Tackling human trafficking

Karnataka’s work can be used as a model in other states in cases of trafficking.

In the last one year, Karnataka has established itself as a leader in addressing human trafficking, especially labour trafficking. It has done this by effectively implementing a statewide policing structure, the Anti-Human Trafficking Unit (AHTU), under the newly amended section of Indian Penal Code (IPC), s. 370 – Trafficking of Persons. The Karnataka government has demonstrated in a series of recent cases that it is making significant progress in fighting human trafficking.


First, some background on AHTU and IPC s. 370. The AHTUs emerged from a 2006 pilot project between the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) and the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC). The units include officials from many relevant departments including the police, the district administration, Department of Labour, Department of Women and Child Development, Department of Rural Development and the Panchayati Raj. Together, these can provide an integrated approach to rescue, release, and rehabilitation of victims, and also apprehension and arrest of the accused. This integrated approach is important because often the Labour Department or the Revenue Department may take first notice of a case and not have the capacity to respond fully. After the pilot project, the MHA has steadily established these Units across the country. On June 20, 2014, Union Home Secretary Anil Goswami promised to establish another 100 Units, which would bring AHTUs to almost half the districts in India. Karnataka has a state AHTU and nine district AHTUs.

IPC s. 370 defines trafficking and establishes its penalties. The Criminal Amendment Act of 2013, enacted after the Nirbhaya case in Delhi, strengthened a whole series of laws, primarily related to protecting women. In the case of human trafficking, the Act brought India’s definition of human trafficking into accord with the United Nations’ definition, namely that it is the recruitment, transportation, harbouring, transfering, receiving a person for purpose of exploitation by threats, force, abduction, fraud, deception, abuse of power, or inducement in order to achieve consent. It also created stronger penalties. For example, if someone is convicted for trafficking more than one person, the minimum jail term is 10 years (14, if the victims are minors), while the maximum is life in prison.Furthermore, complaints under s. 370 are, like rape, subject to IPC s. 166(a), a provision which makes the police subject to criminal sanction, including jail time, if they fail to file a First Information Report.

It is important to note that ‘trafficking’ was defined broadly, matching the international understanding of trafficking, to include sex, labour, organs, etc. IPC s. 370 defines the kinds of exploitation as “any act of physical exploitation or any form of sexual exploitation, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude, or the forced removal of organs.” This broad definition includes many cases of bonded labour, especially in its migrant form in which people have come from poor and especially tribal regions to the rich and growing south. The MHA had already informally categorised bonded labour as a trafficking offence prior to s.370’s amendment. Previously, various offences related to trafficking had been covered by weaker laws, such as the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, the Child Labour Act, and others and placed primary authority for implementation under departments other than the police.

In short, the AHTU defines the administrative structure in which the anti-trafficking law can be effectively enforced, while the new law provides the teeth to actually enforce the law. Every state has this basic set of tools. What sets Karnataka apart is three things. First, the Karnataka AHTU has sought out additional training and capacity building on aspects of the new law, as has the Karnataka Judicial Academy. Second, they are effectively enforcing s.370 in cases of trafficking for bonded labour. The Karnataka police, led by the AHTU, are taking cases directly, doing strong inquiries, and working with local police to file much stronger FIRs and charge sheets. Third, through working cases on their own and in partnership with NGOs, the Karnataka police and AHTU are building stronger internal procedures to handle these cases even more effectively.

It will be several years before cases brought with this new law, structure, and training complete their way through the courts, but already there are some indications that these cases are succeeding on the ground. The first is that FIRs are being filed under these new laws and arrests are taking place. These demonstrate that the police are responding effectively at the beginning of the process. For example, in a recent case of a 13 year old girl from Darjeeling, the couple who abused her was arrested under IPC s.370. Similarly, in a case brought by the NGO BOSCO in which four boys were brought from Bihar and were working in a Bangalore recycling unit, the accused was arrested under IPC s.370.

The second is bail, which the Karnataka courts are taking quite seriously. In the Darjeeling case mentioned above, bail was denied. In one case of trafficked bonded labour in a brick kiln in Ramangaram District, brought by International Justice Mission, where I work, the High Court denied bail before the charge sheet was filed. On 21 July, Honourable Justice Budihal RB wrote on denying bail in that case, “Looking to the nature of the allegations made and the seriousness of the offence, I am of the opinion that at this stage, it is not proper for this Court to allow the petition and to release the petitioner on bail.”  This indicates that the courts are regularly recognising the severity of the crime and are starting to regularly deny bail at this point in the process.

Together these demonstrate that a well-trained police force that is empowered by strong laws that are enforced by the judiciary, can begin to bring protection to society, especially to sections of the society that are often the victims of trafficking. There are several significant consequences of this. Karnataka’s work can be used as a model in other states in cases of trafficking. By ensuring that the AHTU and the police are well trained on the new IPC s.370, the police in other states can start to demonstrate the same effectiveness that they have here, if there is the political will. Additionally, Karnataka case law will provide guidance to the judiciaries in those states. These successes should serve as a message that with proper training and political will, we can have successful policing that protects all sections of society against other crimes. Trafficking offences are not much different than many other crimes that face our society. These successes should tell the police force that they can succeed and also tell the public that it is correct to invest trust in a well-trained police force.

Photo: Thomas