Between 2017 and 2020, there has been a decreasing trend in conviction rates of human trafficking cases in India. Activists blame fallacies in the investigation behind this, which results in acquittal of the traffickers who roam freely and threaten survivors in their community. Here’s what can be done.
About 1,714 cases of human trafficking were registered across India in the year 2020. Photo: freepik.com
While replying a question on the establishment of Anti Human Trafficking Units (AHTUs) in the country, the Union Ministry of Home Affairs on February 2 told the Rajya Sabha in the ongoing Budget session of the Parliament that the conviction rate in human trafficking cases has declined in four years, from 2017 to 2020.
Union Minister of Home Affairs Ajay Kumar Mishra stated in a written reply that the conviction of those accused for human trafficking has decreased from 24.5 per cent in 2017 to 19.4 per cent in 2018. It rose to 22.5 per cent in 2019 but declined again to 10.6 per cent in 2020.
The Union Ministry also informed that as per the National Crime Records Bureau’s (NCRB) annual publication titled Crime in India 2020 , a total of 696 AHTUs have been established across the country so far. AHTUs are specialised investigation units of the law enforcement agencies that were established by state governments in their respective states following a directive of the Union Ministry of Home Affairs in 2008.
As per the data shared by the Union Home Ministry, financial assistance of about Rs 1,000 million has been provided to all states and Union Territories for strengthening and establishing AHTUs.
The question pertaining to the human trafficking was asked by Rajya Sabha MP (Member of Parliament) and Trinamool Congress leader Sushmita Dev.
In the wake of the falling conviction rates in cases of alleged human trafficking, activists pointed out that it is because of the absence of a strong and robust mechanism to investigate such cases.
“The issue of declining rate of conviction essentially indicates there is a lack of strong and appropriate investigation that spans across state borders. The survivors don’t turn hostile. They are dealing with a justice system which is not at all accessible to them,” Pompi Banerjee, a psychologist and a member of Tafteesh, was quoted in a press statement dated February 10.
Tafteesh is a collective action platform that works towards combating human trafficking for sexual exploitation and forced labour.
Conviction rate is an indicator of disposal of crime cases by the courts and is calculated as the percentage of those cases in which trial was completed by the courts.
Activists believe that the foundation of a criminal trial is based on a proper investigation. “In most of the cases of human trafficking, the investigation is extremely perfunctory and localised. Though the crime is usually an organised and an interstate one, the investigation is rarely interstate,” Kaushik Gupta, a human rights lawyer practicing at Calcutta High Court, was quoted.
“And since this is a case of circumstantial evidence until and unless the chain of circumstance is shown to be completed, conviction cannot be based on such evidence. Therefore, the low conviction rate is due to the problem and fallacies in investigation,” he added.
Advocate Gupta, who is also a member of Tafteesh, adds that it is also to be looked to that the survivors of the crime are adequately and promptly compensated so that they also find it in their interest to pursue their case and adduce proper evidence to ensure conviction.
Sambhu Nanda, an activist who coordinates an anti-human trafficking non profit network in West Bengal, said: “We have seen a number of trafficking cases which were not properly investigated have resulted in acquittal of the traffickers who are now roaming freely and still threatening and intimidating survivors in their community.”
According to the recent submission in the Parliament by the MHA, seven states including Assam, Chhattisgarh, Kerala, Goa, Maharashtra, Odisha, Punjab, did not witness a single conviction in trafficking cases in 2020 and all of those cases resulted in acquittals or discharges. Tamil Nadu has reported the highest conviction rate in the country at 66.7 per cent.
According to the data provided by NCRB, about 1,714 cases of human trafficking were registered across India in the year 2020. The foremost reasons for trafficking in India were sexual exploitation for prostitution, forced labour and domestic servitude.
In order to improve conviction of traffickers which is necessary to break the impunity traffickers enjoy and to bring in some deterrence, the justice system, the activists say, needs to be more accessible to the survivors through ensuring appropriate support for their rehabilitation and ensuring that they receive victim compensation – one of the key factors that can make the system more accessible and more friendly towards survivors.
“We must make the interstate investigation system more robust so that evidence collection can happen end to end. If the investigation is strong then the prosecution does not only have to depend upon the testimony of the survivor in order to prosecute the traffickers. Therefore, this must happen across the country by strengthening the anti-human trafficking units,” suggested Banerjee.
“The conviction rate will remain low unless India has a comprehensive legislation that provides for a strong investigation mechanism clarifying the roles and responsibilities of investigating agencies such as AHTUs and the NIA. The proposed Trafficking In Persons Bill 2021 is one of the instruments that can really help in addressing all aspects of human trafficking and increasing conviction rate,” she added.