Even as an anti-human trafficking bill remains pending in the Indian parliament, a recent case of nine victims who went missing from a government-run shelter home in the heart of the country reveals that while India may have the capacity to tackle the evil, they clearly don’t have the will.
A month has passed and police remain clueless about the whereabouts of the girls and women who were being kept at the Sanskar Ashram shelter home in New Delhi. It’s not that police and government bodies have not made efforts, but their efforts have apparently been aimed at salvaging their own reputation.
One wonders if the victims were once again abducted by traffickers, or if they ran away due to poor conditions or mistreatment at the shelter home. The police, who have apparently made no headway in the case and refused to even comment, leave aside answering the questions that must be answered at the soonest for the safety of the victims.
Ranjana (not her real name), one of the missing girls, was trafficked from neighboring Nepal to India after an earthquake caused massive devastation in her home country three years ago, according to a Child Welfare Committee (CWC), a statutory body for children in need of care and protection, that was monitoring her case. Her brother died in the disaster – years after she lost her mother. Ending up at a brothel in Delhi’s red-light area, she was forced to have sex with as many as 16 customers a day – and at least 20 on weekends. The other girls – seven from Nepal and one from the Indian state of Bihar – had also gone through similar pains and had to work in brothels against their will.
What makes it more worrisome is that at least six of the nine could be underage, contrary to complaints registered by police that purport to show eight of them, including Ranjana, as adults.
The age of the victims had been in question since a joint-team of the Crime Branch of Delhi Police and the CWC rescued them from brothels in May and November last year. While all of them were presumed to be minors, six were soon let off by police on the alleged grounds that they were adults, despite orders by the CWC to keep them at a shelter home for minors, according to media reports.
On the intervention of the Delhi Commission for Women (DCW), a government body, the six were again brought out of brothels and put under the care of the CWC, which ordered early this year that bone-age assessment tests of all the victims be conducted. A reliable source in the CWC said that five of them were declared “minors” based on their bone-age assessment reports, excluding one who had been accepted as underage by all relevant authorities.
This is why the victims were kept in a shelter home for minors, and the CWC was monitoring their cases. “The DCW is trying to find the answers to these questions,” Swati Maliwal, who heads the DCW, said. “We are investigating from our side.”
As of now, police have registered a First Information Report (FIR), a formal complaint required to start an investigation overseen by a court, only in the case of the girl they accepted as a minor, and “missing complaints,” which are recorded only in policy diaries without an accountability to a court, for the remaining eight. This perhaps helped police lighten their burden of responsibility and accountability, one could suspect.
“An FIR in the case of a minor has to be seriously investigated as per law,” a Delhi-based criminal lawyer, Simon Benjamin, said. “It will also involve Protection of Child from Sexual Offences Act of 2012 (which lays down an extensive procedure to investigate the cases of missing children and strict punitive measures against the convict). Whereas, if they are adults, and only a missing complaint has been registered, the matter can be easily brushed aside (by police) after a while.”
Besides the opacity in the police investigation, poor treatment of girls in state-run shelter homes has also come to light. “Our team was deeply disturbed to find that the girls were not given proper and adequate food and clothing,” DCW chief said earlier in a press release, referring to the shelter home where the girls were kept. “Further, the girls complained of not being shown to doctors and it was observed that their regular medical check-up was not done. The attitude of the staff was laidback and insensitive which resulted in untold misery for the girls.”
The DCW had received a complaint against Sanskar Ashram prior to the missing incident but the Delhi Police and the Department of Women and Child Development reportedly chose not to take action, according to Maliwal.
Delhi’s Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia, who is also the state’s Minister for Women and Child Development, suspended two officials concerned, but only after the girls went missing and newspapers reported on it. Like police, he, too, refused to comment.
Perhaps Sisodia wouldn’t have been able to explain why there are irregularities in shelter homes run by the government.
The authorities’ indifference, as apparent in this case, explains the rising number of trafficking cases in the country. According to a study done in early 2018, the number of victims brought illegally into India from Nepal went up by 500 percent between 2013 and 2017. An average of 12,000 girls and women are trafficked from Nepal into India every year, according to Maiti Nepal, an NGO fighting trafficking from Nepal.
In its 2016 report on human trafficking, the U.S. State Department wrote, “India is a source, destination, and transit country for men, women, and children subjected to forced labour and sex trafficking.” India failed to meet the minimum standard for the elimination of trafficking, it added.
Human trafficking may not be an issue in any domestic election, which perhaps explains why the Trafficking of Persons (Prevention, Protection and Rehabilitation) Bill of 2018, drafted by the federal Ministry of Women and Child Development, has been found flawed by the civil society and is likely to be delayed for a prolonged period. However, since India aspires to be a regional geopolitical power, its reputation matters and New Delhi must fulfill its commitment to the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime, which it has ratified. There’s no free lunch.