Only 27% anti-human trafficking units functional in India: Study
<br>The revelation has come just a month after the Ministry of Home Affairs directed the state governments to utilise funds released from ‘Nirbhaya Fund' in March this year to establish the AHTUs in all the districts.
The number of notified AHTUs in many states and UTs were much less than the number of AHTUs that states and Union Territories (UTs) claimed were operational, reveals the study conducted by Sanjog, a technical resource organization, and Tafteesh, a coalition of lawyers, activists, social workers and survivor leaders.
The study was spearheaded by a group of five lawyers who filed RTIs in 33 states and Union Territories (UTs) out of which only 22 states and Union Territories responded.
Responses to the RTIs from 16 states and UTs highlight that only 27 per cent of AHTUs are functional and 51 per cent being notified with all the power and resources.
The study collated data between 2010-2019 with the objective of evaluating the effectiveness of the AHTUs to find out the number of AHTUs actually notified by state and UT governments.
Responses from 16 states and UTs showed that 225 AHTUs are set up only on paper with no centralised process to notify them, mentions the study.
Further, it says, the number of notified AHTUs in many states and UTs were much less than the number of AHTUs that states and UTs claimed were operational. Most of the AHTU postings were only seen as ‘notional' offices occupied by near-retirees or police officials taking on ‘punishment postings', it said.
Pompi Banerjee, a psychologist and researcher at Sanjog and a member of Tafteesh told IANS: “As a result of the pandemic, many people are facing job loss and financial hardship. This makes them more vulnerable to trafficking. Therefore, it is important to understand the effectiveness of the AHTUs, especially when the Ministry of Home Affairs issued an advisory asking the states and UTs to set up new AHTUs and upgrade the existing ones and saying that Rs 100 crore have been allocated from the Nirbhaya fund in this regard.”
As specialised police units, AHTUs are extremely important in the anti-trafficking system. They are the main grassroots-level unit investigating trafficking cases, rescuing survivors, and aiding prosecution of offenders across the country.
The study also found that only seven states — Bihar, Kerala, Nagaland, Rajasthan, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Uttarakhand — have AHTUs covering all their districts. All the other states either have AHTUs in half or less of their districts, with Andhra Pradesh and Chhattisgarh having the lowest coverages of AHTUs with 30 per cent and 25 per cent, respectively.
Also, its alarming that 51 per cent of the states were unresponsive to the questions of establishing AHTUs.
Kaushik Gupta, Advocate, Kolkata High Court also heading the legal team of Tafteesh told IANS: “The merit of any criminal case lies on the quality of evidence that the investigation provides.
“In my experience of having researched and worked with over 200 cases, I find that officers from local police stations are unable to conduct robust investigations and the same cases, when transfered to AHTUs have a much better impact and helps in prosecution.
“I can't say if AHTU officers are better trained or more skilled, but prima facie, they have the time, resources and systemic support to do a diligent job.”
Asma Mollya, member of Utthan and a community leader in ILFAT said: “Many of us can attest to the fact that AHTUs are critical offices in the anti-trafficking system, as they are an investigative agency.”
“The officers from AHTUs are much more patient, respectful, trained and focused on their investigation, gathering strong evidence to successfully punish traffickers in court. We have had improved experiences of the criminal justice system, when AHTUs were available to investigate our cases,” Mollya told IANS.
The Home Ministry in an advisory dated July 6 this year also directed the Principal Secretaries (Home) of states and UTs to deal with criminal aspects of human trafficking and conduct rescue operations based on information from police sources, NGOs and CSOs.
In a bid to end human trafficking, Deputy Secretary (PR&ATC) of MHA Arun Sobti also emphasised in the advisory on coordination among the law enforcement agencies to step up monitoring mechanism while advising the department of labour to take the lead role.
The functions of AHTUs primarily include registering cases of human trafficking, conducting raid and rescue operations for survivors of trafficking, carrying out investigation on all aspects of the crime, collecting evidence, effectively prosecuting traffickers, collecting, disseminating and utilising intelligence on human trafficking and the sharing of information on traffickers to concerned law enforcement agencies.
Human trafficking for the purpose of commercial sexual exploitation can invoke legal provision of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), 1860; the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, 1956 and the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012. Complaints of human trafficking can be made before the local police, who ideally have to transfer such cases to the jurisdictional AHTU. Tafteesh is an access to justice program implemented by 12 organisations across West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh.
The focus of the programme is to support survivors of human trafficking find justice that includes their rehabilitation, compensation and prosecution of trafficker. Tafteesh works very closely with local governments and policymakers to strengthen state systems and policies. Sanjog is a technical resource organisation that specializes in research and policy advocacy on issues of trafficking in children and women.
(Rajnish Singh can be contacted at email@example.com)