Like any other day, Sumana (name changed) was returning home from her tuition on a Monday morning in April 2018, when she was waylaid by three men. She pedalled her bicycle faster to get rid of them, but could not succeed. They caught hold of her, forcefully pulled her into a car and sped away from the scene.
After finding out about the incident, Sumana’s parents reached out to a local NGO, Malipota Association for Transformation of Environment (MATE), and filed an FIR at the nearest police station in North 24 Praganas district of West Bengal. With all the required support and coordination from MATE, the police managed to find and rescue Sumana from a house in Dumdum the next day. But none of the perpetrators could be caught.
Meanwhile, the traffickers started making threat calls to Sumana’s family members through different mobile numbers, asking them to withdraw the case against them. All these phone calls were reported to the police, but they failed to nab the traffickers. Out of fear, Sumana left her studies and remained indoors for almost two years. After several counselling sessions by social workers and members of survivor leaders collective Bijoyini, Sumana gradually came to terms. She joined the collective, participated in their activities and even resumed her studies.
When things had slowly started getting back to normalcy for Sumana, the traffickers appeared in front of her again and abducted her while she was on her way to her school on January 31 this year. An FIR was registered, but the investigation into the case and efforts to rescue her has been painstakingly slow.
Discouraged and frustrated by the police’s inaction, MATE informed their anti-trafficking NGO network Partners Against Trafficking (PAT), who then shouted out support from Mission Mukti Foundation, a Delhi-based NGO that works towards rescuing and rehabilitating trafficked survivors. The team then traced the location of Sumana to Maharasthra’s Raigad district from a phone call she’d made to her mother in May. With the help of the local police, the place was raided and Sumana was rescued on June 21. One of the traffickers was also arrested from the place, which was being used as a brothel.
Sambhu Nanda, an activists who is also the coordinator of PAT, said:
“In those five months, Sumana died a thousand deaths. Her life has been completely ruined. She was preparing for her high school board exams when she was trafficked in 2018. When she was slowly coming to terms, she was again trafficked and subjected to unspeakable misery and violence. Had the police investigation been effective enough, she would not have re-trafficked in the first place. The police could not nab the traffickers, who continued to harass her family by making threat calls. Even during the second time, their response was very lukewarm and led to a 5-month ordeal for Sumana.”
“Ideally, the case should have been transferred to an Anti-Human Trafficking Unit (AHTU) which are specialised police units set up only for investigating trafficking cases,” he adds. Human trafficking is an interstate organised crime, and investigation of such crimes requires focused attention and trans-border, interstate mobility that is not possible for police officials who have to deal with loads of law-enforcement tasks on a regular basis.
To address this, the Ministry of Home Affairs in 2008 issued a directive to all state governments to set up AHTUs in all districts across the country. The function of AHTUs primarily included registering cases of human trafficking, conducting raid and rescue operations, carrying out investigation on all aspects of the crime, collecting evidence and effectively prosecuting traffickers. Collection, dissemination and utilisation of intelligence on human trafficking and the sharing that information to concerned law enforcement agencies are one of the functions of AHTUs. However, in practice, state governments restricted creating these units to only giving additional charge to existing officers. So, while on paper, there are more than 220 AHTUs across the country, only a handful of them are notified.
A recent study conducted by Sanjog, a technical resource organisation, and Tafteesh, a coalition of lawyers, activists, social workers and survivor leaders, on assessing the operational competence of AHTUs across India found that only 27% of the AHTUs are functional and only 51% are being notified with all the power and resources.
The study was spearheaded by a team of five lawyers who’d filed RTIs in 33 States and Union Territories, out of which only 22 states and Union Territories responded. It collated data between 2010-2019 to find out the number of AHTUs actually notified by state/UT governments, the district-wise breakup of these AHTUs and various aspects of how they functioned and trained their officials.
Responses from 16 states and UTs showed that 225 AHTUs are set up only on paper, with no centralised process to notify them. Further, the number of notified AHTUs in many states/UTs were much less than the number of AHTUs that states/UTs claimed were operational. Most of the AHTU postings were only seen as ‘notional’ offices occupied by near-retirees or police officials taking on ‘punishment postings’.
“As specialised police units, AHTUs are extremely important in the anti-trafficking system. They are the main grassroots-level units investigating trafficking cases, rescuing survivors and aiding the prosecution of offenders across the country,” said Pompi Banerjee of Sanjog, who oversaw the study.
“It is important to understand the effectiveness of the AHTUs, especially when the Ministry of Home Affairs has issued an advisory asking the States and UTs to set up new AHTUs and upgrade the existing ones and saying that Rs 100 crore have been allocated from the Nirbhaya Fund in this regard,” she added.
So, in effect, trafficking crimes continue to be investigated by local police officials with their own limitations of mobility and finance, which result in improper investigation into the chain of crimes — recruitment, transfer, sale and purchase and exploitation by buyers or customers. State governments have not made this investment because of low political priority on trafficking.
How does it impact the survivors of trafficking? Well, they are the most affected lot by this imperfect system. They suffer in multiple ways.
Kaushik Gupta, Advocate, Kolkata High Court, who heads the legal team of Tafteesh, says: “The merit of any criminal case lies on the quality of evidence that the investigation provides. In my experience of having researched and worked with over 200 cases, I find that officers from local police stations are unable to conduct robust investigations, and the same cases, when transferred to AHTUs, have a much better impact and helps in prosecution. I can’t say if AHTU officers are better trained or more skilled, but prima facie, they have the time, resources and systemic support to do a diligent job.”
“The urgency of AHTUs across states has been more evident during this lockdown than ever before,” says Nanda of PAT.
“In the last two months, we have received multiple reports of missing and trafficking of girls in West Bengal, and even when parents reported the cases to local police stations, the officers pleaded helpless since all their energies were focused on COVID prevention. We then coordinated with other NGOs in other states, such as Mission Mukti Foundation, which then coordinated with the police in Bihar, Maharashtra and Gujarat to get the girls rescued,” he adds.
N Rammohan, an anti trafficking activist from Andhra Pradesh, gives another perspective. He says that many sex workers, who are earning members for their families, especially their children, have been forced to take loans under exorbitant interests during this lockdown period as they have not had access to free rations or Jan Dhan funds from the government.
“The local loan sharks operating in red light areas are poaching women with adolescent girls and encouraging them to take loans under high interest. When they would be unable to repay their loans, the sex workers would be forced to prostitute their daughters. The local police stations don’t have the expertise, time or resources to take anti-trafficking preventive measures and track the network of these poachers, which is why the AHTUs need to be active in taking measures to prevent debt bondage and trafficking,” he adds.
If AHTUs were to be notified and provided with a dedicated workforce, it would go a long way in preventing and combating human trafficking, and the recent MHA advisory in this regard is a welcome step. However, this would mean that the funds for these AHTUs will have to be increased substantially to provide for the salaries of officers including inspectors, sub-inspectors and constables.
There also needs to be increased political priority on this matter because victims of trafficking are girls, children, from poor and backward communities and low in the power chain. For states to comply with MHA advisories and set up fully functional AHTUs to combat human trafficking, the matter needs to become a political and peoples’ issue of governance.