The light turns amber

Despite a new CrPC section, victims of trafficking find it difficult to obtain compensation from the state. Some voluntary groups are trying to change that

Saroj Kumar Pattnaik | February 21, 2019


#sex trafficking   #Bengal   #trafficking   #compensation   #CrPC   #Maharashtra  
Illustration: Ashish Asthana
Illustration: Ashish Asthana

In a black salwar-suit and matching headscarf, Ruksana (name changed) listens carefully from a corner of the hall. Members of her support group are talking about their suffering, struggles, aspirations and achievements. At her turn, she slowly opens up. Like that of many others, her story is one of deceit, despair and misery. Yet she sees hope.

 
Ruksana was 21 when a youth befriended her in her village in the swampy South 24 Parganas district of West Bengal. Their friendship grew and she came to believe he would help her break out of poverty. He got her to board a train to Mumbai, promising her a good job and a happy life. When she reached there, she found herself in a brothel for which the youth was a pimp. It was on the outskirts of the big city, and even if she had gathered the courage to escape, she might have failed. By the time she was rescued in December 2016 by the Goranbose Gram Bikash Kendra, an anti-trafficking NGO based in West Bengal, and the Rescue Foundation, a Maharashtra NGO, she had suffered months of unspeakable physical and mental abuse.
 
Another participant in the group session, Nilufa (name changed), shares her story, not very different from Ruksana’s. She was pushed into prostitution at a brothel in Pune. When she was rescued in February 2013, she had been there two years, forced to serve many clients daily.
 
Trouble is, victims of sex trafficking like Ruksana and Nilufa usually come from poor families in backward areas of the country. After being rescued, they return to homes where they are seen as a burden. Worse, the stigma of sex work hangs over them. Many of them contract sexually transmitted diseases, including the HIV virus, or develop full-fledged AIDS. Seeking treatment is difficult even in the cities; in villages, seeking affordable treatment means going to government hospitals in nearby towns. Word gets around and they are punished by cruel talk about their past, as if they weren’t victims but wrong-doers.
“It’s not at all easy for me. I preferred to stay indoors for most of the days after returning home,” says Nilufa. “I had become a sort of extra burden to my parents, who were already hard-pressed to meet the daily needs of the family. I needed Rs 3,000-4,000 monthly for my tests and medication, but it was very difficult to organise.”
 
Apart from being survivors of sex trafficking, the duo has one more thing common – they are members of a trafficking survivors’ collective called Bandhan Mukti. Members of the group spread awareness about human trafficking in their communities and help survivors access their rights and entitlements under existing government schemes. One such scheme is the victim compensation scheme (VCS), implemented by state governments under provisions of Section 357A of the Code of Criminal Procedure to provide financial support to victims of crimes, especially sexual offences including rape, acid attacks, crime against children, human trafficking, etc. In 2016, the centre introduced the central victim compensation fund (CVCF) scheme, with an initial corpus of Rs 200 crore, to supplement the state VCFs. However, there has been an absurd disparity in compensation amount paid by state governments: the payouts range from as less as Rs 10,000 to the upper ranges of nearabout Rs 10 lakh. “People who are victimised and sold into sex trafficking or other forms of human trafficking belong to the socioeconomic underprivileged section. For them, this compensation makes a huge difference. Whether it is in terms of their treatment or for their rehabilitation, they need financial assistance more than anyone else,” says Roop Sen, a researcher and co-founder of Sanjog, a Kolkata-based technical resource organisation. The problem, he says, is that survivors hardly know that they have the right to get compensation for the crimes committed against them. And even if they know of it, they are hardly equipped to follow the complex process for obtaining compensation. 
 
This is where organisations like Sanjog and Goranbose Gram Bikash Kendra and support groups like Bandhan Mukti, of which Ruksana and Nilufa are members, step in. “We provide them the necessary information about the schemes and the procedures that need to be followed in order to help them make decision,” says Nihar Ranjan Raptan, secretary-executive director of Goranbose Gram Bikash Kendra.
 
Says Nilufa, “I’d not heard anything about victim compensation until I joined Bandhan Mukti and started interacting with social workers at the Goranbose Gram Bikash Kendra office. With their support and guidance, I applied for victim compensation with the DLSA (District Legal Service Authority) in 2016. We have heard that some victims have received Rs 10,000-20,000 in compensation. Then a lawyer told us we were victims of trafficking, so we are entitled to much more.”
 
After much trouble, in February 2018, Nilufa got Rs 6 lakh in compensation, and in October that year, Ruksana got Rs 4 lakh. Both these amounts were from the West Bengal government’s VCS 2017.
 
Says advocate Anirban Tarafdar, “From being kidnapped to being subjected to repeated physical and sexual violence, rape, harassment – trafficking victims suffer a lot. The state has the responsibility of compensating them for all those crimes, and the amount should include compensation for all those crimes.”
Not everyone is as lucky as Ruksana and Nilufa. Salma, another survivor of trafficking, had to take her demand to the Calcutta high court after it was rejected successively by the district and state legal service authorities who said the case was still being tried. 
 
Advocate Kaushik Gupta, who fought Salma’s case in the high court, says, “Earlier, there was Section 357 CrPC, which said compensation should be paid only after conclusion of the trial and an accused is convicted. But Section 357A CrPC gives victims of crime the opportunity to apply for compensation before district legal service authorities even before the trial begins. Unfortunately, the new section is not very well known, as lawyers don’t encounter it in day-to-day practice. Also because they don’t often deal with trafficking victims.”
 
He says that in Salma’s case the court ruled, on June 25 last year, that “denial of compensation to such a victim would continue such violation and perpetrate gross inhumanity on the victim”. It ordered the state to pay the victim in ten days. In August 2018, Salma received Rs 3 lakh of the Rs 4 lakh she was entitled to. She used part of it to undergo surgery and invested part of it in a plot of land.
 
Activist Roop Sen calls it a landmark judgment that could help hundreds of victims move on with their lives. “Getting compensation gives a victim the power to be able to access all mainstream services, and I think it is extremely revolutionary and has the potential to change the game,” he says. And Gupta says, “We should not forget that these are people for whom staying alive each day is a struggle. Denial of compensation further victimises them.”
In support groups like Bandhan Mukti, news of the judgment has created a new sense of responsibility among survivors. They are now campaigning for other survivors to get entitled compensation and bring their traffickers to book. And, more importantly, carry on with their lives. Nilufa has already bought land in her village. Ruksana is thinking of doing the same. But for now, she wants to focus on her treatment. n
 
Pattnaik is a freelance journalist who writes on rights issues, including human trafficking.
 
(This article appears in the February 28, 2019 edition) 

 

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