The COVID-19 pandemic has engulfed the whole world in illness, breakdown of mental health, numerous uncertainties, and many people have lost their sources of income over the last two years. In April 2021, a deadly second wave of COVID-19 struck India leading to more movement restrictions and widespread suffering among people. Survivors of human trafficking in West Bengal have been severely impacted by the loss of livelihoods as a consequence of the pandemic as well as Cyclone Yaas, which hit the state in May 2021 and caused severe damage to survivors and their families living in the stateâ€™s coastal regions. Survivors have talked about their struggles and have also written a letter to the West Bengal Chief Minister to draw her attention to this matter. At this juncture, an immediate disbursal of Victim Compensation funds by the state government is the need of the hour.
Survivors reported a monetary crisis during this time which did not allow them to tide over the damages caused. Some of these survivors have received victim compensation orders over a year ago, which guarantee money but are yet to receive the compensation amount in their bank accounts. Survivors shared that the impact of the COVID-19 lockdown from April 2021 have left them without a source of income for about 4 months now. The cyclone caused further damages in the form of destruction of fisheries, loss of cattle, flooding in houses. An estimated amount of Rs 1.5 lakh is required individually to fix these damages on an urgent basis.
Several survivors reported heavy damages to their houses and loss of cattle which was their only means of livelihood. These survivors belong to families consisting of at least 5-10 members and usually there is only one earning member (father, brother or themselves) in the family. The COVID-19 lockdown, which started in May, put a stop to their sources of income. Movement restrictions resulted in family members not being able to travel to work causing a further monetary crisis. Furthermore, towards the end of the month of May, Cyclone Yaas exacerbated the suffering of these families. Their homes were in knee-deep water, kitchens were damaged, walls were breaking down, and the strong winds swept away the flimsy roofs. Additionally, there was a widespread loss of cattle â€“ goats, chickens and ducks, which was an important source of livelihood for them. Some families saw massive damages in fisheries with hundreds of fish dying in the storm while some families also had their small shops damaged.
As a consequence of the financial crisis caused by the lockdown, the damages to the homes and livestock of survivorsâ€™ families could not be fixed or repaired. They presently do not have enough money to even eat one square meal a day, let alone repair homes and buy cattle. They shared that an estimated amount of Rs 1-2 lakh individually will be required to repair damages in their respective homes.
Nineteen-year-old Salma, who is a survivor of human trafficking, shared, â€śOur house has broken down and my fatherâ€™s shop was also damaged. The fish in the pond have all disappeared. I had three goats that died and ducks drowned in the water. But since there is presently no income, we cannot repair these damages. In the monsoon, the condition of our damaged homes is worse. An amount of Rs 1.5 lakh will help us repair our houses and buy cattle.â€ť
To put things into context, under Section 357A of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC), states are mandated to frame their victim compensation schemes and take responsibility to compensate victims of certain forms of crime, including human trafficking, rape, acid burn and sexual exploitation.
It is important to note that these survivors have applied for victim compensation and their VC orders granting them Rs 3-6 lakh have been passed in 2019, 2020 and early 2021. However, the amount has not yet been transferred to their bank accounts. Survivors unanimously stated that they require the VC amount in their banks urgently as it will be greatly useful for them to tide over the sufferings caused by the cyclone and the COVID-19 lockdown.
Lawyers working with survivors have escalated this matter in the form of sending letters to the Finance Department of West Bengal, the State Legal Services Authority and the District Legal Services Authority. It is the need of the hour for the Finance Department of the state to take this urgent requirement into account and ensure speedy VC disbursal to the survivors who are facing severe economic hardships for months at a stretch.
â€śIt will be very useful to receive the VC amount now as it will help us repair damages to our homes, buy cattle, food and medicines that we urgently need,â€ť the survivors said in a joint letter to the Chief Minister of West Bengal.
Madhurima Sanyal is a development professional and a feminist researcher based in India currently associated with Sanjog.