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Despite being illegal in India, the malaise of forced and bonded labour is widespread and commercial sexual exploitation of children and child trafficking persists, often with impunity for the perpetrators of the crime and limited legal recourse for the survivors. Children, both girls and boys from marginalised families in the country, are trafficked to engage in various exploitative situations.
While minor boys are subject to child labour, forced labour, bonded labour, most of the girls end up serving as domestic help and sex slaves, where they are commercially exploited for sex. Sadly, child trafficking is a demand-driven problem. There is a demand for children in the labour and commercial sex market, so there is a supply. In fact, there are industries which primarily run on the nimble fingers of children such as bangle-making, zari-making, firecracker production and also cotton farming. Children are engaged in cotton farms because of their short height that enables faster plucking of cotton.
Shockingly, the crime of human trafficking through Section 370 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) was codified post the 2012 Nirbhaya gangrape-cum-murder incident, although it has been termed unconstitutional in the country from the time the Constitution of India became effective. According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) figures released in 2018, there were 1,830 reported cases of human trafficking in the nation. However, activists say that the actual figure could be much higher as many victims do not register cases with the police, largely because they do not know the law or fear the traffickers, or, in some cases, even if they want to register against the traffickers, they can’t because their complaints are turned down by the police station.
In the same year, the Government completed prosecution in 545 cases, convicted 322 traffickers in 95 cases and acquitted 1,124 suspects in 450 cases. The acquittal rate in trafficking cases touched 83 per cent in 2018. Poverty, involvement of huge money, the inter-state nature of case, slow trials and an extremely low rate of conviction contribute to child trafficking becoming a huge problem in the country.
After victims are rescued and a criminal case is lodged, often the subsequent police investigation and prosecution does not result in a conviction as a majority of cases are inter-state and there is a weak mechanism for coordination among the states to deal with such crimes. Survivors or witnesses are either taken to the court by the traffickers to speak in their favour or the victims fail to appear in the court because they do not have time, money and the energy to pursue the case. Consequently, the traffickers often get away with the crime with impunity. On the other hand, survivors are often harassed, intimidated and become vulnerable to social stigma, on top of poor investigations and slow trials resulting in the victim feeling further victimised.
The massive spread of COVID-19 consecutively second year has disrupted the court day-to-day work. It is almost a little over a year since the lockdown was imposed in the country to check the spread of coronavirus bringing all movements of people within the country to a grinding halt.
Even when in the month of October last year, when the summons started being served to the prosecution witnesses in Bihar for appearing in the courts in Jaipur for recording their testimonies, many of them could not turn up in the court as most of them did not have means to go to the Jaipur especially when no general ticket was available or some of them who tried for seat reservation did not get it done as the time between the serving of the summons and to be appeared in the court was limited, and many of them did not afford the travelling for want of abject poverty.
For instance, Raja (name changed) a native of Jehanabad district in Bihar who was rescued, in 2018, from a bangle-making factory from Jaipur in Rajasthan was served summon in the first week of March this year and his date for recording the testimonies was scheduled in the third week of the same month. He could not turn up in the designated court in Jaipur for the process for want of money.
Take for example the other case, Mohan (name changed) a native of Patna who was also rescued in 2018 from a bangle-making factory from Jaipur could not visit to the Jaipur court as he did not get a berth in any train bound to the city of Jaipur.
The child trafficking survivors are from the most marginalised sections of society. Around 90 per cent of the survivors are from the scheduled caste, and majorly musahar, said Deena Nath Maurya who works with an organisation fighting against child trafficking in Bihar.
“The survivors face threats and intimidation of dire consequences if they spoke against the alleged traffickers often belong to the neighbouring or same village as the survivors, and are well-off and politically well-connected. The traffickers are always in a position to influence survivors or their families,” he said.
The child witness in many cases are re-trafficked and produced before the court, by the alleged traffickers, just to turn hostile for saving the alleged accused and continues working in the same premises from where he was rescued.
Dharmendra Kumar (name changed) a child trafficking survivor, and a native of Gaya, Bihar who was rescued from a bangle-making factory in Jaipur in 2019 was facing severe threats and intimidation by the alleged accused to come over Jaipur and speak in favour of him in the court which was scheduled to be held in April this year. When he and his father went to the local police station for complaining against the trafficker, he was scolded and sent back home with a warning to not to come again to the police station with such a complaint. The complaint against the trafficker was lodged only after the intervention of the Additional Director General of Police- Weaker Sections.
The survivors of child trafficking cannot fight legal battle their own. The survivors and their parents need to be closely supported by the District Legal Services Authority, across the country- with means to travel to other states and under the witness protection scheme as the element of threats and intimidation hound them.
Given the grim scenario surrounding highly organised child trafficking especially during pandemic times, it is high time to start recording of testimonies through videoconferencing in the country especially in inter-state child trafficking cases. It will have a huge impact on the thriving racket if allowed. There are around 12 to 15 child traffickers in a few cities of Bihar who have been active for a long time and are still involved in aiding and abetting of trafficking of children, and they are named in many ongoing cases. Over the last three years, 1,058 children, all natives of Bihar, have been rescued from Jaipur. Most of them are to be testified in the courts this year, and are in need of close support from the state legal services authority and the concerned district legal services authority to obtain justice.