(Prof. Sengupta is Former Chairperson, West Bengal Commission for Protection of Child Rights. This two part series is informed by his experiences as well as expertise in the field. This is the second part.)
I served as the Chairperson, West Bengal Commission for Protection of Child Rights for about 2 years (2014-16). I also had the opportunity to act as the Chairman, State Level Inspection Team (SLIT) & State Level Inspection & Monitoring (SLIM) Committee, during 2012-15. From my experiences I have learnt that it is very difficult to identify the cases of trafficking as it is often made in guise of marriage, recruitment of domestic worker or workers for shops etc. I will share a few cases with my readers that will reflect on the complex nature of the problem and the difficulties of (and within) the administration.
Once I visited Uttarpara Children’s Home along with Shri Bidhan Bhattacharya & Shri Sujato Bhadra, members of SLIM. A group of women surrounded us as soon as we reached there. We learnt that they were all trafficked Bengali girls who had been rescued from Maharashtra. The Maharashtra Police, by order of an appropriate court, transferred these Bengali-speaking girls to the West Bengal authorities. As a temporary measure, the authorities here had dumped them at Uttarpara Children’s Home. Naturally the Home management was not at all happy with this. They were not equipped or trained to handle such trafficked victims. Moreover, as they rightly pointed out, these women were all adults. They were misfits in a children’s Home.
We also learnt that the Government had already arranged for an alternative shelter for them. But the women were unsatisfied. They demanded a better shelter and also an assurance from us ( unfortunately they considered us representatives of the government authority) that they would be allowed to use mobile phones and other gadgets as well as participate in the profession they were in for last seven months. They did not want the government to intervene.
Being inexperienced & ignorant, I asked “Why! Don’t you like to be reintegrated with your family or community? Should we not try for that?”
They rejected my proposal unanimously. They laughed at me instead.
“After all, they are stigmatized”, Sujato Bhadra, the veteran Human Rights Activist explained, and so “most of their family/community do not want to get them back.”
Mr. Manirul Islam (name changed) contacted when his minor daughter was forcibly taken away by some miscreants. He gave the details about the miscreants to the police. He was in touch with his daughter over phone, but the daughter could not tell him where she was. He had some information about the possible location of her and had told the police everything he knew. When I asked for reports from the district officials including the police, I was told that due to time lag between the phone calls and reporting, mobile towers could not be traced. Moreover, Islam’s informants were persons like astrologers and shamans who could not be trusted. But, more important to them was the fact that Islam himself had criminal records and the accused in this case were all known to him as they were his old accomplices.
It took me much time to persuade the District Child Protection Officer (DCPO) and the police that even if Mr. Islam was a criminal, his daughter was not. More importantly, the state cannot deny rights of a child under any situation. To protect the best interest of the child, we had to rescue the child.
Ultimately, that girl was rescued. But, the story did not end there! The authority took the girl to a shelter home, disallowing the claims of her parents as almost all the key stakeholders, except the parents, were convinced that the girl should not go back to a criminal father!
Once the Secretary, WCD (Department of Women and Child Development) of one state requested her West Bengal counterpart to hand over a child to the Transport Department of that state. The Secretary, West Bengal forwarded the request to the Director, Social Welfare to do the needful. The matter was brought to my notice by Childline. I could not allow the girl to be handed over to an unauthorized body and I immediately directed the Director, Social Welfare not to make such a hasty unlawful move. At that time I discovered that the government high-ups, with or without knowledge of the Juvenile Justice Act, had on several occasions transferred children from one place to another without the permission/approval of the concerned Child Welfare Committees (CWC).
A group of boys were detained at Sealdah station by CINI and Childline workers with the help of Railway Police, Sealdah (GRPF). They were on the way to Jharkhand for education under the supervision of a religious organization without the knowledge of the concerned CWCs and without any valid document. I supported the detention. Protest erupted in the city as some religious organizations blocked roads in several areas asking for their release. Some bureaucrats and the Police advised me to accept their demands to ease communal tension. I was told that the Hon’ble CM might not approve of this detention. I stuck to my position. The Hon’ble CM also did not say a word about this. Within hours the protest died and the children were sent back to their homes following the JJ Act. Thus the Commission could prevent trafficking, in the name of migration for better education, of these children.
In the Purulia governement-run Home (Ananda Ashram) there were at least ten girls who were rescued from marriage before reaching the requisite age. They all are waiting to attain the legal age of marriage and wanted to reunite with their partners. They were not victims of trafficking. But they were not taken back in their homes and were denied entry into their parents’’ houses. If they were not accommodated in this Home, they might have been trafficked to brothels.
- There is no proper plan at any level (governmental/non-governmental) for curbing the activities of the traffickers; legal provisions are inadequate to take appropriate measures against them. The entire machinery is engaged primarily in identifying and rehabilitating trafficked victims and not the traffickers’ networks. It is comparatively easy to rescue a trafficked girl than to detain a gang of traffickers. It is important but much more difficult to ensure safe and secured life to the victim after being rescued.
- It is very difficult to differentiate the cases of trafficking from the cases of elopement. In many cases it was found that boys/girls left home on their own, without the knowledge of their parents. Parents usually rush to the police to lodge their complaints and the police, often hesitantly, record the case in the “missing diary”. Parents claim that it is a case of trafficking which, after due investigation, is often appears to be a case of elopement. In many cases such minors go back to their respective homes, through dialogues & negotiations and persuasions at different levels.
- There is a lack of understanding among the administration and involved departments about the clauses of UNCRC or JJ ACT. The media remains indifferent and unsupportive. They often blow out of proportion the elopement cases or romanticize such cases, misleading the society.
- Local political leaders, religious/community leaders, administration, judiciary and the media need to work hand in hand to curb the menace of trafficking.
- Poverty and illiteracy play important role in child trafficking. They are sent to metro cities to work as domestic help and often, particularly the girls are forced to enter the flesh trade. In West Bengal there is no regulatory authority or task force to monitor the activities of the Private Placement Agencies that provide (often underage) domestic workers.
- Proper education can prevent trafficking by spreading awareness among the children about cyber crimes, dangers of early marriage and sex trade. Education is also important for their guardians to make them aware of the above dangers and also to sensitize them to accept runaway/trafficked children. The restoration of a trafficked girl is a major problem as she is stigmatized by the society and her family.
- In some parts of West Bengal girls themselves are forming groups to keep watches on traffickers and their agents. Such laudable ventures need societal support. If Child Protection Committees (CPCs) at different levels & concerned CWCs work sincerely with them, they will be highly successful, I believe. The support from media, judiciary, local people and the local administration is necessary to bring change.