The government did not report law enforcement data during the reporting period, rendering it impossible to compare efforts with the previous year. Indian law criminalized sex trafficking and some forms of labor trafficking. Section 370 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) criminalized trafficking offenses that involved exploitation that included any act of physical exploitation or any form of sexual exploitation, slavery or practices similar to slavery, and servitude. The law did not explicitly address labor trafficking. The recruitment of children younger than age 18 by non-state armed groups was not criminally prohibited. Section 370 prescribed penalties ranging from seven to 10 years’ imprisonment and a fine for offenses involving an adult victim, and 10 years to life imprisonment and a fine for those involving a child victim; these penalties were sufficiently stringent and, with respect to sex trafficking, commensurate with those prescribed for other serious crimes, such as kidnapping. Inconsistent with international law, Section 370 required a demonstration of force, fraud, or coercion to constitute a child sex trafficking offense, and therefore did not criminalize all forms of child sex trafficking. However, Sections 372 and 373 of the IPC criminalized the exploitation of children through prostitution without requiring a demonstration of such means, thereby addressing this gap. These sections prescribed penalties of up to 10 years’ imprisonment and a fine, which were also sufficiently stringent and commensurate with those prescribed for other serious crimes, such as kidnapping. Section 370 criminalized government officials’ involvement in human trafficking and prescribed penalties up to life imprisonment and a fine. Bonded labor was specifically criminalized in the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, which prescribed sufficiently stringent penalties of up to five years’ imprisonment. The Bonded Labor System (Abolition) Act (BLSA) prescribed penalties of up to three years’ imprisonment, which were not sufficiently stringent. The Juvenile Justice Act and other sections of the IPC criminalized many forms of forced labor; however, these provisions were unevenly enforced, and some of their prescribed penalties were not sufficiently stringent, allowing for only fines or short prison sentences. The government frequently used the Immoral Traffic Prevention Act (ITPA) and various provisions of the IPC to prosecute sex trafficking, which prescribed penalties that were sufficiently stringent and commensurate with other serious crimes, such as kidnapping. In July 2018, the lower house of Parliament passed the Trafficking in Persons (Prevention, Protection, and Rehabilitation) Bill. Some NGOs noted that the draft Trafficking in Persons Bill demonstrated that the government understood the trafficking problem, was aware of the gaps in the existing response to trafficking, and was willing to address them in a coordinated way. The bill lapsed while pending in the upper house of Parliament and did not pass during the reporting period.
The government did not report anti-trafficking law enforcement data during the reporting period. The National Crimes Record Bureau (NCRB) did not issue the 2017 Crime in India Report due to a change in methodology that was intended to increase the amount of data collected, including on trafficking cases. Media reported the government initiated 11 trafficking investigations involving at least 52 suspected traffickers (nine cases of sex trafficking, one of forced labor, and one case where the type of alleged trafficking was unknown), concluded six investigations and prosecutions from previous years, and convicted 19 traffickers. Sentences for convicted traffickers ranged from probation to life imprisonment. Five of the six completed cases involved sex trafficking and resulted in the conviction of 16 traffickers and the acquittal of one suspect; the sixth case, for bonded labor, resulted in conviction of three traffickers. The Delhi Commission for Women reported that 15 prosecutions were pending trial at the end of 2018; it was unclear if there was overlap between these cases and trafficking cases reported by media. During the previous reporting period, the government released the 2016 Crime in India Report, which reported investigation of 5,217 trafficking cases, completion of prosecution in 587 cases, conviction of traffickers in 163 cases, and acquittal of individuals in 424 cases. It separately reported 114 investigations, 13 case prosecutions, and three convictions for bonded labor under the BLSA. The acquittal rate for trafficking cases was 72 percent in 2016. Media reported that the police filed First Information Reports (FIRs) in additional trafficking cases during the reporting period, although it was unclear if they were actively investigating these cases. NGOs continued to comment that available law enforcement data did not reflect the large scale of human trafficking in India, as police did not always file FIRs to officially register a complaint and settled many other cases at the complaint stage. Some authorities in West Bengal and Jharkhand allegedly ordered police to register trafficking cases as “missing persons” to reduce the number of trafficking cases in official statistics. NGOs also stated that law enforcement efforts, especially against bonded labor, remained low compared to the scale of the problem, and some police dissuaded labor trafficking victims from pursuing charges against their employers. NGOs noted several states showed some political will to address bonded labor abuses with improved awareness of the issue.
NGOs reported the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) established a new Women Safety Division and conducted police trainings and judicial collegiums related to trafficking. AHTUs served as the primary investigative force for human trafficking crimes. The government did not report how many AHTUs operated during the reporting period, compared to 264 AHTUs in the previous reporting period. However, some AHTUs lacked clear mandates, were not solely dedicated to trafficking, and sometimes received requests for assistance after a delay of several months, which limited the effectiveness of investigations. In a few cases, police reportedly released alleged sex traffickers immediately on bail and prioritized investigation of other crimes. An NGO reported some district magistrates mediated cases of bonded labor to secure back wages for bonded laborers in lieu of referring suspects for criminal prosecution. Court backlogs, inadequate preparation, lack of funding, and a lack of prioritization of trafficking delayed cases, increased the length of trials, and sometimes resulted in acquittals. Some police training centers included anti-trafficking training in their regular curriculum. State and local governments partnered with NGOs and international organizations to train police, prosecutors, and judicial officers on human trafficking.
A lack of full accountability for misconduct and corruption continued at various levels of government, contributing to widespread impunity. NGOs reported that in a number of instances police refused to register FIRs for cases in which officials were the alleged perpetrators. Unofficial village caste councils were reported to pressure lower caste female sex trafficking victims not to pursue criminal cases. In the past, some law enforcement officers reportedly received bribes from sex trafficking establishments and sexual services from victims in exchange for alerting the traffickers of forthcoming raids, and there was no indication this practice had ceased. Police initiated one investigation into a sex trafficking ring that allegedly involved an official, and the investigation was ongoing at the close of the reporting period. Some Indian immigration officials in New Delhi and Mumbai reportedly accepted bribes to allow traffickers to transport Nepali women to the Gulf or Malaysia without proper documentation, where some women were victims of forced labor. During the reporting period, several junior police officers in Kerala alleged forced labor by senior officers. The Chief Minister vowed to end the practice, and authorities temporarily transferred one official but did not file formal charges or take action against the other accused.
While serious challenges in oversight of government-run and government funded-shelters continued during the year, some of these cases drew the Supreme Court’s attention to the issue, and NGOs reported some subsequent positive actions by some state governments. Lack of investigations into suspected trafficking crimes and broader physical and sexual abuse of trafficking victims at government-run and government-funded shelters due to widespread negligence created an atmosphere of impunity for shelter employees and government officials to engage in trafficking. Victims alleged in a few cases government officials facilitated trafficking and, in three cases were clients of shelter residents exploited in sex trafficking. In one government-funded shelter for victims of child labor and abandonment, at least five girls died after sex trafficking, and traffickers buried them on the shelter’s premises; victims alleged both government and NGO officials facilitated the sex trafficking and were among the clients of the victims at that shelter. A report commissioned by the Bihar state government noted abuse “varying in forms and degrees of intensity” was reported to be prevalent in almost all 110 government-funded women and child care institutions surveyed, and the report noted “grave concerns” in 17 institutions that required immediate attention. NGOs commended the Bihar government for undertaking the study and allowing the investigator full authority and independence to report on all institutions in the state. The Bihar state government initially investigated some of the allegations, but the Supreme Court called the government’s overall inaction on the cases “very shameful” and noted the state had been “very soft” and “very selective” in investigating alleged perpetrators. However, the Bihar state government did arrest the husband of a local political leader implicated in one of the shelter cases and took over the operations of all shelters in the state. In November, due to the pace of investigations into the other cases, the Supreme Court ordered the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to take over investigation of the additional 16 shelters in Bihar with the “gravest concerns” of abuse, in addition to the shelter it had already begun investigating. As of January 2019, the CBI had initiated investigations into nine of the 17 homes, and the Supreme Court was monitoring the cases. Media and NGOs reported other cases of abuse, including trafficking, in other government-run, government-funded, and private shelters across in four other states.
In at least two cases allegedly involving sex trafficking in government-funded shelters, lawyers and media reported government officials impeded the investigation. In Deoria, despite 20 letters from the district government to cease sending vulnerable women and children to a shelter operating without proper registration, three police superintendents sent at least 405 girls to the shelter over two years, where shelter employees exploited many in sex trafficking. Furthermore, a home department official reportedly tried to investigate the shelter but received an order from a superior not to do so. In response, the state government requested a report from all shelter homes in the state, initiated investigations, and arrested the owner of the shelter. In a separate case in Agra, October 2018, a judge convicted the government-run shelter warden with a sentence of life imprisonment for selling shelter residents into sex trafficking, some of whom police had initially removed from sex trafficking and sent to the shelter for rehabilitation. The initial police lead on the investigation, however, had alleged the involvement of multiple traffickers, but authorities transferred him before he named additional suspects. A senior government official claimed the warden had avoided investigation for 10 years due to political connections. After the issuance of the Bihar report and Deoria case, the Supreme Court encouraged the National Commission for Women and state-level institutions to audit the status of shelter homes across India, and Uttar Pradesh issued interim guidelines for the management of shelter homes and ordered the inspection of all homes in the state. The Delhi government also initiated a review of all of its shelter homes during the year. The government did not report the outcomes of any of these inspections, or if any other states undertook such inspections.