Two months ago, the country woke to the news of the gruesome murder of 16-year-old Soni Kumari. She had been employed as a domestic help in an affluent neighbourhood in Delhi.
After she dared to ask for wages, she was dismembered and dumped in a drain. She had been trafficked from Jharkhand with the glitzy promise of a job and education.
After the usual arm wringing on social media, Soni Kumari faded into the planned obsolescence of a hashtag.
Soni was reported missing by her family more than 3 years ago, she is not the first nor will she be the last child to simply disappear in India. According to the NCRB report 2016, 8 children go missing in India every hour. Barring some act of god or some as yet undiscovered physics, these children are not disappearing into thin air, they are taken. India clocked in 8,132 cases of trafficking in 2016, most of these are children who are trafficked, sent to placement agencies and exploited for the remainder of their lives. And these are the official figures. The unreported number is far higher. Trafficking is the largest organised crime in the world earning more than $150.2 billion every year.
This is in effect modern slavery that the state has hitherto turned a blind eye toward. However, recently the government has taken action to stop the unchecked and horrifying rise of this crime. A nearly empty Lok Sabha recently saw the Trafficking of Persons (Prevention, Protection and Rehabilitation) Bill, 2018 debated. The Bill championed by Maneka Gandhi in Lok Sabha is the first step in addressing the ugly root of trafficking; its economics. It seizes properties and bank accounts associated with this evil industry.
The law also addresses one of the most overlooked segments of any law: the victim. It provides for rehabilitation and skill development and education. For the first time, the law defines rehabilitation as a statutory right for the victim. And as we prepare for the Bill to be shouted out in the Rajya Sabha, it is important that we realise the monumental nature of this law. The Government of India is finally sitting up and taking notice of children like Soni Kumari. This law, should it pass, could prevent more children from the awful fate that befell her.
The Bill has seen its fair share of detractors in the Lok Sabha. The accusations range from the Bill being hurriedly formulated to targeting those adults who voluntarily participate in sex work. While both these accusations are without merit, the Bill is not an all-encompassing piece of legislature and it may not dissolve the entire ecosystem that enables trafficking overnight. But it is a start. Soni Kumari is proof that those most vulnerable cannot wait for the utopia where our legislators can craft the perfect law.
Soni Kumari’s gruesome story caught our attention because of the brutality of her murder, but there are thousands of children like her we avert our eyes from. We walk past little girls who are caring for children barely younger than them, we ignore children covered in grime working in automotive repair shops, we have gotten used to too young faces in massage parlours and women working inhuman hours for a pittance and it is precisely this tolerance of this exploitation and apathy that led to Soni Kumari’s murder. That has led to thousands of young children being in the slavery of some form or the other, with no hope of freedom.
But with the Trafficking of Persons Bill, India can finally start dismantling the structures that profit off their suffering and bondage.