Amid much debate, the Lok Sabha on Thursday passed the Trafficking of Persons (Prevention, Protection and Rehabilitation) Bill, 2018 in the Monsoon Session of Parliament.
Minister for Women & Child Development, Maneka Gandhi, who presented the bill in Lok Sabha, claimed the bill was needed as special crimes need special attention and that the bill will ensure the protection of vulnerable women and children from being ‘bought and sold’.
While activists have claimed that the Bill denies adult sex workers their privacy, dignity and profession, many including Nobel laureate Kailash Satyarthi have hailed it as an extremely powerful mechanism which, if implemented properly, has the potential to break the backbone of organised trafficking in India.
Speaking to News18 for an exclusive interview, Satyarthi said, “With the provision for seizure and attachment of property that is used for the commission of trafficking, the new bill will hit the industry’s economy. Freezing the accounts in some cases and remitting the proceeds of the same to the Rehabilitation Fund will paralyze the business of trafficking.”
The Bill proposes to create institutional mechanisms at the district, state and central levels to prevent trafficking and calls for creation of central and state level ‘rehabilitation funds’ for the survivors of trafficking, a provision that Satyarthi referred to as ‘particularly noteworthy’.
Sex workers’ organization has slammed the bill as infringing upon their privacy and agency.
At a press conference held by a group of activists in July, members from the National Network of Sex Workers and All India Network of Sex Workers had raised concerns against the Bill, particularly slamming the Bill’s provision to put recued victims in rehabilitation homes and then repatriating them.
“The bill is just a veiled attempt to criminalize consensual sex work,” Nisha, a transgender sex worker alleged.
According to the women, the law will target even consenting adult sex workers who maybe ‘raided and rescued’ while in the middle of their job.
But Satyarthi claimed that the law would in no way hamper the interests of those in the sex trade. In fact, the activist claims that the bill will rather help sex workers, especially those who want to quit the trade.
“By limiting the definition of trafficking to Section 370, the Bill makes it clear that it does not expand the scope of the existing Section 370, and therefore, in no way infringes upon the rights of adult sex workers in the same way that that Section 370 of IPC does not,” Satyarthi said.
The Immoral Traffic Prevention Act (ITPA) and Section 370 of the Indian Penal Code deal with the trafficking of humans for exploitative purposes. But sex workers have long claimed that both Acts nullify sex workers’ rights by denying the ‘victim’ consent. This means that victims do not have the right to refuse being rescued.
As the Bill follows Section 370’s definition of trafficking itself, activists such as Arti Pai wondered why the new bill was needed in the first place.
The bill has also been opposed by lawyers’ groups such as Lawyers Collective, Centre for Advocacy and Research (CFAR) and trafficking experts such as Dr Prabha Kotiswaran, who asserted that the Bill added nothing to existing laws apart from further burdening the system with yet another law.
But unlike previous legislations, the Bill does allow victims to choose to opt for rehabilitation or not. Critics nevertheless slammed the process for being lengthy and complicated. If a victim wants to refuse rehabilitation services, he or she has to write an application along with an affidavit to the local magistrate, who will then launch an enquiry to confirm if the victim is adult and seeking exception voluntarily and not under duress, pressure or fear.
Satyarthi, who won a Nobel peace prize for his struggle to provide education to children and lift them out of suppression, said the bill may not be perfect but it was what the children of India needed.
According to Satyarthi, a whopping 1, 11,569 children were reported missing in 2016. They are presumed to have been trafficked or abducted for exploitative purposes. Only 55,944 (including previous year’s data) were recovered, raising a serious concern on the existing law enforcement mechanism.
While we already had laws against trafficking, it was required to have a survivor centric legislation that minutely addresses aspects related to preventive measures; rescue procedures; timely relief, repatriation, disposal of cases and rehabilitation of the survivors, Satyarthi said.
While admitting that no law was perfect, the Nobel laureate added that it was impossible to wait any further.
“Any law and institution cannot be perfect instruments of justice delivery in one straight go. There is always room for improvements in any law and this is what evolution is all about. But we cannot keep on arguing and differing in our opinions forever to arrive at a utopic legislation. Children who are the worst affected victims in absence of a strong legal mechanism to curb trafficking cannot wait any further,” he said.