India needs a strong anti-trafficking law
Each one of us has lost someone to pandemic. It may be a parent, relative, friend, colleague, neighbour or just someone we were used to seeing in the park everyday. The pain is as personal, as it is collective. But think about those children who lost the only caretaker of the family, or the sole bread earner of the family lost their source of income due to lockdowns. Their pain and vulnerability is terrifying to even imagine. Yet, it is the reality of thousands of children in India and the world today.
Since the first lockdown, Bachpan Bachao Andolan (BBA) with government agencies has rescued around 9000 children from trafficking, since the first lockdown. In comparison, about half this number of children i.e. 4700, were rescued during the same time period of 14-month preceding the pandemic. The gravity of the situation cannot be undermined.
Even before the pandemic, trafficking of persons was on the rise. Several years ago, Sita was 13 years old when she was trafficked. Her parents worked in a tea garden in Assam for negligible earnings. She was trafficked to a placement agency in New Delhi, and bought for about Rs 20,000 as domestic labour by a couple. Sita was not paid a single rupee. Instead, she was re-trafficked, raped, and exploited by employers and traffickers.
After three years of anguish and despair for his missing daughter, her father and I found Sita trapped in a house in Delhi. But she did not step out. She hid behind a wall, crying, “I cannot show my face to my father. I am impure now. I want to kill myself.” My head hanged in shame.
No nation can call itself civilised if it tolerates the buying and selling of its daughters. Of what meaning is the wealth, power or progress of a nation if its children are traded as though in medieval slave trade, at a lesser price than cattle?
Along with all civil society groups, we have been campaigning for decades for a strong law to end this menace of human trafficking. In 2017, Sita and thousands of survivors like her marched in the Bharat Yatra alongside students, governments, judiciary, multi-faith leaders, businesses and civil society from the length and breadth of the country to demand for such a law. We covered 12,000 kms with over 1.2 million people on foot with the single demand- India must pass a comprehensive anti-trafficking legislation. The passionate chants of these brave hearts that survived trafficking still reverberate in my ears- “Bikne ko taiyaar nahi hum, lutne ko taiyaar nahi hum” (We are not ready to be sold, we are not ready to be stolen.)
The Government of India has proposed the Trafficking in Persons (Prevention, Care and Rehabilitation) Bill 2021 that aims to tackle all aspects of trafficking including the social and economic causes of the crime, punishment to traffickers, and the protection and rehabilitation of survivors. This is achievable if the Bill has the necessary checks and balances against potential misuse of power by agencies, periodic reviews of the law itself in line with the evolving understanding of its application, and adequate allocation of resources for effective implementation. The Government of India must include these crucial provisions in the Bill, and facilitate its smooth passage in the upcoming monsoon session of parliament.
COVID-19 has further intensified the need for the law. Traffickers are taking advantage of prolonged school closures and loss of family livelihood. To show concrete evidence-
We will not recover from the effects of the pandemic without the wherewithal to address its human impact, which comes with this law and its associated budgets.
Human trafficking is a crime in itself, but it is also the propeller of several other crimes. It creates a parallel black economy that fuels child labour, child marriage, prostitution, bonded labour, forced beggary, drug related crimes, corruption, terrorism and other illicit businesses. The architects of our constitution established the severity of the crime of trafficking, by making it the only offence punishable under the Constitution of India itself, besides untouchability.
A strong anti-trafficking law is the moral and constitutional responsibility of our elected leaders, and a necessary step toward nation-building and economic progress. It is non-negotiable for the realization of an India that our constitution makers envisioned, our freedom fighters struggled for, our soldiers die for, and our children deserve.
This Independence Day let us honour our children who have never known freedom. Let us honour Mother India through her most oppressed children. Till every child of India is free, I am not free. You are not free. None of us are free.
(The author is a Nobel laureate and a child rights activist.)