Print edition : June 30, 2006

CHILD RIGHTS ACTIVISTS demand that the draft under consideration be made into law. - P. V. SIVAKUMAR

The proposed Offences Against Children Bill, 2005, attempts to address the legal loopholes through which child traffickers slip.

MALA is barely 11. Clad in tattered clothes, hands and feet grimy with continuous rummaging through garbage in and around New Delhi railway station, she is often subjected to beating by her `uncle' for not picking up enough after a day's work. She is often forced to go begging to compensate for the deficit. Mala and her nine-year-old brother Sonu go through life in the same mechanical way day in and day out. Nobody knows where the children came from, or who their parents are. The children themselves say nothing except that they are "looked after" by their chacha (uncle), who brought them to the city from the village after a big flood. Try probing them more about the uncle and they scamper away.

Mala and Sonu are among thousands of such children who can be seen roaming the streets begging, asking for alms in the name of shani devta, rummaging at garbage dumps, or selling cheap books and other things at traffic signals. One also comes across small children doing back-breaking chores at dhabas, restaurants and hotels as domestic servants. Has anyone ever stopped to wonder who these children are, where they come from, or why they are here? They rarely beg or sell wares for themselves. The awful truth is that children are bought and sold like commodities and used for commercial purposes, making cheap profits and facilitating illegal acts.

Child-trafficking, traditionally associated with only trafficking for commercial sex, is growing fast in India. The authorities, apparently unaware of the magnitude of the problem, have made no attempt to mitigate it. No wonder then that there is no reliable data available on the issue in India.

According to the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), every year an average of 44, 476 children go missing. Of these 11,008 are never traced. The NHRC, in its report "Action Research on Trafficking in Women and Children in India" (2002-03), suggests that many of the missing children are not really missing but are instead trafficked. Most end up in adoption, marriage, labour markets or working in the entertainment industry, of which sex tourism is the most recent aspect. Unfortunately, if activists are to be believed, many victims are pushed into this murky world by their own parents or guardians.

According to figures provided by the National Crime Records Bureau, in 2004, as many as 2,265 cases of kidnapping and abduction of children qualified as forms of trafficking and were reported to the police. Of these, 1,593 cases were of kidnapping for marriage, 414 were for illicit sex, 92 for unlawful activity, 101 for prostitution and the rest for various other things like slavery, begging and even selling body parts. Most of these children (72 per cent) were between 16 and18 years of age. Twenty-five per cent were children aged 11-15 years. This is the tip of the iceberg; the malaise runs much deeper and many cases go unreported.

India's poor track record in this regard has drawn flack from the United States government. Its Trafficking in Persons Report (June 2005) described India as a "source, transit, and destination country for women, men, and children trafficked for the purposes of sexual and labour exploitation". It also criticised India for its lackadaisical attitude to implementing laws.

The report said, "The Government of India does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking... the quality and magnitude of the government's anti-trafficking response, particularly in the law enforcement area, are seriously insufficient relative to India's huge trafficking in persons problem." The U.S. report placed India on its Tier 2 Watch List for a second consecutive year "for its inability to show evidence of increased efforts to address trafficking in persons, particularly its lack of progress in forming a national law enforcement response to inter-State and transnational trafficking crimes."

While one may or may not agree with the premises on which the U.S. department made these observations, one cannot argue with the lack of comprehensive law on human trafficking in India. According to a report prepared by HAQ: Centre for Child Rights, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) spearheading the national Campaign Against Child Trafficking, the "absence of law and inability to register a case as an offence of trafficking make it difficult to assess the magnitude of the problem as well as maintain statistics for investigation, arrest, prosecutions and convictions in the context of human trafficking".

There are no laws that specifically target child-trafficking. Child abuse cases are handled under various sections of the Indian Penal Code , which are laws meant for adults. Commercial sex-trafficking offences are handled under the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act. Labour-trafficking offences are handled under the Child Labour Act for those hazardous industries in which child labour is considered an offence. There is no law prohibiting employment of children in work outside the definition of "hazardous".

As a result, many cases of trafficking are not booked by the police. "Begging or giving alms or selling wares at traffic signals is an offence, but has even one single conviction taken place so far?" asks Praveen Bhatt, secretary, HAQ: Centre for Child Rights.

One positive development in this regard has been the preparation of a draft by the Ministry of Women and Child Development. The Offences Against Children Bill, 2005,in circulation since January this year, is hailed by child rights activists as a landmark document; it is the first time that a law specifically aimed at protecting children's rights has been under debate.

"So far there was not a single law aimed at safeguarding children and protecting them against abuse. Offences against children were so far booked under laws under the IPC, which at times failed to result in prosecution and conviction simply for the reason that crimes involving children need to be handled with different tools," said Rajmangal Prasad, director, Pratidhi, another NGO active in the field of child rights. According to him, if the proposed draft does become law, it will go a long way to check child trafficking because specific sections in the draft deal with precisely this issue.

Furthermore, the definition of trafficking goes beyond trafficking for commercial sex. The proposed document has specific sections dealing with various offences against children, including sale/transfer, sexual assault, sexual/physical/emotional abuse, commercial sexual exploitation, child pornography, grooming for sexual purpose, incest, corporal punishment, bullying and economic exploitation. The document makes it clear that provisions in this law will be in addition to other legislation within the IPC and the Juvenile Justice Act because these laws do not separately cover persons who commit crimes against children and some other categories of children under various circumstances of abuse, exploitation and neglect.

Child rights activists are calling for the draft under consideration to be made into a law so that the suffering children have some hope. As the first paragraph of the document states, "although India has the second largest child population in the world, there is no separate legislation to deal with offences against children". It is high time it was enacted.

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