It was a sea of people with colourful outfits and sporting gears who occupied the roads in Kolkata on Sunday morning. Among the hundreds of athletes, sports enthusiasts, students and professionals were a group of survivors of human trafficking who also ran the Tata Steel 25K marathon to express their solidarity and support for women and girls who have been victims of human trafficking and have suffered unspeakable physical and emotional violence and trauma.
“Through this event, we want to tell the world that human trafficking is a very serious issue and the voices of those who have been survivors of this crime should be heard. Their issues and concerns need to be addressed,” said Saima*, who participated in the 16th December sporting event along with over 20 other survivors who came from different parts of West Bengal.
“We are here to demand for the passage of the Anti-Trafficking Bill. It has been pending in Rajya Sabha, and we want this Bill to be passed and become a law so that traffickers get punished and survivors get justice,” said Razia*, another survivor who came from a remote village of South 24 Pragana district, raising a placard that read, “No one is for sale. Act Against Human Trafficking.”
The Trafficking of Persons (Prevention, Protection and Rehabilitation) Bill, 2018 was passed in the Lok Sabha during the Monsoon Session of Parliament in July this year. It now waits to be passed in the Upper House. If passed, it will be India’s first comprehensive law that would address all forms of trafficking, be it for forced labour, slavery or servitude, or commercial sexual exploitation, and will have the central government monitor interstate and transnational investigation of cases.
These survivors participated in the 5-km Ananda Run along with over 20 activists and social workers from different grassroots and community-based organisations that support trafficking survivors with their recovery, rehabilitation, and retribution. They are all associated with a project called Tafteesh that aims at empowering survivors of human trafficking to claim justice and supporting efforts to prevent and combat human trafficking.
“Most of the survivors are from North and South 24 Parganas, the districts worst affected by human trafficking in the country,” said Sambhu Nanda working with a non-profit organisation called Barasat Unnayan Prostuti.
“This sporting event is a great platform for the survivors to raise this issue of human trafficking which is impacting lives of thousands of women and girls not just in West Bengal but across the country,” added Nanda, who is also the project coordinator of the Partners for Anti Trafficking, a consortium of eight community based organizations that provide reintegration services to survivors of trafficking.
As per the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data, there were 8,132 human trafficking cases in 2016. And with 3,579 cases, West Bengal had a share of over 44 per cent of the total cases. But experts believe this is just the tip of the iceberg and the number could have been much larger. It is also believed that most of the 53,654 women and 16,881 children, who were missing from West Bengal during the same period according to NCRB data, could have been victims of human trafficking.
“Trafficking is the most organised crime today and we need more power and laws to curb them,” said Shaswati Mallick, an activist from Canning-based NGO Goranbose Gram Bikash Kendra, who also ran with the survivors, reasoning out why they want the Trafficking of Persons Bill 2018 to be passed.
The new Bill not just lays down stringent punishment ranging from 10 years of imprisonment to life terms for traffickers and those who facilitate such crimes, but also call for creation of institutional mechanisms at the district, state and central levels which will bring in greater synergy in the investigation of inter-state trafficking cases.
Victim rehabilitation and their protection are other issues the survivors raised at the marathon. One of the survivors said their applications for victim compensation are often rejected on the ground that their cases are pending in courts. “By the time a survivor returns home, she is already broken – physically, emotionally and financially. Some financial support is highly essential for her to rebuild her life again. We have been demanding for making these relief procedures more effective so that survivors would get their just compensation without much delay.”
The new trafficking bill proposes to have rehabilitation committees that will look into the needs of the survivor and ensure that the person is properly and timely compensated. It also calls for setting up of a Rehabilitation Fund with clear directions as to how to utilize the funds and that rehabilitation will not be dependent on criminal proceedings.
“The enormity of human trafficking calls for a comprehensive and stringent mechanism to counter it. We are hoping that these efforts would be helpful in pushing for a better legal framework. We all want the ToP Bill is passed at the earliest,” added Nanda.
*Names are changed to protect identity.
Saroj Pattnaik is a freelance journalist associated with several social organisations working on the issues of human trafficking, women and child rights.