NEW DELHI, India — India is a source, transit and destination country of human trafficking. The U.S. Department of State cites a study estimating a minimum of 8 million human trafficking victims in India. Human trafficking has become the easiest and most profitable trade for traffickers who lure, kidnap and abduct disadvantaged people for exploitation. Lack of education and awareness makes women and men from low-earning and less privileged backgrounds vulnerable to human trafficking in India while children are easy to prey on. India recognized a 27.7% increase in the cases of trafficking, a rise from 1,714 cases in 2020 to 2,189 cases in 2021. The U.S. State Department in its 2022 Trafficking in Persons Report ranked India as a Tier 2 country, meaning, “India does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking but is making significant efforts to do so. ”
Sex Trafficking and the Red light Districts
Sexual exploitation is the most common and prevalent form of human trafficking accounting for 79% of all cases globally, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) says.
Traffickers kidnap and abduct women, trap them in false debt bondage and lure young girls in the name of work opportunities in big cities. Such is the story of Bhavya, a victim living with Oasis India, a nonprofit organization working to prevent human trafficking in India and other forms of violence against women.
Bhavya was trafficked into sex work by a well-wisher who often visited her house, enticing her with lucrative job opportunities in the city. While living in a red district, Bhavya fell in love with a man and married him. She was relieved to be out of the red light district and never thought she would ever need to return to the place where she suffered abuse and exploitation for many years. When Bhavya became pregnant with her second child, she found out that her husband was already married to another woman. He left her without any means of support.
Bhavya feared having to go back to the red light district. She was lost and worried when she contacted Oasis India. “Bhavya met our change agent, Madhavi, who guided Bhavya to put her children in a hostel where they would be safe. She has moved into our rehabilitation home for the new beginning that she always deserved,” said Sulekha Thapa, the deputy director of Oasis India, in an interview with The Borgen Project.
Oasis India reaches out to men, women and children in the red light districts. Each year, the organization reaches out to more than 350 new contacts. For women who wish to return to their families, nonprofit organizations provide them with the necessary support to do so and to reintegrate back into society. “If all is well, the woman is supported to return to her family after we connect her with a local NGO [that]will look after her and provide us with her reports. Follow-up will [continue]from our side for [two]years at least,” Thapa explains.
In 2019, Indian authorities rescued 2,080 victims of sexual exploitation for prostitution, with girls and women accounting for 2,071 of these victims.
The government launched the Ujjawala scheme in 2007 to prevent human trafficking in India and provide safe shelters for victims of sexual exploitation. Ujjawala also organizes community vigilance groups and awareness campaigns. After rescuing victims, the scheme aims to re-integrate them into society and provides skills training for them to earn a living. The scheme also provides victims with legal and medical services along with basic amenities. Nonprofit organizations that work closely with locals implement the Ujjawala scheme, for the most part, which is still active today.
Other Forms of Human Trafficking in India
Human trafficking is also known as modern-day slavery. It involves many forms of forced labor and exploitation other than commercial sex exploitation, such as domestic work, organ removal, begging, child soldiers, forced marriages and debt bondage. Terrorist groups continue to recruit and force children to become child soldiers, cooks, spies, weapon handlers and human shields too. Former Maoist women have revealed that the Maoists subjected females to sexual slavery in their camps. Additionally, traffickers kidnap Indian and Nepalese women and force them to work as orchestra dancers in northern states, such as Bihar.
In 2019, Indian authorities rescued 56 child victims of forced begging. Traffickers also push adults into forced begging as the 2017 data from the National Crime Records Bureau shows that out of a total of 358 victims rescued, adults accounted for 327. In terms of forced marriages and forced labor, in 2019, authorities rescued 227 and 1,141 victims respectively.
The Indian government has increased the number of awareness and educational campaigns to prevent human trafficking in India. Police and nonprofits have collaborated from time to time to prevent trafficking and rescue victims of human trafficking in India. “We connect with the police for permission to organize mass awareness rallies and involve them in our community programs,” Thapa says about awareness campaigns.
“We have programs that engage children in after-school activities and sports” and others that allow men and women to participate in skills training, for instance, in the area of agro-farming. Through these programs, children and adults learn essential life skills and understand how to identify the signs of a potential trafficking situation through the awareness-raising activities of Oasis India.
According to the 2022 TIP Report, the Ministry of Home Affairs issued in May 2021 “an advisory instructing all states and union territories to provide support and assistance to groups considered vulnerable to human trafficking — including women, children, older persons and members of marginalized groups — in response to the pandemic.” The ministry allocated $14.39 million to states and territories to establish or strengthen “women help desks” in police stations. The advisory also recommended utilizing the Crime Multi Agency Center, a national-level communication platform, to share information on missing persons and trafficking cases.
A similar campaign, launched by West Bengal police in 2018, Project Swayangsiddha, which in English means self-reliant, aimed to reduce the prevalence of child marriage and human trafficking. Through awareness-raising activities in schools and education dissemination to lower susceptibility to trafficking, the West Bengal police aim to make a difference. “Strengthening access to schemes and entitlements on education, training, livelihood and food security for vulnerable groups is also an important part of Swayangsiddha,” an article by All India Trinamool Congress says.
The successful Bengal model of Swayangsiddha has inspired NGO Shakti Vahini and the U.S. Consulate Kolkata to implement the program in 2022 in the states of Bihar, Jharkhand and Assam.
Though eradicating human trafficking is no easy feat, steps such as spreading awareness among people, strengthening law and order, investing in education and employment and collaborating with civil societies can significantly reduce the prevalence of human trafficking in India.
– Aanchal Mishra