THE TRAUMA OF REHABILITATION
Last week, the country awoke to alarming new revelations in the sordid scandal of the routine sexual abuse of 34 girls between the ages of 7 and 14 in an NGO-run, state-funded Balika Grih in Muzaffarpur, Bihar. One girl is rumoured to have been murdered while others were sedated at night in the guise of medical treatment only to wake up to abdominal pains from rape. This sexual abuse may have involved exchange of money pocketed by the culprits. Eleven women went missing from another home run by the same NGO. Reports of such horrific conditions in government- and NGO-run homes for juveniles, sex workers and beggars have become routine, leading us to interrogate the meaning and centrality of the right to rehabilitation enshrined in the Trafficking of Persons (Prevention, Protection and Rehabilitation) Bill, 2018, passed by the Lok Sabha.
Welfare through rehabilitation is the hallmark of the Immoral Traffic Prevention Act (ITPA), 1986. Adult women, whether in sex work voluntarily or not, are rescued from brothels and put up in protective homes, with or without their consent. In ‘Raided’, a recent study conducted by Maharashtra-based SANGRAM (Sampada Gramin Mahila Sanstha) and VAMP (Veshya Anyay Mukti Parishad), 193 of the 243 women interviewed were adult, consenting sex workers. These homes ignore inmates’ needs and are often abusive, leading women to commit suicide, to riot or to escape. Without legal resources to negotiate their freedom, they languish in homes for months, or even years. Upon release, they are unwelcome at home and return to a life of penury. As per ‘Raided’, 77 per cent of women return to sex work. Kimberly Walters and Vibhuti Ramachandran, both ethnographers of ITPA homes, report that women perceive such ‘shelter-based detention’ as an ‘extended mode of trafficking’, like the initial entry into sex work. Both authors note that the constitutionality of these ITPA provisions is suspect.
The 2018 Trafficking Bill is unfortunately baked in the crucible of the ITPA. Its paternalist provisions on raids, rescue and rehabilitation allow for a police officer, based solely on his belief, to raid and ‘rescue’ a trafficked person and conduct a medical examination irrespective of the victim’s wishes. The victim is placed in a protection home for short-term relief and later in a rehabilitation home for an unspecified, but ‘reasonable’ period based on the order of a magistrate or child welfare committee. Where an adult survivor applies to the magistrate for release, the magistrate may reject it if she believes that the request has not been made voluntarily; there is no provision for appeal. Survivors are to be repatriated, but the status of an unwilling survivor is unclear. The government may designate existing shelter homes, including those set up under the ITPA, for rehabilitation. There is thus substantial institutional and procedural overlap between the ITPA and the bill.
The trafficking bill aims to be visionary with compensation and comprehensive services, but it ignores community-based approaches to rehabilitation and fails to comply with the Supreme Court’s decision in the Karmaskar case that rehabilitation must be voluntary. It ignores the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) guidelines on trafficking and human rights, which require that rescue operations not harm the rights and dignity of survivors, that they are not subjected to mandatory HIV test or be held in custody, and that they be allowed to participate in developing anti-trafficking interventions. Given the carceral nature of rehabilitation, how can survivors possibly rejoice at the bill’s proclaimed right to rehabilitation? In the absence of resources, the training of personnel and strict oversight over the unholy alliance of the state and the NGO ‘rescue industry’, the utopian vision of the bill for rehabilitation is likely to become a dystopian reality in which the failed ITPA model of rehabilitation is extended to 8 million ‘modern slaves’, including trafficked sex workers, bonded and child labourers, migrant workers, beggars, surrogates, wives from forced marriages, transgender persons and domestic workers.
The Trafficking Bill ignores communitybased approaches to rehabilitation and fails to comply with the SC decision that rehabilitation must be voluntary