The government maintained overall victim identification and protection efforts, but the identification and protection for bonded laborers remained inadequate. In 2019, the government reported identifying 5,145 trafficking victims and 2,505 potential trafficking victims, an increase compared with 3,946 trafficking victims and 1,625 potential victims identified in 2018. In 2019, authorities identified 3,133 victims in labor trafficking, including 1,549 in bonded labor, 2,012 in sex trafficking, and did not report the type of trafficking of the 2,505 potential victims identified. Ninety-four percent of trafficking victims identified were Indian, approximately 57 percent were adults, and 62 percent were female. Despite some estimates of eight million Indians in bonded labor, the Ministry of Labor and Employment reported to Parliament in 2019 that the government had only identified and released 313,687 since 1976. Moreover, due to lack of law enforcement efforts against traffickers, one NGO working in 10 states reported that more than 60 percent of released victims were subjected to bonded labor again following their release. Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, and Uttar Pradesh states, where some authorities may engage more actively against bonded labor, accounted for the majority of bonded labor victims identified, with 130,249, and 964 victims identified respectively, overall accounting for 87 percent of the country’s total identification of bonded labor victims. The MHA created standard procedures for trafficking victim identification in 2009, but it was unclear how many states had adopted them. State revenue officers had the responsibility for identifying bonded labor victims, yet NGOs identified most cases. Poor inter-state coordination between state government agencies impeded trafficking investigations and victims’ ability to obtain services, including participation in civil and criminal cases in their home states. The Ministry of Women and Child Development (MWCD) continued to support some broad national child protection mechanisms, including a hotline for children, and a system to identify missing children and remove them from their exploitation or situation. During the reporting year, state and local officials focused resources to contain the spread of COVID-19, which subsequently reduced some trafficking “raid and rescue” operations. However, media reported railway and transit police increased patrolling of transportation hubs to prevent and intercept perpetrators and victims of human trafficking in 2020.
The government did not report how many trafficking victims it assisted or referred to care. The government had shelter and services for child and adult female trafficking victims, although the quality, consistency, and availability varied. Police could refer all adult and child trafficking victims, except bonded labor victims, to state judiciaries and CWCs to determine appropriate care. CWCs generally returned child trafficking victims to their parents, some of whom had subjected their children to trafficking. When CWCs did refer child trafficking victims to care, it placed them in privately run shelters, government-run juvenile justice homes (some of which housed child victims with children accused of crimes), or government-run women and children’s homes, some of which allowed routine abuse in previous reporting periods. While judges could reportedly refer bonded labor victims to care, there were no reports officials did so in practice. Judges could require all adult trafficking victims identified under the ITPA to stay in government- or NGO-run shelters for up to three weeks, and victims who were part of an ongoing legal case as a witness or victim could not leave shelters without a magistrate’s order. The government did not operate or fund shelters that could accommodate adult males.
Government-run and -funded shelters remained insufficient, facing serious shortages of space, financial resources, and trained personnel. NGOs relied primarily on donor contributions, although some received government funds. The disbursal of government funding to NGOs was sometimes delayed for multiple years. In 2020, an amendment to the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act that prevented the sub-granting of foreign contributions from the original Indian NGO recipient to other NGOs came into force, preventing collaboration and coordination and severely affecting their activities, including anti-trafficking NGOs. MWCD continued to provide state governments with funding for NGO- and government-run shelter and rehabilitation through the Ujjawala program for female sex trafficking victims (operating 136 shelters, compared with 134 in 2019) and the Swadhar Greh program for women in difficult circumstances (operating 417 shelters, compared to 514 in 2018). The central government allocated 250 million INR ($3.42 million) to the Swadhar Greh and Ujjawala programs in the 2020-2021 budget but did not include separate allocations for the 2021-2022 budget. MWCD ran One-Stop Centers (OSCs) for female victims of all crimes, including sex trafficking. As of December 2020, there were 700 OSCs operating across India, compared with 506 in 2019. It did not report if the centers assisted any trafficking victims, and some NGOs previously reported the centers were ineffective and difficult to access.
Media, NGOs, and authorities continued to document a lack of oversight and negligence in government-run, government-funded, and privately run shelters that sometimes resulted in abuse and trafficking of residents. In several cases, such homes continued to operate despite significant gaps in mandatory reporting and allegations of abuse, at times due to alleged political connections. CWCs were designed to routinely monitor victim shelters and provide updates on victims’ cases, although their efficacy varied across states. CWCs promoted interagency collaboration to prevent trafficking during the pandemic. The National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights’ (NCPCR) audit of 9,500 Child Care Institutions (CCIs) during the previous reporting period revealed 40 percent lacked adequate measures to prevent abuse of children and one-third lacked registration and therefore operated with little or no oversight. Moreover, it reported CCIs subjected the majority of child residents, including trafficking victims, to corporal punishment, substandard-food, inadequate medical and legal assistance, and did not provide education or skills training. In response to this audit, the government closed 539 CCIs between 2018 and 2019 and registered others but did not report whether they filed any criminal charges against the owners and where they referred the residents. In February 2020 the Minister of Women and Child Development directed senior state officials to inspect all CCIs and implement the required monitoring and evaluation, including regular review of abuse complaints. However, the government did not report the outcome of this directive, and due to the pandemic, social workers throughout the country were frequently unable to contact trafficking victims in shelter homes or conduct effective evaluations. In addition, reportedly due to the fear of transmission of COVID-19, some CCIs returned children to their families, in some cases as a result of government pressure. The NCPCR sent a letter to eight state governments directing them to reunite children with their families as a measure to halt COVID-19 transmission. In Tamil Nadu, an NGO reported approximately 56,000 children lived in shelter homes in March 2020 but as of August 2020 only 6,000 lived in shelter homes. In October 2020, the Supreme Court required NCPCR to provide more information on their directive as CWCs were the only body authorized to order reunification of children with their families and raised concerns the children may have been returned to abusive situations.
Ujjawala and Swadhar Greh homes had similar levels of non-registration. Due to a reported loophole in the law, if the government did not act on a shelter’s application in a prescribed timeframe, the organization was automatically licensed. Whenever a license application is accepted, the home must go through several inspections, but it was unclear whether authorities conducted these inspections in practice. Allegedly, some corrupt officials purposely missed the licensing deadline to allow inadequate but politically connected organizations to gain licensing. In the states that allowed audits of Ujjawala and Swadhar Greh homes, previous audits documented many homes violated minimum hygiene and safety standards, did not provide psycho-social support or educational opportunities, and operated without proper registration. Moreover, in some instances the shelters functioned as hostels and charged non-victim residents for accommodation. Due to unsafe conditions and abuse by caretakers, authorities reported multiple cases in which residents, including children, ran away from these shelters during previous reporting periods. MWCD did not report an update on its drafting of a child protection policy to prevent abuse in government-run and -funded shelter homes the Supreme Court had ordered it to create in September 2018.
Four states had previously reported their use of child-friendly courtrooms or procedures, including some that allowed victims to testify via video conference. During the reporting year, courts reportedly expanded video conference capabilities due to the pandemic, although the scale of expansion was unknown. In February 2021, two child trafficking victims testified via a video conference as a part of a measure to expedite trafficking trials and clear up a backlog of cases; instead of traveling 600 miles, the boys went to a local court 25 miles from their village. In other cases, inadequate implementation of victim protection measures and legal assistance provisions, including witness protection, led victims to refuse to participate in trials. Moreover, NGOs reported that judges closed many cases because the government did not provide adequate financial assistance to enable victims to participate in trials. While victims could obtain restitution from their traffickers in criminal cases, courts rarely awarded it. Judges could order compensation to trafficking victims through a variety of government schemes, usually funded by the central government and administered at the state level, but rarely did so. NGO analysis of historical government crime data showed that among 38,503 trafficking victims identified between 2010 and 2018, judges only proactively awarded compensation to 102 (less than one percent) although there have been some minor improvements in compensation in more recent years. In addition, state and district legal offices did not regularly inform trafficking victims that they were eligible to receive compensation. When they did payments were often delayed due to lack of state funds. However, during the reporting period, the District Legal Services Authority (DLSA) in Kolkata awarded 876,410 INR ($12,000) to a survivor of human trafficking, the highest compensation awarded by a DLSA in West Bengal. The DLSA awarded that amount based on the pending POCSO cases, the absence of interim compensation, the duration of the upcoming trial, the psychological effects of the crime, and the victim’s future educational pursuits. While authorities have only awarded 14 victims compensation in West Bengal since 2012, 11 of those decisions were between September 2019 and March 2020 and the amounts awarded were significantly higher than in previous years. Authorities issued an additional 90 compensation orders after March 2020, although payment was still pending at the end of the reporting period. Some states, as allowed in the central government’s 2016 bonded labor scheme, controlled how victims could use this compensation, such as requiring them to put it into annuity schemes. The Kolkata High Court ruled against West Bengal’s policy of limiting victims to small, monthly withdrawals over 10 years.
The central government funds a program through which district officials identified bonded labor victims and provided them with release certificates that provided access to non-monetary assistance and, upon conviction of their trafficker, to compensation. In 2016, the government amended the program to include female sex trafficking and child forced labor victims as recipients and mandated local district authorities to provide immediate monetary assistance up to 20,000 INR ($274) to a victim within 24 hours of identification, regardless of the status of the related court case. The release of the overall compensation amounts (between 100,000 INR [$1,370] and 300,000 INR [$4,110] based on the victim’s demographics) remained contingent upon conviction of the trafficker or conclusion of magisterial processes, which could take several years. The government did not adequately implement any stage of this program, and when states did implement the program, it was often due to sustained NGO advocacy. Some states had SOPs to address bonded labor cases. The Delhi government had an SOP to rescue bonded labor victims. In March 2020, Karnataka released a comprehensive SOP on human trafficking in collaboration with civil society organizations that covers sex trafficking, victim identification, forced child begging, bonded labor, and child labor. In July 2020, Tamil Nadu issued an SOP to address bonded labor among migrant workers. The state government also directed District Collectors to form vigilance committees and monitor the welfare of bonded laborers who had been removed from their exploitation. The government did not report whether any other states had bonded labor SOPs.
The government did not report how many release certificates it provided during the reporting period, compared with approximately 2,300 provided between March 2018 and March 2019. The issuance of mandatory release certificates varied greatly between states, but in many states, officials did not issue release certificates without significant advocacy from high profile NGOs, which could take years. NGOs reported that compensation schemes were too slow in providing victims with funding – survivors waited years to testify in court to determine how much they would be awarded, and state authorities at times delayed payment due to limited funds. During the pandemic, these shortcomings were exacerbated. According to one NGO, state authorities rarely classified children as victims of bonded labor due to what appeared to be inconsistent testimony and a lack of identity documents or proof of enslavement; ultimately this denied child victims government compensation. In Tamil Nadu, by contrast, some NGOs reported success collaborating with the government and securing release certificates, although some smaller NGOs had less success. Authorities continued to misidentify bonded labor or treat it as labor exploitation, child labor, or minimum wage violations, and not provide victims the mandatory 20,000 INR ($274) owed upon identification. Some police were unaware these protections applied to trafficking victims whom traffickers had trapped with other forms of force or coercion. During the previous reporting period, Arunachal Pradesh authorities refused to recognize or provide mandatory release certifications and compensation to bonded laborers identified by NGOs because it claimed it had eradicated bonded labor in 1998. In May 2020, the Supreme Court ordered the state government of Bihar to remove 187 bonded laborers from exploitation in a brick kiln and issue release certificates. The Bihar government stated it was unable to help the victims due to the influx of internal migrant workers returning to Bihar from other states as a result of the pandemic-related lockdown. The central government reported it had adequate funding to provide initial compensation to all identified bonded laborers, and the 2016 scheme required each state to have a permanent fund with at least 1 million INR ($13,690) at all times for district magistrates to use exclusively for bonded labor victims. However, Bihar previously claimed the central government had not reimbursed them for prior bonded labor compensation and many states did not have the established fund, which delayed compensation. The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) ordered law enforcement and district officials to provide release certificates to bonded labor victims. While NHRC was often effective in securing release certificates when NGOs or bonded labor victims requested its assistance, it required significant time and persistent follow-up from NGOs. Although the NHRC could issue orders to state and local officials to provide release certificates to individuals, there was no penalty for noncompliance. Due to a lack of proactive victim identification, the widespread tendency to handle bonded labor cases administratively in lieu of criminal prosecution, and stalled bonded labor prosecutions, victims infrequently received full compensation. In Telangana state, the government did not provide full compensation to any of 1,174 bonded labor victims removed from exploitation from 2012-2019 because it did not convict any traffickers under the BLSA. However, in June 2020, 12 bonded labor victims in Telangana received full compensation two years after they were removed from exploitation. While the 2016 scheme also required states to provide non-cash benefits, including employable skills training, provision of such services remained weak or nonexistent.
Foreign victims had the same access to shelter and services as Indian nationals. Government policy on foreign victims dictated their return to their country of origin at the earliest possible time. Authorities detained foreign sex trafficking victims in shelters until deportation, and both repatriation of foreign victims seeking to return home and deportation of victims could take years due to bureaucratic constraints. In July 2020, a group of Nepali trafficking victims were stranded in a Manipur shelter due to a lack of clear procedures to facilitate their repatriation. Some officials refused to repatriate victims until they had provided testimony in prosecutions against their traffickers. The government continued to review its 2015 memorandum of understanding with the Government of Bangladesh on identification and repatriation of Bangladeshi trafficking victims. The lengthy and complex approval system forced some Bangladeshi victims to languish in Indian shelters for years before repatriation. Media reported 180 Bangladeshi sex trafficking victims were awaiting repatriation at various shelters in West Bengal, many of whom have waited years for the conclusion of the 15-step approval process. The government provided some funding to NGOs to repatriate child trafficking victims but did not offer financial assistance for repatriation of adults. Indian embassies abroad provided assistance to Indian citizens identified as trafficking victims. MHA facilitated repatriation of Indian women in distress located in the Middle East, including trafficking victims, through the Indian Community Welfare Fund. Six Indian embassies abroad, primarily in the Gulf, had shelters that could temporarily house female migrant workers with serious indicators of forced labor. Suspected trafficking victims in the two embassy shelters in Oman previously reported the shelters did not provide adequate food, basic amenities, or allow the victims to contact family.
Authorities did not always effectively utilize procedures to screen for trafficking among vulnerable populations and arrested, fined, penalized, and deported some adult and child trafficking victims for unlawful acts traffickers compelled them to commit. Penalization of trafficking victims was not systematic, but penalization most often occurred against sex trafficking victims for immigration violations and prostitution offenses. The government required Indians who received a visa from a foreign government indicating the person was a trafficking victim in the foreign country or was a family member of a victim to provide documentation of the trafficking experience in order to renew their passports or travel. In 2016, the government began to include a stamp in the passports of some recipients of the foreign government’s visas, for both trafficking victims and their eligible family members, identifying them as trafficking victims involved in a particular investigation or civil or criminal case; this practice continued in 2020 with the government including a stamped paper attached to the recipient’s passport. While the stamp requested authorities permit the visa holder to travel without hindrance, some NGOs familiar with this practice noted it made some victims fearful of reprisal and penalization and served as a deterrent to victims interacting with authorities.