“At 22, in 2011, I was trafficked to a brothel in Budhwarpeth in Pune, by a man and a woman, who promised me a job in Kolkata, as a domestic worker and a caregiver to a child. As I got suspicious when taken to Howrah station and started asking questions as to where I was being taken, I was drugged unconscious, and it was only when I woke up, I realised that I was in Budhwarpeth, sold and trapped in debt to the brothel manager who had ‘bought’ me from the traffickers,” recounts Samita Taraknath*, a survivor of sex trafficking.
A year later, Samita was finally rescued following a police raid on the brothel. She says, “When the police were raiding the brothel, I along with 3 other girls were hidden in an underground cell. We screamed and got rescued. After 8 months of being detained in a shelter home in Pune, I returned home in 2013, and had to start my life from scratch. I am a homemaker now, married to a 55 years old man, who has two grown up children from his earlier marriage.”
Justice for sex trafficking survivors like Samita, however, remains elusive. She says, “I have never received any compensation. The man and woman who trafficked me from here never got caught. The brothel manager who prostituted me was arrested along with others. Earlier this year, a social worker from an NGO informed me that I had been summoned to the Court in Pune, to depose in the trial against the brothel manager. I was in a dilemma, going to Pune seemed impossible - not only because I didn’t have the money to travel, but also because my husband and my in-laws do not know about the fact that I was prostituted in Pune, and if they get to know, then it could break my marriage. The social worker told me that deposing through a video conference was an option, and I opted for that.”
Recounting her experience of video conferencing, Samita says, “I had to go to Barasat District Court, in Bengal, which is the closest district court to my home, thrice to depose. The first time i.e. on September 1, 2018 I was questioned by the prosecution for 15 minutes, wherein I was asked to identify the accused, and I recognised her/them - as people who would force me to prostitute myself and take and keep the money that the customer would have paid to have sex with me. Then, there was a technical glitch, and the conference was interrupted. I was given another date of hearing on September 19, and on that date, neither the accused nor the defense lawyer appeared, and then the case was adjourned till the next date. My third hearing was fixed on October 6, and like both the previous dates, I reached the court at 11am sharp. I waited till 3.30pm, and that’s when the defense lawyer appeared, and he challenged me saying that I am an imposter and not the victim of the case. I am told that I have to prove that I am the same victim by producing my Aadhaar card, and the Barasat District Court will have to verify my identity. So, the matter has been adjourned to another date, and I suppose I will have to come for another day.”
“This case is exceptional,” says advocate Abhijit Patil, who practices in a Pune court, who reports that all accused brothel managers prosecuted for prostituting trafficked girls are acquitted because of non-appearance of survivors of trafficking during deposition in trials. The Pune court has not officially received any clear directive on procedure and norms on video conferencing in cases of human trafficking, where victims like Samita may have returned to their homes in another state or country (Bangladesh and Nepal). It took persuading the Sessions Judge of Pune court with a similar example of Dindoshi Court of Mumbai to establish precedence to convince the court to allow recording of victim/witness’ evidence through video conferencing which allowed the request and sent an order to Barasat District Court to make arrangements for holding Samita’s deposition through video conferencing. It also took a social worker Soma Sarkar, employee of an NGO Barasat Unnayan Prostuti (BUP) that works in Samita’s home district, to follow up with the Barasat District Court with the order and facilitate coordination.
Interstate coordination is key to successful prosecutions of sex offenders in trafficking cases
The Governments of Maharashtra and West Bengal signed a Memorandum of Understanding and a Standard Operating Procedure in dealing with all matters of human trafficking between the two states in 2014. In the four years since the two governments agreed to build systems for coordination in victim protection, rehabilitation and prosecution of traffickers, little has been achieved. The system is largely dependent on NGOs, for repatriation, coordination between rescue, repatriation and reintegration or prosecution. “Developing such a system would take commitment, skill and planning, which - unfortunately has not been achieved, despite the West Bengal Department of Women and Child Development, and Social Welfare, having a dedicated desk to look into matters of trafficking in children and women,” a member of the West Bengal Task Force said. West Bengal officers report that Maharashtra offices have not been responsive, to calls for ‘action’. Samita’s case shows what it would take successful coordination between the two states, the roles that need to be played by the prosecutors and advocates in Maharashtra, the social workers in the two states and an intermediary coordinating agency for the sex trafficking survivor to get justice.
There is yet no clarity at a systemic level, for the courts in Maharashtra, on how to operationalise a video conference to enable survivors of trafficking to depose in trials against their traffickers. The implications are far reaching. As advocate Patil states, “In most cases, when courts in Pune summon victims for deposition, if the victims have returned home, the responsibility falls upon the Pune police to retrieve the witness (victims). This is dangerous for survivors, who - like Samita, may need confidentiality, and when the police reaches her place with the summons, her confidentiality is breached with devastating implications. She feels treated like a criminal, and loses all confidence in the State (police, prosecution, or any social welfare agency) to protect her and defend her interests. This alienates her, and makes the prosecutor’s job impossible. It is because of this that often, courts and CWCs refuse to let victims be repatriated to their home state and reunified with their families, because they have low confidence in victims being able to appear for deposition. This results in forced institutionalisation of victims, and makes them suffer and turn hostile. Then again, they feel that they are incarcerated by the State, and lose faith in the judicial process.”
Legal reform at the Centre, state level actions
The Trafficking of Person’s Bill, 2018 currently pending in the Rajya Sabha, recognises the need for a national coordinating agency to facilitate inter-state matters. It has proposed to create a committee dedicated to oversee protection of rights of survivors of human trafficking. The bill also proposes a bureau for investigation to monitor case investigations, and stakeholders hope that such monitoring will help in detection of systemic gaps by agencies who have the power and authority to take steps for systems building.
Meanwhile, it would need UNICEF of West Bengal and Maharashtra, whose child protection desks are specifically dedicated to support the governments of the two states, departments of women and child development and social welfare, to support the two governments to plan, execute, monitor and build systems and processes for coordination in matters of prosecution, repatriation and rehabilitation.
Samita’s experience suggests there is an immediate need for the Bombay High Court’s guidance on video conferencing to be disseminated to all courts in the state (just like the Delhi High Court and Punjab & Haryana High Court which have passed comprehensive guidelines to conduct video conferencing in the District Courts of their respective jurisdiction), so that survivors of trafficking who, unlike Samita, may not have the privilege of private counsels to persuade courts, may be protected from breach of confidentiality by the police and courts. The Directorate of Child and Women Trafficking, Department of Women and Child Development and Social Welfare, would do great service to the state’s own citizens by activating the coordination system.
*Name changed to protect survivor’s identity
Vipan Kumar is an advocate who has practised in the Delhi High Court, The Supreme Court as well as district courts of Delhi. He currently researches on enforcement of anti trafficking laws and is a member of Kolkata-based non-profit organisation Sanjog.
Roop Sen is a researcher, facilitator, and an activist who works on issues of gender-based violence and personal growth. He is also the co-founder of Sanjog.