Kolkata: The extent and spread of human trafficking in India as recorded by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) in its Crime in India report, Indiaâs official crime data yearbook, cannot be treated as complete or accurate data pertaining to human trafficking cases in India.
While Article 14 reported in August that there is a mismatch in the governmentâs own data sets, the government of Indiaâs ministry of home affairs (MHA) has itself conceded as much, in the 2020 edition of the Crime in India report published on 14 September 2021.
After stating (in Volume I) that the country recorded 1,714 registered cases of human trafficking in 2020, compared to 2,208 cases in the year 2019, a decrease of 22.4%, a disclaimer appeared in Volume III: âThis data represents only those trafficking cases which have been registered by the respective AHTUs.â This refers to anti-human trafficking units, specially trained teams that neither handle all trafficking complaints nor exist in every police district in India.
The poor quality of data in the official pan-India crime recording system compromises any proposed policy for rehabilitation of survivors of trafficking, including the draft Trafficking In Persons (Prevention, Care and Rehabilitation) Bill 2021.
Not only do the lower numbers recorded by the NCRB paint a false picture of improved ground realities on the illegal trafficking of Indians, but they also lead to inadequate budgetary support for programmes to stop trafficking or rehabilitate survivors.
In setting Indian conditions against a global perspective, international publications such as the Global Report on Trafficking in Persons and the US department of stateâs Trafficking in Persons report use data from the NCRB reportâs human trafficking chapter.
The NCRBâs data is a significant undercount, experts have said. The Global Slavery Index estimated in 2018 that there were nearly 8 million people living in modern slavery in India on any given day in 2016, with 6.1 victims for every 1,000 people, a higher prevalence than the global average of 5.4 for every 1,000.
Over the past seven years, NCRBâs annual Crime In India reports show commercial sexual exploitation, forced labour and forced marriage as the major purposes behind human trafficking, while forced begging and organ transplant are among other purposes.
Dedicated Teams Absent In Many Districts
All states have set up AHTUs, but despite the MHAâs Rs 100-crore budget for the purpose in 2020, not all districts have these dedicated teams.
According to the 2020 Crime in India report, 696 districts of the countryâs total 835 police districts currently have AHTUs.
The US governmentâs Trafficking in Persons report 2021 cited an NGO report to say that only 27 of existing AHTUs were fully operational, and âmany still only existed on paperâ. It said state governments and civil society groups agreed that the majority of AHTUs were not sufficiently funded or trained, nor solely dedicated to trafficking.
For example, Maharashtra, which recorded the highest number of cases through its AHTUs in 2020, has these units in only 36 of its 49 police districts, according to page 993 of the Crime in India report of 2020, Volume III.
The 2016 edition of the NCRBâs report, which introduced the human trafficking chapter for the first time, said data was compiled from AHTUs.
The NCRBâs reports for the years 2017, 2018 and 2019 only said data was collected from states/ union territories, not clarifying whether this was data from the AHTUs.
Three Times More Trafficking Cases Than Records Show
Activists working to end human trafficking have said data from the AHTUs will never reflect the total numbers of cases, because many cases are not transferred from local police stations to the AHTUs in the first place.
Shambhu Nanda, programme coordinator of Partners for Anti Trafficking, an NGO working in the North 24 Parganas district of West Bengal, told Article 14 in August that there are many examples of trafficking where sections 370 (buying or disposing of any person as a slave), 370A (exploitation of a trafficked person) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), 1860 were applied by the police, but the cases werenât sent for investigation to the district AHTU. âData from AHTUs reflect only a section of total cases,â he had said.
Activists argued that in several districts, AHTUs were set up only recently and lack strength. This is one reason why police officers in some districts do not hand over the investigation of all trafficking-related cases to the AHTUs.
On 21 January, at a meeting of its core group on children, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) noted, âThe Anti-Human trafficking Units are also short-staffed, not adequately trained and lack mechanisms for inter-state coordination.â
Article 14 emailed NHRC member Jyotika Kalra, who chaired the said meeting of the core group on children, asking whether data collected through AHTUs could reflect the true scale of the problem, but did not get a response.
Bikas Das, who works with the non-profit Teghoria Institute for Social Movement in the Basirhat area of West Bengal, said in at least five cases brought to their attention in 2019 and 2020, survivors had to move court seeking orders for handing over the investigation to AHTUs. âIt was only after moving court that the cases went to the AHTUs,â Das told Article 14.
The NCRBâs own data shows a mismatch, apart from inconsistency in method of data capturing.
In 2013, 2014 and 2015, the NCRB report compiled data on trafficking cases by adding up numbers of cases filed under seven relevant penal provisions. This recording system was followed until 2016 when data began to be compiled only from AHTUs.
India began the process of setting up AHTUs after the MHA joined a special programme with the United Nations Office On Drugs & Crime (UNODC) in 2006. The AHTUs were conceived as âintegrated task forces to prevent and combat trafficking in personsâ. They include police officers and representatives of the women and child welfare departments of state governments and local non-profits.
By the old data recording system, India recorded 4,858 cases of human trafficking in 2020. The official NCRB Crime in India report said in its human trafficking chapter that 1,714 cases were recordedâthe data received from the AHTUs.
Shrinking Scale Of Crime Through Data Dressing
A study of the CrIme In India reports since 2013 reveals that in 2013, 2014 and 2015, the publication gave the total figures of human trafficking in the country by adding cases under seven relevant legal provisionsâsections 370 (buying or disposing of any person as a slave), 370A (exploitation of a trafficked person), 366A (procuration of minor girl), 366B (importation of girl from foreign country), 372 (selling minor for purposes of prostitution) and 373 (buying minor for purposes of prostitution) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), 1860 and the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, (ITPA) 1956.
To avoid duplication, since one case may include charges for different crimes under several sections of the law, only the section that attracted the highest punishment was counted for each case.
From 2016 onward, a separate chapter titled âhuman traffickingâ was introduced, with data only of cases that came to the AHTUs.
Since then, figures in the human trafficking chapter do not match the number of cases reported under the seven relevant penal provisions. The figures in the human trafficking chapter were always only one third of the total.
Adding the seven relevant sections, the records show 3,940 trafficking cases in 2013; 5,466 cases in 2014; 6,877 cases in 2015; 5,849 cases in 2016; 6,843 cases in 2017; 6,478 cases in 2018 and 6,292 cases in 2019.
Notably, the government till 2016 quoted the figures for these relevant sections as total human trafficking data but since 2017 quoted only those in the human trafficking chapter.
This gave the impression that India was seeing fewer cases of human trafficking, nearly one-third the number arrived at by adding the relevant sections.
Inaccurate Representation Of Ground Realities
In August, Article 14 asked NCRB director Ram Phal Pawar about the discrepancies in the data since 2016. Pawar did not offer a detailed response. Article 14 on 19 September once again emailed the NCRB director and other senior officials asking if collecting data from AHTUs misrepresents the scale of the crime. No response was received until the night of 21 September.
In its clarification added to the human trafficking chapter in the 2020 Crime in India report, the NCRB said that as this data represented only cases registered by the AHTUs, âit is advisable not to compare these figures with those given under different laws/ sections of human trafficking elsewhere in the reportâ.
Nanda contested this advice. âData from the AHTUs will never reflect the actual numbers,â he said.
Until all cases of human trafficking are mandatorily sent to AHTUs for investigation, which is not the norm at present, the NCRB reportâs chapter on human trafficking will represent only a partial record of ground realities.
According to Tamil Nadu-based activist Kandasamy Krishnan, convenor of the National Coalition to End Bonded Labour & Human Trafficking, even the recorded cases (under seven penal sections) are themselves only the tip of the iceberg.
He said there are many examples where the police agree to cooperate in operations to rescue bonded labourers on the condition that the survivors do not pursue legal cases against their captors. âThese cases would not reflect even when we add the penal sections to get the complete picture,â he said.
In July, when the government of India sought opinions from stakeholders on the new draft anti-trafficking bill, Krishnan sent to the ministry their recommendation from multiple stakeholders.
It was necessary for the government to add the following in the draft bill, they said: âProvided that the officer-in-charge of a police station under section 154 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973, shall take all necessary steps for immediate rescue and protection and then transfer the case to the Anti-Human Trafficking Unit.â
(Snigdhendu Bhattacharya is an independent journalist based in Kolkata.)