An Indian sex worker shouts slogans during a protest march in Kolkata on July 01, 2008, against the proposed amendments to the Immoral Trafficking (Prevention) Act in Parliament. Photo: AFP / Deshakalyan Chowdhury

A new anti-trafficking bill that comes after India was ranked abysmally low on sex trafficking in a global analysis, has raised concerns among key stakeholders and sex workers rather than assuaging them.

India has been under pressure to frame a comprehensive law against trafficking since it was given a low rank in a US Trafficking in Persons report. The new bill is the first in India to move away from solely focusing on sex trafficking, and toward recognizing trafficking of persons for labor, begging and marriage as offenses. However, it fails to distinguish clearly between those trafficked and those who voluntarily go into unorganized labor and sex work.

Not only sex workers but also trade unions are up in arms against the new bill. “Many trade-union leaders think this is a draconian bill that will put more burden on migrant laborers,” said Dr Smarajit Jana, the chief adviser of the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee, a non-profit working for the welfare of sex workers.

“Since the last couple of months, a broad coalition is being developed against the bill, which includes trade-union leaders as well as sex workers.”

Kajol Bose, a sex worker and secretary of the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee, said: “If this bill becomes law, the police will harass us even more. The number of raids will increase and the number of clients will decrease. Then we will be more vulnerable to risky practices that lead to contraction of STDs and STIs,” referring to sexually transmitted diseases and infections.

The federal cabinet approved the Trafficking of Persons (Prevention, Protection, and Rehabilitation) Bill 2018 for introduction in Parliament earlier this year. However, despite consultations with several stakeholders, the new bill has disappointed many.

Voluntary sex work ignored

The bill completely overlooks the 2016 recommendations of a Supreme Court panel on protecting the rights and dignity of consenting adult sex workers. The panel, headed by senior advocate Pradip Ghosh,  recommended that the Immoral Trafficking Prevention Act 1956 be revised to distinguish clearly between voluntary sex workers and those forced into the profession. The panel also recommended community-led rehabilitation programs instead of the ones instituted by the state.

The Ministry of Women and Child Development had said it would implement the panel’s recommendations but did not.

“The [Supreme Court] panel had discussed state-run rehabilitation programs in depth and concluded that these are all useless. Now, the new bill stipulates the same strategies for rehabilitation after they have failed so many times,” Jana said. His organization is a West Bengal-based collective of around 70,000 sex workers and was part of the Supreme Court panel.

Bose, who is engaged in the profession, added: “The bill is harmful to us, our children and our landlords just like the Immoral Trafficking Prevention Act 1956.” The 1956 act is existing legislation against trafficking that grossly conflates human trafficking and voluntary sex work.

Bose wants the government to stop formulating laws that target sex work. “We do not want any extra legislation for our profession. We want the same workers’ rights as everyone else so that we can avail the same opportunities, benefits, and government schemes.

“We also earn for our labor. If someone is working for a salary of 10,000 rupees, would they not want to get to a position where they earn 20,000 rupees? It’s the same for us.”

Bill fails to address key issues

Among all states, West Bengal had the highest share of human trafficking in 2016, 44% of the total number of cases. Durbar-led interventions to remove minors and unwilling women from sex work account for more than 80% of successful rescues reported in the eastern state. But the state-led rehabilitation process is flailing.

“State-led rehabilitation programs are more like forceful incarceration,” Jana said. “There are instances of women taking all sorts of risks to flee from government remand homes and NGO-run homes. Rehabilitation must be voluntary.”

Moreover, Jana said, job opportunities in agriculture have been decreasing for nearly two decades, so those with limited education and skills in other sectors have migrated to cities for a livelihood.

“Migrant women in Kolkata city mainly have three options – domestic work, construction work, and sex work. They usually move around in these vocations before settling in one,” he said. “These women are creating their own jobs. If government policies push them against a wall, it will cause more harm than good to them and their families.”

The bill also states that premises used as sites of trafficking are to be confiscated and the owners of such places may be penalized. “Then public transportation may refuse to serve single women in case the vehicle becomes a site of trafficking. Landlords may not rent to women for the same reason,” Jana said. “Thus this bill would create more challenges, particularly for migrant women, leading them to opt for riskier routes.”

Moreover, the new bill does not retire existing laws, such as the 1956 act, on trafficking. Having different laws functioning in parallel will create confusion, say experts. It could give the police an opportunity to choose the easiest option, which could be detrimental for the victim, according to some social workers.

Differing views

Artist Leena Kejriwal is disappointed in the bill for other reasons. She is the founder of the Kolkata-based campaign #Missing, which advocates against sex trafficking.

“The bill does not discuss any strategies to prevent trafficking. There should be a national program for systematic anti-trafficking awareness in urban and rural areas for both potential victims and perpetrators,” Kejriwal said.

However, she feels that sex work is not truly anyone’s choice and the new bill should target it more specifically. “No young girl wants to grow up to be a prostitute. It’s always circumstances – coercion, blackmail or some incident that they fall prey to,” she said.

Bose disagrees. “Society just doesn’t want to accept that sex work is a legitimate profession and that it could be our source of joy. We enjoy entertaining our clients. There is a sense of fulfillment that comes with it,” she said. “They [society] think our clients force us or that we are forced to do this work. Somehow, people don’t believe that women can enjoy sex or make our own sexual decisions.”

The bill has not been tabled for discussion in Parliament yet. It could be delayed until 2021 if both houses of Parliament don’t get a chance to deliberate on it before next year’s general elections.

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