India Anti-Trafficking Bill Changes Little for Child Laborers, but Activists Continue Fight from the Bottom Up


By Elizabeth Donger

The number of people trafficked in India for forced labor has been estimated at anything between 20 and 65 million. In June 2016 the Indian government published a new draft anti-trafficking bill that has been hailed by some as the country’s first-ever comprehensive anti-trafficking law and applauded for strengthening criminal investigation and prosecution processes. Yet due to several glaring issues this bill constitutes another missed opportunity to take comprehensive action to address widespread exploitation, especially the trafficking of children for their labor.

First and foremost, the draft bill does not include a definition of trafficking. Like the recent changes to the language of the child labor laws, which softens key definitions concerning exploitation, this gaping oversight will make it easier for perpetrators to creatively skirt the law and sows confusion among parties tackling the problem.

Second, the largest policy change proposed by the draft bill is likely to create an even more inefficient and baroque response system than the one already in place by giving rise to yet another layer of committees to oversee implementation of anti-trafficking law.

However, a report published recently here at the Harvard FXB Center for Health and Human Rights found that the existing morass of stakeholders already proves a huge barrier to effective protection.

The report, Is This Protection?, examines India’s system of “rescue and reintegration” for the thousands of children trafficked for labor purposes every year. It demonstrates that, absent clear designation of responsibility, exploited and vulnerable children are passed between committees, agencies, special units and departments without oversight or accountability. That is, the institutional landscape for protecting children from labor exploitation is already crowded. And  because the draft bill does not set out the relationship between the new committees and those that existed before, it is likely to further confound rather than enhance the process.

Finally, there are no clear guidelines in the draft bill on what “rehabilitation” of victims must include. Rehabilitation is currently conceived of as a short-term, fixed process. As our report shows, vulnerable children are simply removed from exploitative workplaces and returned to where they came from, which leaves them “exposed to the same structural vulnerabilities that led to their being originally trafficked, with the predictable outcome that many of them are retrafficked.”

Any lasting solution to trafficking requires consistent and wide-ranging support for children and their families: education support, mental and physical health care, economic support and safe accommodation. Without detailed requirements for the rehabilitation of victims, the draft bill is unlikely to change the status quo.

Absent top-down change, committed activists in India are mobilizing to make more than a cosmetic improvement to a flawed system.

Despite problems with the proposed law, anti-trafficking stakeholders continue to advocate for meaningful reform in India. In July 2016, one month after the draft bill’s publication, Harvard FXB Center convened three seminars (in Delhi, Patna and Jaipur) to bring together prominent anti-trafficking experts. Representatives from relevant government ministries, police, nonprofits and academia discussed the Harvard report’s findings and considered opportunities for increased collaboration among local actors, along with promising innovations in anti-trafficking practice.

The participants agreed to work together on improved and consistent training for all anti-trafficking caseworkers and on more vigorous interagency efforts to support long-term reintegration and protection of at-risk children. Only committed and sustained interventions of this sort will generate the effective protection that India’s most vulnerable children need and deserve.

Elizabeth Donger, a research associate at the Harvard FXB Center, is a co-author of the report discussed in this article.

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