Efforts by the government of India to prevent and address human trafficking are failing to improve the conditions of the sex industry in a meaningful way, in particular due to its focus on the rehabilitation of ‘rescued’ sex workers. To resist this patronising attitude toward sex work, community organisation Durbar has been working on an alternative ‘paradigm’ to counter human trafficking in Kolkata, one of India’s largest cities. Its approach rooted in community participation in the protection of sex workers is proving effective because the dignity and agency of sex workers are placed central in the organisation’s efforts, writes Jaffer Latief Najar.
“Our work related to anti-trafficking has two pillars. One is protection, the other prevention. So we are doing rescue operations as a form of protection, and after the rescue operations, we are providing them with aftercare facilities… We are doing this so that girls can be empowered [through knowledge about trafficking] and can better understand what trafficking is.”
This statement by a representative of a non-government organisation working in collaboration with the Indian government in Kolkata to combat human trafficking, particularly trafficking in the sex industry, reveals how sex workers are framed – as victims of trafficking. While human trafficking indeed remains a serious issue in Kolkata, and in the rest of India, with India’s National Crime Record Bureau registering 6,616 cases of trafficking in 2020, this approach of ‘rescuing’ victims of trafficking is doing more harm than good. This is the case particularly due to its failure to regard sex workers as agential individuals, which has led to the criminalisation of activities related to sex work, forceful rescues, physical violence, and a loss of livelihoods in a context of chronic and widespread poverty.
This focus on human trafficking has been accompanied by additional interventions like rehabilitation and ‘sensitisation’ stipulated by Indian national laws; these have been inspired by the United Nations’ framework for anti-trafficking known as the Palermo protocol of 2000. As reflected in the fact that raid and rescue operations targeting human trafficking focus solely on the sex industry (see Sangram, 2018; Walters, 2018), the representative in fact describes how sex work is conflated with human trafficking; moreover, the ‘aftercare’ that follows is rooted in the idea that sex workers should exit the sex industry given the opportunity to do so (even with their own consent). According to this paternalistic approach to the governance of human trafficking, a person’s agency to consent is irrelevant.
Resisting forced ‘resue and rehabilitation’
The targeted ‘beneficiaries’ of such anti-trafficking interventions are not without agency, however, but resent and resist these interventions. For instance, a sex worker I interviewed said:
“Sex workers see anti-trafficking actors as dhandabaaz (rookies) who do business in the name of looking after the welfare of sex workers and monitor [sex] trafficking… The government should think about how it should help sex workers gain and reclaim their dignity. We don’t need rehabilitation.”
To deal with the detrimental impact of anti-trafficking practices, community collectives in India have shown resistance to the government’s approach to sex work and have conceptualised alternative standards for regulating the industry. For instance, in Sonagachi in Kolkata where around 15,000 sex workers are situated, a collective of migrant sex workers called the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (Durbar) is engaged in anti-trafficking efforts based on such an alternative governance approach. Unlike the approach taken by the UN and Indian government, Durbar does not conflate human trafficking with either sex work or migration, focusing instead on individual consent and the effects of the migration process on livelihoods (e.g. violence, working situation, health issues, financial exclusion, etc.). It considers sex work a contractual service between consenting adults without any element of force or coercion, supporting decriminalisation of consenting adult sex work in India.
As a result, the organisation has implemented a community-led self-regulatory board (SRB) to keep an eye on new entrants to the Kolkata sex industry, especially when they are underage or have experienced violence. But this kind of monitoring assumes a very different character – the SRB focuses more on individual and community welfare.
One of the members of Durbar talked about how the SRB was formed:
“The idea of SRB arose during a conference at Bidhannagar in Kolkata. Many people from outside the city and some representing ministries attended. We presented our work on HIV prevention and other health-related issues. But the people attending the conference said that despite these efforts, we were helping in the continued entry of minors into the industry. We then took up the challenge and worked on this. Later, we decided that we should create a platform stopping minors and adults from forcefully entering into the profession”.
The SRB involves volunteer and peer sex workers who meet newly arrived individuals, make enquiries about their intention to join the trade, their relationship with employers or the person accompanying them, and examine the role of brothel owners and landlords in the process of recruitment. If it appears in Durbar’s intervention that the person is trafficked, it assists with the person’s return, typically without the interference of state agencies or partner NGOs. The peer workers accompany the person and keep in touch with them for a certain period to avoid their return to forced labour. Durbar also offers job opportunities to such persons within the collective.
This self-regulation approach is effective in identifying cases of abuse as they occur in neighbourhoods where sex work takes place, which is not the case for government interventions that may come too late. The approach has also helped community members to create a movement that counters the harmful consequences of government anti-trafficking practices. The data of a decade that I gathered from Durbar’s SRB for my present research show a declining trend of forced or trafficked cases where the organisation has intervened.
Not completely recognised by the government….
This approach of Durbar is not legally authorised by the government because India follows UN protocol guidelines and its domestic anti-trafficking intervention differs from Durbar’s focus on self-regulation. This has produced several hurdles for the members of Durbar in executing their interventions, and also limits resources. For example, a Durbar member mentioned that the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act (ITPA) prevents it from registering the SRB, as ITPA conflates trafficking with sex work, which is opposite to the approach of Durbar’s SRB. While India’s Supreme Court acknowledged the efforts of Durbar and invited Durbar to contribute to national policies on sex work and trafficking, talks with the government about the SRB’s registration have failed. This has resulted in everyday resistance against forced rescues and exclusion from welfare schemes for migrants and entire labour sectors, leaving the community to manage their affairs by interventions like SRB with limited resources.
…yet embraced on the ground
But despite such challenges, my observations of the SRB’s operations on the ground indicate that it has significant legitimacy and acceptability among community members and thus can be viewed as an effective bottom-up approach in combating human trafficking that directly assists in minimising the harm to and abuse of its members. This bottom-up approach has also helped marginalised communities such as sex workers to further develop a movement for advocating their rights and dignity, and challenge the legislations through protests and advocacy campaigns. As a substitute to the government’s approach that does not seem to be built on an understanding of the dynamics of the sex industry, this approach that is conceived and led by community itself shows the effectiveness of participatory governance and hence reflects a learning scope for an evolving critical conceptualisation of human trafficking, hybrid arrangement of anti-trafficking governance, workers’ agency, and the framing of anti-trafficking interventions.
 Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons Especially Women and Children, supplementing the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime.
 This interview was recorded as a part of my ongoing PhD research dedicated to understanding the marginalized perspectives on anti-trafficking interventions in India.
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