police station, and would not require separate allocation of funds. 

However, the nodal officer for AHTUs in the state, Additional DGP (Director General of Police) of the CID (Crime Investigation Department) PV Sunil Kumar says that the scheme under which the Disha PS and the AHTUs are managed, and their functions, are very different.

“We are completely revamping and reorganising the AHTUs. The DGP Gautam Sawang has taken initiative and guided us to accord the status of police stations to them, and we are preparing for that. But Disha is a different initiative. AHTU is a special task force which deals with trafficking alone, while Disha has a bigger umbrella and deals with any crime against women,” he says. 

He goes on to say that while tagging AHTUs to Disha PS may be a good idea, they cannot be integrated as one is a central initiative, and the other is a state government initiative. 

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