I had just finished reading Anita Nair’s recent novel, “ Chain of Custody” which gives a glimpse into the dark, convoluted business of child trafficking, when I also came across a video of Hollywood actor Ashton Kutcher talking about the same issue at the US Senate. Kutcher talks about a horrifying video clipthat has been doing the rounds on the internet whichfeatures a child as old as his own, sexually assaulted and the inability of the law enforcement to identify and prosecute the people responsible for such gruesome crimes.Like in Nair’s book the Additional Commissioner of Police finds it worth his while to investigate a high profile lawyer’s murder but a missing child does not justify his time. The “Chain of Custody” is fictional andI guarantee it will keep you on edge as you read through, yet it feels so real.
Nair’s book is based in Bangalore, which is why if you are a Banglorean like myself, you will feel the pain. It is one thing that rapid urbanization has destroyed the ecosystem and the city feels contorted. The real shame is that the very conveniences of urbanization that middle class and the rich enjoy has also brought with it trafficking of children as young as twelve years and even younger for the purpose of sexual exploitation and forced labour. The truth is that Bangalore is now one of the biggest hubs for trafficking of children for sexual exploitation. The city has had a rather disturbing evolution, from garden city to IT city and now this.
This is an issue that is not limited to Bangalore but exists across the country where children from poorer regions are more vulnerable to being trafficked. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, in the last decade there is a 571% increase in abduction and kidnapping of children largely for adoption, marriage and illicit intercourse. The shocking figure to note is the increase in kidnapping of children for illicit intercourse has increased by 460% and this is only the reported cases. There is a clear indication that there is an ever-increasing demand of children for the purpose of exploitation, yet the social stigma does not allow this crime the spotlight it needs for urgent action. The detrimental societal attitude:“it can never happen to me or my child”, accompanied with an air of judgment of character, the background of the child being trafficked and the exploiter. The truth is geography, education does not limit being part of this system, either at the demand or supply end. But yes the vulnerability increases if you belong to a certain social strata and caste.
Nair’s fictional account shows the relentless Inspector Gowda, whose quest for one missing girl takes him through a maze of crimes and criminals. Fortunately Gowda was successful in saving that one child and figuring out a single criminal nexus involved in this crime, limited to a part of the city. One can’t help feeling helpless when you think of all the missing children across the country, which according to 2014 figures is 36,740, keeping in mind that this is only provisional data, as there have been discrepancies in Government data. But let us for a moment go with this number and imagine that every police officer was honest and determined like Nair’s Gowda, I am quite confident that given the current scenario, unfortunately law and order will not be able to catch up with this fast growing crime.
Child trafficking is an organized crime that is rampant around us, within our so-called well off and educated communities. The criminal nexus that drives, manages and controls child trafficking is complex. The process of recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring and finally selling a child might involve a range of individuals from the local village agent, to a politician, the rich businessman to a very high profile paying client. So this is not some run off the mill petty crime that can be dealt by local police alone and it is not limited to a particular city or State or even country as borders is porous on this one. Despite the gloomy situation, there are solutions, solution across the demand and supply side that actually work for the children. I would like to limit my focus on the “criminal” aspect, and increasing the prosecution and conviction rate of traffickers, which includes the rich and powerful up the food chain.
The Ministry of Home Affairs has designated Anti Human Trafficking Unit (AHTU) as a unit in the special crime division of the CBI to provide specialized assistance in human trafficking of women and children. The police officers in the AHTUs are supposed to carry out professional investigations; collect/disseminate/utilize intelligence on offenders; maintain database of offenders as well as their hierarchical structure, place of operation, segments of supply chain and allied places of exploitation.The AHTUs could potentially be a powerful institution in breaking the criminal nexus, but unfortunately in most cases they only exist on paper though they are mandated to be set with trained personnel in every district. Further inefficiencies surface due to the lack of coordination between AHTUs and district and state level police. There are no clear procedures on transfer of cases regarding missing children to AHTUs and it often takes around 4-6 months. There are several reasons which point to the lack of performance by AHTUs, none are ones that cannot be fixed and they should be, given the nature of this crime.
A good beginning could be the Ministry of Home Affairs giving child trafficking the importance that it deserves and by treating it in the same manner as terrorism. Some sound advice also came from a Commander involved in special operations that I had met with, of having a nation-wide special operation for child trafficking involving specialized personnel and having the resources especially funds to deliver sustained action. I agree with him, as this is the kind of drive this nation requires to crack and put an end to this heinous crime against children. And as citizens we all have an important role, by creating a conversation and demanding action so that it is not limited to an Anita Nair novel or an Ashton Kutcher video.
Neha Saigal is an Independent development consultant currently engaged in issues around women and child rights