The AHT ecosystem needs to move beyond treating survivors as victims and rather empower and create survivor leadership models wherein they can grow and influence the ecosystem
Estimates by social impact organisations suggest that at any given time there are more than 25 million trafficked people in the country. Human trafficking can take many forms, be it forced labour, bonded labour, sexual slavery, organ harvesting, or the commercial sexual exploitation of women and children. In India, the underprivileged and minority groups are often at the highest risk of exploitation due to factors such as extreme poverty, low levels of education and lack of viable livelihood opportunities. The problem of human trafficking is a multidimensional one and, to be effectively addressed, it requires coordination across a spectrum of stakeholders like the Government, industry, social enterprises, civil society, non-Government organisations (NGOs), the local community and media. Over the last few decades, organisations in India have increasingly focused on combating trafficking, with a stress on safeguarding the most vulnerable, through engagement with Government bodies, focusing on rehabilitation of survivors, providing them with livelihood opportunities and sensitising community stakeholders. These efforts, however, are isolated in nature, highlighting the need to create an enabling environment for implementation agencies to collaborate, scale and sustain their efforts.
Key gaps and challenges in the anti-human trafficking ecosystem: The anti-human trafficking (AHT) solution ecosystem in India predominantly focuses on the delivery of services to survivors, as opposed to building, strengthening and actively addressing gaps in the existing AHT solution systems. A recent study by Sattva included a survey of 59 AHT organisations across 16 States, along with 120 institutional stakeholders and 52 survivor groups to identify gaps in the AHT ecosystem. The study found that while 96 per cent of the surveyed organisations focused on delivering immediate rescue, care and support services to the survivors, only 42 per cent focused on building, strengthening, and actively addressing gaps in the existing AHT systems. Thus, there is a strong need for a balanced approach between these two functions of AHT programmes, with the disconnect often leading to structural and systematic gaps and challenges.
The recovery system can also often be disorganised and a lack of viable livelihood opportunities, holistic reintegration mechanisms and social stigma can lead to re-trafficking of survivors. Even though there is increasing collaboration between organisations across various intervention types in the ecosystem, most stakeholders continue to operate in silos with little coordination across State and national borders. Due to the lack of collaboration, implementation organisations also report having a high dependence on funders.
The study suggested that other critical gaps have crept in across the ecosystem due to a lack of tailored interventions at the initial stages of trafficking prevention, along with an absence of robust tracking mechanisms leading to information asymmetry across the ecosystem when it comes to the scope or scale of the problem. The absence of standard procedures to guide rescue operations, the lack of logistical and safety precautions in place for field staff and the aforementioned information asymmetry often put both the rescue team and the rescued survivor at risk.
Additionally, an overall lack of awareness associated with legal processes and challenges in engaging with local police can often result in only a small percentage of survivors receiving legal support, and results in an overall poor rate of convictions.
Another critical gap in the ecosystem pivots around the low capacity of rehabilitation homes — this is magnified when juxtaposed against the increasing need for rehabilitation both in transit and within communities for survivors, followed along with targeted quality mental health counselling and medical interventions.
Solving the gaps in the AHT landscape: Keeping in mind the structural and systematic nature of the gaps in the ecosystem, there is a primary need for strengthening the capacity and engagement of implementing organisations and other stakeholders in the overall AHT ecosystem. It is critical to start working towards collaboration and coordination, given the expanding nexus of traffickers, especially within the context of emergencies like the COVID-19 pandemic.
These traffickers can range from opportunistic individuals to sophisticated criminal organisations with multi-jurisdictional activity. Combating them effectively needs a multidisciplinary approach that can influence larger ecosystems, social policy and drive legislative change while strengthening the capacity of grassroots organisations.
The study finds that the organisations with funded AHT programmes need to widen their reach and partnership beyond local authorities and begin engagement at the State or national level. These efforts need to be in collaboration with organisations working across different parts of the survivor life cycle and geographies. On-ground organisations are often burdened with various other challenges relating to implementation and need support from stakeholders across the ecosystem to design holistic interventions which consider all survivor needs.
Collaborative efforts and measures need to be taken at the systemic, programmatic and delivery level to ensure a comprehensive response to human trafficking. Across stakeholders, the creation of common data repositories and investments in centralised tracking systems is an important step that could be a means to prevent re-trafficking.
This could be coupled with a means to incorporate feedback mechanisms, wherein survivors provide feedback to the implementing organisations on support received from Government officers and access to Government schemes.
Overall, there is also an inherent need to build the capacity of the grassroots implementing organisations to solve the gaps within the human ecosystem. Revisiting how interventions are driven, moving from an individual leader-led approach to a more effective distribution of responsibilities, along with designing contextualised interventions for the prevention of human trafficking with external audit and evaluations, can be helpful.
Moreover, creating networks of organisations working in different States and networks that are funder-led across areas of intervention will allow greater collaboration, and allow them to leverage cross-learnings and encourage knowledge sharing. Aside from strengthening legal action and processes, funder-led approaches for financial aid or capacity building for NGOs can lead to immense eventual value for survivors, be it through rehabilitation, medical care, or the provision of mental healthcare.
Fundamentally though, an increased focus on survivor and community-led and community-centric solutions is imperative. The Indian AHT ecosystem needs to move beyond treating survivors as victims and rather empower and create survivor leadership models wherein the victims can grow within the ecosystem and influence it.
Dang and Reddy are research consultants while Puri is research associate, Sattva Consulting.The views expressed are personal.