In 2012, Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) for the first time in its advisory called human trafficking as an organised crime. Sections 9.7 and 9.9 of this advisory advised states to conduct financial investigations and confiscation of assets under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act and other related laws.
By Sunitha Krishnan
Many years ago, we rescued a 16-year-old girl from a brothel in Hyderabad. This child was cheated in the name of love and sold into commercial sexual exploitation at the age of 14. She was exploited for 2 years before we could rescue her with the assistance of police. While orienting her about her legal rights, she asked us a question that rattled all of us, “Will I get my money back?” The query was uncomfortable so we tried to answer by telling her about the immediate relief that she will get from the state government. But the questioning continued “what about the money they made from my body? Will I get that back?” This child, over a period of time healed as a victim, became a survivor advocate, but never let go of her original questions.
Do the proceeds of an organised crime such as human trafficking, which thrives on human vulnerabilities, ever get recovered? Take for instance trafficking for the purposes of commercial sexual exploitation. The entire revenue model is based on sexual exploitation of young girls and women. The number of male buyers everyday contribute to the daily earnings of the entire criminal syndicate, which runs operations at the place of exploitation. The investment in this form of criminal enterprise, especially in procuring the raw material, which in this case is a woman or girl, is practically minimal. Young, teenage girls have been bought for as less as Rs. 5000/ (65$) and sold for Rs. 100,000/ ($1350). Even at the rate of Rs. 2000 per male buyer, with a daily average of 10-15 clients, the trafficker has already broken even in less than four days. Thereafter, it is only profit. If and when the trafficker choses to give a portion of earnings to the victim, it might be just a minuscule percentage of whatever is generated. Moreover, a large number of victims in captivity may not even be emotionally or physically equipped to negotiate.
Other forms of trafficking such as labour exploitation is no different. Some years ago, in a rescue conducted at a brick kiln, children as young as 12 years were found. The parents of these children were given lump sum amounts of Rs. 10,000 for each child. The weekly earnings of each child was less than Rs. 250 and that too after 12 hours of grueling work. Such children, when rescued may get some small relief from the Government as per the Bonded Labor Act, but recovering the back wages as per the Minimum Wages Act is a herculean task and perhaps, only remotely possible if a powerful civil society organization is backing the victim.
The murky world of human trafficking, which is considered as the fastest growing criminal enterprise, thrives on this ‘low investment, high returns’ business model. It is estimated that this highly lucrative business generates illicit profits to the tune of approximately USD 32 billion per year. With the total profits arising from illicit trades (including drugs, people, arms, fake goods, and stolen natural resources) being estimated by the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) at USD 130 billion, the estimated profits of human trafficking represent a significant proportion of that total.
Human trafficking as an economic offence
Human trafficking poses a grave threat to our society because it dehumanizes and exploits innocent women, children, and men against their free will. However, a fact often gets overlooked is the economic aspect of human trafficking, i.e., the profit-earning capacity of this criminal industry. For years, as an activist fighting sex trafficking, I have felt disappointed and frustrated that the victims we rescue take years to rebuild their lives from scratch, completely dependent on the support mechanisms provided by civil society organizations, while the traffickers who exploited them, live comfortably off the revenue made from such exploitation.
With no real institutional or legal framework to account for the proceeds of this organized crime, trade in human misery continues unabated. While efforts from some dynamic police officers to shut down brothels as per Section 18 of the Immoral Traffic Act did marginally affect the ‘business’ of sex trafficking, the outcome of such efforts touches just the periphery, causing minor inconveniences such as a change of location for the traffickers. It is only in the last decade that policymakers have tried to understand trafficking of human beings as essentially a profit-driven industry and explored some solutions to combat it from this perspective. While the existing policy mechanisms and institutions to some extent can be used to combat the economics of the organised nature of this crime, it is grossly inadequate due to the absence of a clear legislative framework.
In 2012, Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) for the first time in its advisory called human trafficking as an organised crime. Sections 9.7 and 9.9 of this advisory advised states to conduct financial investigations and confiscation of assets under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act and other related laws. (https://www.mha.gov.in/sites/default/files/advisory%20HT%20as%20organised%20crime %20on_0.pdf)
Despite this advisory and multiple others issued thereafter by the MHA and trainings conducted to create awareness about the provisions of these advisories, there are very few human trafficking cases across the country in which financial investigations have been conducted by the investigating agencies. One problem perhaps could have been that till date the Schedule in the Prevention of Money Laundering Act, 2002 hasn’t been amended to include the trafficking clause i.e., Section 370 IPC and other offences related to human trafficking.
The new Bill – a case for financial restitution
It is in this context that we look at The Trafficking in Persons (Prevention, Care and Rehabilitation) Bill, 2021, which for the first time has provisions empowering police officers to conduct such financial investigations in cases of human trafficking, thereby ensuring appropriate amendments in the Prevention of Money Laundering Act, 2002 to include offences under this Act in its Schedule. For instance, Section 17 (4) and (5) of the Bill empowers investigating officers to freeze bank accounts of accused if they have been used for trafficking and proceeds therein go to the victim to meet expenses of medical treatment and rehabilitation. Section 39 makes owning, possessing, and acquiring property out of proceeds of commission of trafficking an offence. It also provides for forfeiture and attachment of such property.
In a progressive step the Bill also provides for alternative punishment in Section 47, which states that on conviction the Designated Court may also pass an order for the auction of the premises or any part thereof and the proceeds of such auction may be ordered to be remitted to a government account. Further, fines imposed on traffickers under this Act shall be paid to the victim to meet the expenses of medical treatment and rehabilitation to the extent reasonable and required for such purposes, and any excess amount of such fine shall be remitted to a government account. Thus, provisions of the new Bill dismantles the profit- churning engine by levying huge fines running into crores of rupees, attaching of properties, and freezing of bank assets of traffickers. The bill also recognizes the cross-border nature of the crime and hence makes suitable amendments to Fugitive Economic Offenders Act, etc., for their application to the proceeds of the crime, paving way for it to become a potent tool for prevention of trafficking.
For the first time we might be looking at a possibility that the entire business of human trafficking might become a very costly affair for the criminal syndicate. Not only will the back of the criminal enterprise break, but the exploited person – the victim – will be supported in the quest for justice by restoring what is financially due to that person. This legal framework going beyond just jail terms and fines, perhaps, will make this business model totally unviable. The draft Bill therefore addresses the problem of human trafficking both as an organized crime and as a criminal enterprise, without losing focus on the rights of the victims for financial restitution.
Does that offer a ray of hope?
Most definitely. Hope, not only for victims and survivors, but most importantly for our nation whose human resources are being brutally destroyed by this modern-day slavery that thrives on human misery.
(Sunitha Krishnan is Padamshree Awardee and founder of Prajwala, an organisation that combats human trafficking and rescues, protects and rehabilitates women and children. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of the Financial Express Online.)