Anti Trafficking Activists across the country laud the MHA’s directive to state governments to activate Anti Human Trafficking Units in all states to prevent trafficking in persons, in a COVID-affected India. The advisory by Women Safety Division of Ministry of Home Affairs, issued on 6th July has asked ‘all States and Union Territories to immediately set up of new Anti Human Trafficking Units (AHTUs) and upgrade infrastructure of existing AHTUs in all districts to prevent and combat human trafficking during the period of Covid-19 pandemic’.
In the same advisory, the Ministry has given details of funds released under the Nirbhaya Fund to establish and upgrade AHTUs in all districts, and urged State Governments to urgently evolve a coordination mechanism among various departments to handle issues of human trafficking. It also advised that such coordination mechanism should be monitored at the highest level and periodic reviews should be held with all stakeholders to take stock of the effectiveness of the same.
“The urgency of AHTUs across states has been more evident during this lockdown than ever before,” says Sambhu Nanda, an activist who works in West Bengal, and coordinates an NGO-network Partners in Anti Trafficking. “In the last two months, we have received multiple reports of missing and trafficking girls in West Bengal, and even when parents reported the cases to local police stations, the officers pleaded helpless since all their energies were focussed on COVID prevention. We then coordinated with other NGOs in other states, such as Mission Mukti Foundation, who then coordinated with the police in Bihar, Maharashtra and Gujarat to get the girls rescued,” he reports.
That the local police stations do not have dedicated officers, resources and systems to conduct interstate investigations for organised crime of trafficking was the reason why the MHA had initiated the concept of AHTUs in 2008. However, in West Bengal like most other states of India, most AHTUs are notional offices on paper, not notified and therefore do not have dedicated officers. The task is not just to increase the number of notional AHTUs, but to notify them with officers.
“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, because they have not had access to free rations or Jan Dhan funds from the government,” says N. Rammohan, an anti trafficking activist from Andhra Pradesh. “The local loan sharks, who are not registered under the Money Lenders’ Acts, especially 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.
“While children trafficked from Bihar to Rajasthan have been rescued and many have been repatriated, the employers and contractors operating in Rajasthan have gone missing in the FIRs lodged in the home state, Bihar,” reports advocate Suresh Kumar, who runs an organisation Centre Direct in Bhar. “The same pattern has now been repeated in all cases where victims have been rescued in the last 3 months and the past where FIRs lodged in the home state have been restricted to the accused residing in the home state,” he adds.
“This naturally grants impunity to the offenders in other states because the police in states where the victims are rescued argue that 2 or more FIRs cannot be lodged for the ‘same trafficking case’. This practice is largely because local police stations avoid interstate investigation because expenses for the same can be claimed by the investigating officer post facto, which takes 2 years on an average, or more,” says Pompi Banerjee of Sanjog. Ms Banerjee has been researching on AHTUs across India, shortly to be published by Sanjog.
“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 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. The MHA’s contribution to the AHTUs is towards vehicles, computers and printers, travel funds – but the bulk of the salary-funds falls entirely on the state government,” says Kaushik Gupta, a lawyer who practices in the Calcutta High Court.