Amongst the several other things that have come to a standstill with the pandemic and the imposition of the lockdown is the welfare of crores of unorganised workers and survivors of human trafficking, many of whom fall outside the safety net and are more economically vulnerable than before. Recognising the impact of the current situation, and the increased likelihood of such vulnerable persons falling prey to traffickers, the Ministry of Home Affairs has written to states to expedite the setting up of new anti-human trafficking units to ‘combat and prevent’ human trafficking. While this is a desired step in the fight to prevent further cases of human trafficking, it does not take into account the vulnerabilities of those who have already been victims of the crime of trafficking and are still awaiting justice.
One of the most pertinent aspects of justice for victims of human trafficking is compensation. Why is this disbursement of compensation so important? Vulnerabilities for communities largely emanate from economic depression — without this compensation, their pre-existing vulnerabilities will only be exacerbated, especially in this pandemic, subjecting them to the risk of being re-trafficked. Despite the essential nature of this aspect of justice, the implementation of it has been dismal. A report by Sanjog revealed that between 2011 and 2019, only 77 victims across the whole country have received the victim compensation amount, while government data records at least 40,000 victims of human trafficking in this period, which reflects the pervasive negligence in the facilitation of applications and disbursement.
Several reasons for the failure of compensation schemes to address the needs of the victims lies in the design itself. While national guidelines exist, state governments form their own Victim Compensation Schemes, leaving scope for large variance, which is evident in several aspects of the scheme.
Most prominently, the compensation amount for victims of trafficking varies from as low as Rs 10,000 to Rs 10 lakh, unfairly basing the right of the victim to a dignified compensation on the geographical area of the crime. Further, the schemes provide varying amounts of compensation under different categories, such as trafficking, grievous physical or mental injury, sexual assault. However, many allow for compensation to be sought only under any one category, operating under the erroneous assumption that crimes operate in isolation and ignoring the realities where victims of trafficking are also significantly likely to be exposed to sexual assault and grievous physical injury.
One of the most problematic provisions, is an income threshold for the victims to receive compensation, which ties the compensation to the victim’s condition as a welfare beneficiary. This defeats the purpose of the compensation, which is neither a payment to cover medical costs, nor a remedy to right the wrong, but an acknowledgment of the failure of the state to fulfil its obligation of providing protection to the citizen.
Beyond the subjective aspects of the scheme, there are design faults that also have a direct bearing on the implementation. The procedure of disbursement of compensation under certain schemes is long and arduous, entailing sometimes a two-month timeline for the order of compensation to be passed, followed by a requirement for the Home Department to sanction the compensation amount (for which no timeline is specified) and the District Collectors to then disburse the above compensation amount within 1 month from sanction. Many schemes do not even specify these timelines, resulting in unnecessary delay.
A common provision in many schemes requires that in the instance that the accused is found guilty and made liable to pay compensation, the victim must remit any compensation disbursed by the State earlier, before the compensation amount by the accused can be paid to the victim. This is problematic, both because this is likely to result in unnecessary delay in an already red tape ridden process, but also because it imposes an unfair economic burden on the victim, as they are unable to use the compensation until the case is finally decided, which could span years. Thus the victim should not be put in the position of having to return compensation, where a simple alternative exists of only the differential amount being released and the balance from the accused being deposited in the Compensation Fund.
Considering that the mandate is on state governments to individually work on their respective schemes, what can be done to expedite this process? The Central Government can amend the national guidelines to make state schemes more harmonious, to introduce a single window for survivors to access compensation and to ensure a clear system of accountability, which is lacking in the existing structure. Another key stakeholder, the National Legal Services Authority (NALSA), must develop a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) for the State Legal Services Authorities to follow. These guidelines and SOP must include – the eligibility criteria, guidelines to award compensation amount, maximum permissible timeline for disbursement of compensation – with the objective of securing uniform design and implementation.
While making attempts to achieve effective implementation, it is important to address the knowledge barriers and information asymmetry, such as requirements that applications be made referring to the specific laws, that prevent survivors from accessing the schemes. Most importantly, despite the pressures on national budgets because of COVID-19, there must be continued support for anti-trafficking work, including immediate release of sanctioned funds for victim compensation to avoid a larger humanitarian crisis post the pandemic.
The author is a Member of the Rajya Sabha and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The author acknowledges the inputs provided by the Swaniti Initiative & India Working Group Against Trafficking (IWG). All views expressed by the author are personal.