Battered by cyclonic winds, tidal surges and saline water, the region of West Bengal’s South 24 Parganas in the southern part of the vast Sundarbans mangrove forest is a tough place to scratch out a living.
Industrial growth that could, in theory, absorb the ever-rising number of people without jobs has never occurred there, forcing hundreds of thousands of men and women to migrate to different parts of the country in search of work every year.
But this stark terrain has spawned a steady rise in human trafficking, with gangs increasingly able to penetrate different layers of the society, from community clubs, panchayats (village councils), to local political units and even the police, which makes it nearly impossible for the victims to seek justice.
Nihar Ranjan Raptan, a local man from a village in Canning subdivision, has fought an exhausting battle with this ugly social scourge through his NGO, Goran Gram Bikas Kendra (GGBK), for the last three decades.
Nihar says that traffickers in the region have a network of supporters among lawyers and police because the key players are often influential people who exert control over social institutions via financial muscle.
His daughter Subashree Raptan, a member of the NGO, says that because their organization rescues and rehabilitates people trafficked from the area, they have unwittingly upset others in the village. “We need to expand our office to make room for counseling sessions for more victims, but the village panchayat [council] head has not approved our request for this yet. Why would he not do that if requests by others [to do the same thing] have been accepted?” asked Subashree.
Raped, forced to marry, then sold to a brothel
One victim who was trafficked – we’ll call her Tabassum – was only 14 when she was raped by a neighbor during a blackout in her village in Canning. After being raped, the badly traumatized girl went to the local police with her father to lodge a complaint, only to find that village councilors and officers were opposed to them filing a First Information Report.
“As a sort of compromise they made me marry my rapist so that the charges could not be used against him,” Tabassum said. Subhashree said the accused and his family were members of the local unit of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). So local councilors and police did their best to save the accused from rape charges.
“The traffickers derive their power through their links with political party units of the area. The parties, in turn, rely on such elements because of their utility during elections. Depending upon the party in power they [the traffickers] change their affiliation also,” Nihar said.
After her marriage, Tabassum said her in-laws started torturing her, in a bid to make her divorce her husband. “However, I decided to file a domestic violence case against them. One afternoon when I was going to Kolkata from Canning after meeting with my lawyer, a woman befriended me on a train and offered me a glass of water, but after drinking it I lost my consciousness,” Tabassum recalled.
When she came too, she found herself in a brothel in Delhi. The woman who offered her the drink on the train was also there. “I asked her why she brought me to that place. The woman replied that my mother-in-law had sold me to her for Rs 60,000,” Tabassum said.
West Bengal ravaged by human trafficking
West Bengal had some 3,579 trafficking cases in 2016 – the most of any state, accounting for 44% of all the cases throughout the country.
Most experts on human-trafficking say that is just the tip of the iceberg, as National Crime Record Bureau (NCRB) data shows that more than 70,000 people – 53,654 women and 16,881 children – were missing from West Bengal during the same period. Analysts say that most could have been victims of human traffickers.
Sabina Khan was only 13 when she was abducted by two neighbors near her village in Canning and sold to a brothel in Pune in 2011.
Six years later, when she returned to her village, she felt disgusted after seeing her abductors roaming freely in the village.
“The day I arrived at my village, the mother of the abductors came to our house and offered 300,000 rupees to my father in return for staying silent about what they did,” she said. Sabina had become obese because of forced injections of drugs to keep her at the brothel.
Her father refused the offer and a complaint was lodged at Basanti police station against the two accused and their mother. Police registered the case under sections 363, 366 and 366A for abduction and procuring an underage girl. But key sections of the Immoral Trafficking Prevention Act (ITPA) and the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act (POCSO) were not attached by the investigating officer.
Rahul Patra, a lawyer working on the case, said: “There is collusion between the police and traffickers at the local level. When a victim lodges a complaint the investigating officer on the case tries to ensure that a direct link between the accused to the case is not established.”
Sabina said a few minutes before she was about to record her statement with the magistrate, police on the case instructed her to be brief. “When I met the magistrate I didn’t suppress any fact and narrated the whole incident clearly. Later the policemen got very angry and screamed at me and my mother, asking why I had said so much in the court,” she said.
After the hearing, the magistrate jailed the three accused – Imran Sheikh, Nazir Sheikh and their mother Mahroofa Sheikh. However, after one month in jail the three managed to get out on bail.
“A few days after they got out of prison, I got a call on my father’s phone threatening me with dire consequences if I didn’t withdraw the case. Scared about what had happened, my father met the village council head and asked him to take some precautionary measures at his level. But he excused himself, saying that this was our problem and he would not intervene.”
Sabina was forced to move to Kolkata to live with her grandparents to protect herself. After consulting with the NGO, she and her lawyer have now filed a Protest Petition with the court demanding her case being investigated again.
“We are also hoping that additional sections are attached in the case to make it stronger. We will also demand that bail be canceled for the accused,” Kakali Das of GGBK said.
Low conviction rate in trafficking cases
It’s just not the sheer number of trafficking cases in West Bengal that is troubling; the abysmally low conviction rate appears to have emboldened those involved to believe they can commit more crimes without serious repercussion.
National Crime Record Bureau data released last October show that of the 1,847 people arrested in the state for human trafficking in 2016, only 11 were convicted.
Roop Sen, a founder of Sanjog, another non-government group, and a researcher on trafficking-related cases, says one of the main reasons for the low rate of human trafficking convictions is the lack of coordination between police in areas where victims were abducted and those in areas where they were sold.
“The investigating officer in Pune or Delhi will file a case against the brothel manager, but will not see where the girl was brought from. There is no system through which an investigator, for example, from Kamla Nagar police station in Delhi, can communicate with Canning police station in West Bengal,” Sen claimed.
He said police at the source usually charge the accused under sections 363 (kidnapping), 366 (abduction or compelling a woman to marry) of the Indian Penal Code, but not sex trafficking or the Immoral Traffic Prevention Act. “Their argument is that since the ‘prostitution’ happened in another place, not under their jurisdiction, they are not in a position to list those [sex-trafficking] charges,” Sen said.
Aside from the lack of coordination and different interpretation of rules and laws by various agencies, police are also reluctant to go to different states to investigate for monetary reasons. “Mostly, the police have to incur travel expenses from their own pocket, which sometimes takes years to get reimbursed,” Sen explained.
Chandrashekhar Bardhan, a superintendent at South 24 Parganas police, said they only get reimbursed for travel costs and lodging.
The Ministry of Home Affairs set up anti-trafficking units in more than 200 districts around the country in 2006 to deal with cases that extend beyond one state. But Sen said these units were virtually “defunct” because officers in the units had other work to do and were not independent.
“These police units supposedly dedicated to fighting trafficking are drawn from the pool of local police, which renders them ineffective. And due to a severe shortage of staff, there is reluctance among police to take up interstate trafficking cases … Local investigation into trafficking is currently done by local police and not by these units, which don’t have enough officers to deal with all the cases, and local police restrict inquiries to the local brothel manager,” Sen said.
Corridor to Pune red-light area
According to Sen, most of the girls trafficked for sex-work from South 24 Parganas end up in Pune, near Mumbai in the country’s west, because many people were trafficked between those two places during the land reforms in West Bengal in the early 1970s. “In 1970-80 there were land reforms in rural West Bengal. The Zamindari [aristocratic] system was abolished, which resulted in smaller farms for people. But there was only a subsistence level income on those farms. And the trade union movement pushed trade and industry away from the state.”
With West Bengal unable to employ more people locally, many left for other areas and the state became the hub of migrant labor. When Bengali migrants went to work in Pune, he said they would frequent the red-light area and learned about the sex- trade there. “A young girl can be sold for to up to 100,00 rupees to a brothel manager.
“And they see police in Pune or other parts only arresting those running the brothel, not the people who brought the girls. That encourages migrant workers to try their hand at trafficking.”
(Names of victims and accused changed to protect their identities)