“Right from the time of the rescue, the system fails to gain the trust of the victim and she feels threatened at all levels,” said Jyoti Tajane of the non-profit, Save the Children India. After raids in Pune’s Budhwar Peth in January 2019, several sex workers had told a fact finding committee constituted by People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) that they faced verbal and physical abuse at the hands of policemen during raids. They also spoke of humiliation and prejudiced treatment from staff of shelter homes, similar to treatment meted out to a criminal.
Officials at various levels need to be sensitized about the fact that people who are trafficked, whether women, men or children, are victims and cannot be treated as accused. The administrative machinery must demonstrate empathy, and when they are sent to shelter homes, victims should not end up feeling they were better off elsewhere. In addition, the crackdown on trafficking needs to be consistent and strong.
Working in the field of trafficking is not considered a flattering posting for those part of the system. Policemen tend to look at it as a punishment posting. “Some judges of special courts have mentioned receiving “sympathy” from colleagues with regard to their posting,” said Tajane. Some trafficking cases have dragged on in court for as long as 25 years. “Minor facts like getting the colour of the accused’s shirt wrong could result in the victim being declared hostile. We have been advocating that minor discrepancies in statements of victims that are not material to the case should be ignored,” Tajane added.
Reporting of trafficking cases is more in Maharashtra because of high demand in cities like Mumbai, Pune and Thane, say activists. The NCRB data shows that of all victims rescued in the state, 96% were female and 91% were above the age of 18 years. “This trend is reflected in the red light district of Kamathipura and Falkland Road where minors engaged in the sex trade are few. The POCSO Act which denies bail to an individual dealing in a minor is a strong deterrent. Perpetrators have realised that the risk is huge,” said activist Priti Patkar. “Work put in by civil society over two decades has also sent a strong message that trafficking of children won’t be tolerated,” she added.
A research conducted by NGO Sangram and Netherlands based group Rights4Change, surveying 243 sex workers who had been rescued in raids, found that a large percentage of the women returned to sex work after their release from shelter homes. The returnees included both, those who had earlier been trafficked as well as those who had entered sex work of their own volition. “They are faced with massive debts due to the loss of livelihood during incarceration. Skill development in the shelter homes is largely ineffective as sewing or making pickles isn’t economically sustainable. They are then subjected to debt bondage or other forms of exploitative practices,” said activist Meena Seshu, who was part of the researching team.
Going by crime rate, the NCRB data shows Goa topping the list of trafficking cases reported while Maharashtra ranks eighth.