Kolkata: In October 2018, Rehana Khatun (name changed), a 17-year-old, class-12 student from West Bengal’s Basirhat, met a 25-year-old on Facebook. Rehana belonged to Basirhat 1 block in North 24-Parganas district, while the man claimed to be from the neighbouring South 24-Parganas district.
The two Bengalis fell in love. Rehana was made to believe her 25-year-old admirer was rich, from a business family in Mumbai. He had fallen in love with a “simple village girl”, or so he told her, and wanted to marry her.
They secretly met in Barasat town on 7 November, weeks after the two talked on Facebook, and married before a qazi (cleric) at a room in a nondescript three-storied building next to Barasat railway station. Rehana said “some papers were signed” at the time.
They took a train from Howrah station more than 2,000 km to the southwest to Pune, where Rehana’s new husband took her to an apartment that he said was his. He left soon after “to buy clothes”, he told her.
That is the last Rehana saw of him.
As she waited, a few hours later Rehana learnt from a neighbour that she had been sold to a brothel in Pune’s red light area, Budhwar Peth. She realised the papers signed were probably “all fake”.
After five traumatic months at the brothel, in March 2019, a client and a brothel keeper helped her escape.
Rehana returned home, traumatised—at age 17 cheated, sold and trafficked into prostitution. She no longer viewed herself as married. If there was any solace, it was the news that the 25-year-old was jailed after being accused of trafficking a minor. Based on her testimony, the police firmed up their case against him.
Rehana, whose father is a rickshaw-puller, is yet to receive compensation due to her from the government because the process of application through the State Legal Services Authority is not yet complete.
The New Bill
To ensure meaningful rehabilitation of survivors of trafficking such as Rehana, the Centre listed the new Trafficking In Persons (Prevention, Care and Rehabilitation) Bill 2021 in the monsoon session underway.
Chaos in Parliament over the Pegasus scandal aside, it is expected the Bill will be introduced in Lok Sabha during the monsoon session that is to end on 13 August.
Critics of the bill have said the draft legislation glossed over actual rescue and post-rescue protocols; it did not explain how the National Investigation Agency would act as a nodal agency, especially in its engagement with existing anti human-trafficking units (AHTUs) in districts and states; it renders irrelevant adult consent and clubs sex work with trafficking.
But there is a larger, unacknowledged problem: a data mismatch within the government’s own data sets, as this report explains.
This is important because lowered numbers give a false sense of improvement and underplay the issue, said Krishnan Kandasamy, an anti-trafficking activist in Tamil Nadu. Kandasamy leads the National Adivasi Solidarity Council in south India and was a driving force behind the survivor-run anti-trafficking forum, the Welfare Association of Released Bonded Labourers, also called the Released Bonded Labourers’ Association.
Krishnan said lower numbers also influence state’s disbursal of allocations and grants for measures to tackle human trafficking.
The Missing Numbers
The magnitude of the problem is evident from government of India data between 2013 and 2019. The government informed Parliament of fewer cases than its own data.
The under-reporting is a result of errors of omission and addition.
The first mistake was that the entire data set on human trafficking was not included in the numbers placed on record. The second mistake was in miscalculating cases filed under various provisions of Indian Penal Code 1860 that address trafficking.
Article 14 studied CII reports for the years 2013 to 2019. In 2016, the reporting format was revised si that cases and data filed under the special law against human trafficking, the Immoral Trafficking (Prevention) Act (ITPA) 1956, were not included in the newly introduced human-trafficking (HT) chapter, for reasons not yet clear.
NCRB director Ram Phal Pawar on 14 December 2020 told Article 14: “Will examine and revert.” Despite reminders on 30 December 2020 and 4 January 2021, when the mails were also marked to NRCB’s joint director, administration and the statistics department, there has been no response from the NCRB.
Meeran Chadha Borwankar, who retired as director of NCRB and Bureau of Police Research and Development (BPRD) in 2017, said the data for 2016 were redesigned to sort kidnapping/ abduction figures since not all kidnappings were for purposes of trafficking.
“If human trafficking was clearly the motive and ITPA was applied by the investigating officer (IO) cases would be put under human trafficking, even if IPC sections were applied,” she told Article 14 over email. When only IPC sections were applied and where investigating officers had not used ITPA, numbers were not filed under trafficking but only under relevant IPC sections, she said.
“The rule of thumb for statistics after 2015 is that a case goes to Human Trafficking if ITPA is applied (along with IPC sections) and to IPC if ITPA is not applied though it may be a case of kidnapping/abduction,” Borwankar said.
The reference to kidnapping/ abduction is relevant only for CII 2016 when the human trafficking chapter noted that other than the six regularly used IPC sections, total cases may also include those filed under sections 363A (kidnapping or maiming a minor for purposes of begging) and 367 (kidnapping or abducting in order to subject person to grievous hurt, slavery, etc). Even if these two sections are not considered, it still did not explain why ITPA data was not included or even referred to in the human-trafficking chapter.
On page XIV of CII 2016, a distinction is made between statistics collected. While 2015 data for trafficking was based on clubbing IPC provisions, including sections 370, 370A and SLL, in 2016 data was collected from district AHTUs.
But as Shambhu Nanda, programme manager at Partners for Anti-Trafficking, a collective of eight NGOs working in West Bengal’s North 24-Parganas, said: “We can show many examples of trafficking where sections 370 and 370A are applied but the cases weren’t sent up to the district AHTU. Data from AHTUs reflect only a section of total cases.”
A senior West Bengal police official, speaking on condition of anonymity, since he was not authorised to speak to the media, said this still failed to explain why the ITPA was excluded, “reported in a separate section, and without any note or clarification in the chapter concerning human trafficking”.
This changed reporting format continued into 2019.
Minister Claims Fall In Trafficking
In February 2020, union minister of state for home affairs G Kishan Reddy told the Lok Sabha that 8,132 cases of human trafficking were recorded in India in 2016, dropping by almost 65% to 2,854 cases in 2017 and further to 2,465 cases in 2018 (Table 2).
Reddy attributed this decline to government policies. “The government has approved a proposal for financial assistance to states and UTs for... strengthening of anti human trafficking units by states and UTs in all… districts at a... cost of Rs.100 crore under Nirbhaya Fund…”.
That the minister’s claim based on NCRB numbers was not ever fact-checked was evident when in March, the minister offered the same data for 2017 and 2018 to a question in Rajya Sabha.
Though the news agency Reuters pointed to the drop in trafficking data of 2017 compared to 2016, the numbers escaped scrutiny. “Campaigners warned... that the figures may not reflect the full magnitude of the crime,” Reuters reported.
Across Indian media, the drop in numbers was not scrutinised and the decline in the number of cases in 2017 compared to 2016 not analysed. Had either the minister or media analysed the decline, it would have emerged that the year 2016 had an over-reporting. This was possibly due to an error in the number of trafficking cases for Bengal in the Human Trafficking chapter: 3,570. This high figure took the total to 8,132, though the sum of section-wise IPC cases plus ITPA was 5,849.
How The Omission Unfolded
Till 2013, police in India applied the ITPA for human-trafficking cases, along with four sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). These were: sections 366A (procuring minor girls), 366B (import of girls from foreign countries), 372 (selling a minor to prostitution) and 373, (buying a minor for purposes of prostitution).
After the shock, anger and public outrage following the Delhi gangrape case of December 2012 (the Nirbhaya case), section 370 IPC was reworked. The new section 370 IPC addressed trafficking and section 370A, introduced in 2014, dealt with trafficking of a minor.
Thus, since 2014, police also applied sections 370 IPC and 370A IPC to cases of trafficking.
The CII report recorded total cases of trafficked people for years 2013, 2014 and 2015 by adding ITPA cases and cases under relevant IPC sections. The break-up of IPC and ITPA cases perfectly match the given total in 2013, 2014, and 2015 editions.
In May 2016, then junior home minister H P Chaudhary in a statement in Rajya Sabha said: “As per... NCRB, a total number of 3554, 3940 and 5466 cases of human trafficking were reported during the year 2012, 2013 and 2014 respectively, which include cases reported under sections 370 & 370A IPC, sections 366A, 366B, 372 and 373 and the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act in the country.” CII 2016, released in 2017, introduced a separate chapter on human trafficking.
The data thereafter were scattered and much of it lost.
The new human-trafficking chapter included figures only of cases filed under various IPC sections. Cases under ITPA were reported elsewhere—under the Special and Local Laws (SLL) category.
The table above shows 6,843 cases of human trafficking filed under IPC provisions and ITPA in 2017 and 6,478 cases in 2018. So, India recorded 13,321 cases for the two years. Yet, Reddy told Parliament that there were 5,319 cases in 2017 and 2018, almost 60% lower than the actual.
Reddy took credit for the decline, oblivious that he had missed trafficking cases filed under the ITPA, despite the fact that the relevant page in the CII that the minister quoted from clearly mentioned that only IPC cases of trafficking were included.
But Reddy’s omission was not only about the under-reporting.
Do The Math
Cases under IPC sections of trafficking exceeded by over 80% the number in the human-trafficking chapter that the minister quoted for 2017 and 2018.
There were 4,716 cases of trafficking under various IPC sections in 2017. But the human-trafficking chapter, which said it included all cases where IPC sections were applied, noted only 2,854 cases (CII, Page 973)—a mismatch with the CII’s own section-wise IPC break-up.
The number was 40% less than the actual figure in 2017, and about 51% less than the actual figure in 2018 and 2019, as evident in Table 2.
The under-reporting continued into 2019. Reuters and PTI reported 2,260 cases as given in the human-trafficking chapter. The actual break-up of IPC section-wise cases showed that section 366A IPC, a key anti-trafficking provision used increasingly since 2013, alone recorded 3,117 cases in 2019.
Add the section-wise break-up of relevant IPC cases and the total is 4,647 and not 2,260. Add the ITPA cases, and the total is 6,292—almost thrice the number of 2,260 that Reddy cited to Parliament.
The under-reporting at two levels is clear, as we said.
ITPA & IPC, And No Overlap
The CII 2013 report said: “Percentage distribution cases registered under human trafficking is Immoral Trafficking (Prevention) Act (65.5%), procurement of minor girls (31.1%), selling of girls for prostitution (2.5%) and importation of girls (1.0%) and buying of girls for prostitution (0.2%) during 2013.”
ITPA was the dominant legal provision dealing with human trafficking till the amendment in 2013 of section 370 IPC, which only made the legal provision stronger. Since 2014, sections 370 and 370A IPC have been increasingly used by law enforcers. Nevertheless, ITPA continued to be used regularly.
The chances of duplication of cases are near zero, said experts. The NCRB noted (page XI of 2016 edition) that as per international standards, the crime records bureau follows what is called the ‘Principle Offence Rule’ to count crimes.
“Hence among many offences registered in a single FIR case, only the most heinous crime (maximum punishment) will be considered as a counting unit,” said the NRCB’s 2016 report. “Hence, there is likelihood of some IPC/SLL cases getting under-reported as they are hidden under major IPC crimes i.e. murder with rape is accounted as murder.”
This was to avoid duplication or reference to a single case under multiple heads.
For instance, on page 191 of the 2016 edition, under “Total IPC crimes against children,” a note clarified: “Excludes cases under Sections 354, 376 & 509 IPC, as same are covered under POCSO Act in SLL Crimes.”
No such clarification was made about ITPA in the human trafficking chapter.
The 2016 report also said that “the Principle Offence Rule is not applicable for chapters of Crimes against Women, Crimes Against Children, Crimes Against SC/ST, juveniles in conflict with law, crime against senior citizens etc.”
However, it made no exception for human trafficking.
These are not insignificant crimes: Some ITPA sections attract a punishment of 10 to 14 years. Yet, the human-trafficking chapters introduced since 2016 never included ITPA numbers.
NCRB carried the customary disclaimer they were not responsible for authenticity of data from states.
The change in reporting format, nevertheless, was NCRB’s domain.
Under-Reporting Evident: Experts
Activists against human trafficking and experts at non-government organisations (NGOs) said human-trafficking data is incomplete without including cases filed under ITPA. “Entirely excluding ITPA cases from human trafficking data is outright under-reporting,” said Kandasamy.
Rishi Kant, a co-founder of the Delhi-based anti-trafficking NGO Shakti Vahini agreed with Krishnan’s assessment. “For total number of human trafficking cases, we need to add cases under sections 366A, 366B, 370, 370A, 372, 373 and ITPA,” he said. “Together, these cover human-trafficking cases.”
Human trafficking researcher Pompi Banerjee at the Kolkata-based NGO Sanjog said the data mismatch revealed how human trafficking was “actually monitored” by law enforcement agencies, “given that such big data discrepancies are present at the national level”.
She said the trend of recording data “in such a disparate and disjunctive manner indicated absence of an organised data maintenance and monitoring system”.
(Snigdhendu Bhattacharya is a Kolkata-based independent journalist. )