Kolkata: West Bengal's State Legal Services Authority (SLSA) is unable to compensate survivors of heinous crimes such as trafficking, rape and acid attack, as mandated, because it has only Rs 5,000 left in its account. This was revealed to the Calcutta High Court by an SLSA lawyer on July 30, 2021 while it was hearing a case related to the non-payment of a Rs 4-lakh compensation awarded to a trafficking survivor in 2019.

The petitioner's case is no exception. Consider the following instances:

  • In August 2021, 29 survivors of human trafficking wrote to chief minister Mamata Banerjee complaining about non-payment of compensation. The District Legal Services Authority (DLSA) in North-24 Parganas and South-24 Parganas had awarded all of them sums ranging from Rs 1 lakh to Rs 6.5 lakh. Though five were ordered compensation in 2019, 16 in 2020-21 and eight in 2021, none of them has been paid yet. The letter pointed out that the SLSA was claiming fund shortage to explain the delay in payment.
  • Another non-governmental organisation (NGO) working with trafficking survivors, which wishes to remain anonymous, told IndiaSpend that 66 trafficking survivors related to the 25 cases that it monitored in West Bengal were awarded compensation since 2017. However, only one has been paid. Another 13 survivors have been awarded interim compensation pertaining to nine cases. Only two had been paid till end-August.
  • Zarina Khatoon (name changed), who was trafficked at the age of 20 in 2016, had applied for compensation on September 18, 2018, and was awarded Rs 4 lakh as compensation in September 2019. She is yet to be paid.

The Victim Compensation Fund, set up by states under the Centre's direction, is earmarked for survivors of all violent crimes that require rehabilitation. However, in this investigation, we focus on survivors of human trafficking because it is rampant in the state, as we establish later. Trafficked women are forced into prostitution and often repeatedly raped in captivity, according to activist groups. They are also often ostracised by their community, making rehabilitation hard.

After all this, waiting for up to three years for compensation is distressing, survivors told us. What hobbles this scheme launched by the West Bengal government in 2017? Our investigation revealed a critical gap between the amount awarded as compensation and the money the state allocates for the purpose.

West Bengal has been a major source state for human trafficking: In 2013, 2014 and 2015, the state recorded 18.5%, or 3,020 of the 16,283 such cases reported countrywide. The state accounted for one-tenth of India's trafficking cases in 2017 and 2018. The 2016 data had certain anomalies and were objected to by the state government.

Asked about the compensation grievances, a senior minister in the state government refused to respond but added: "The fund comes from the department of home and hill affairs of which the chief minister herself is in charge. None except her will speak on this."

Fund not enough to compensate

The state is supposed to make a budgetary allocation for the compensation fund, and the secretary of the SLSA is designated as the authority that operates the funds and makes payments. But the fund is now nearly empty: The West Bengal SLSA had written to the state government on June 17, 2021 requesting funds, but was yet to receive any till August 10, the authority informed the Calcutta High Court in the case mentioned earlier.

The West Bengal budget document for 2019-20 shows that the actual spending under the 'Compensation Under the Victim Compensation Scheme' was Rs 3 crore, whereas the state's District Legal Services Authorities (DLSAs) had awarded Rs 4.44 crore in compensation in that financial year.

Between April 2016 and March 2020, the DLSAs awarded Rs 10.25 crore as compensation, but the government had spent only Rs 9.11 crore on the fund till March 2020. Between April 2016 and March 2019, the DLSA awarded compensation totalling Rs 5.8 crore. (The budget documents we examined do not have any references prior to 2018-19 since the scheme in Bengal was launched in 2017.) In 2018-19, the actuals spent stood at Rs 6.11 crore, Rs 31 lakh more than what had been awarded till the end of March 2019.

In 2020-21, the DLSAs have awarded a total of Rs 3.23 crore as compensation, while the revised state estimate for the fund for the corresponding year was Rs 3.03 crore.

"It takes great courage and determination on the part of a trafficking survivor to face the scrutiny of her narrative and the stigma associated with it to get the compensation awarded in the first place. Such delay in being paid thereafter is demoralising, to say the least," said Rokeya Khan (name changed), who is in her early 20s.

Khan, who was kidnapped and trafficked into prostitution at age 13 in 2012, escaped a brothel in Pune's Budhwar Peth area with the help of a client in 2017. She later accompanied the West Bengal Criminal Investigation Department's anti-human trafficking unit to Pune to help identify the traffickers. This led to the arrest of four men from across West Bengal and Maharashtra.

Khan was awarded compensation a year after she applied, on December 8, 2020, but she has yet to be paid. Few trafficking survivors pursue the legal process to justice as keenly as Khan, said members of the NGO, Goranbose Gram Bikash Kendra (GGBK), that assisted her. Khan is currently working with a survivors' collective, Bandhan Mukti, in South 24-Parganas district.

Most survivors are poor, marginalised

A 2020 study backed by the National Human Rights Commission noted that "prostitution was the key purpose [of trafficking] in West Bengal" and that a large majority of the state's trafficking survivors earned less than Rs 5,000 a month. "They mostly belong to SCs [Scheduled Castes] and STs [Scheduled Tribes]," said the report.

State compensation for survivors of heinous crimes was made possible by legislation based on the recommendation of the Justice V.S. Malimath-led Committee on Reforms of Criminal Justice System in 2003. The panel said it was the state's obligation to compensate a victim, irrespective of whether the offender is apprehended, convicted or acquitted, and recommended that a victim compensation fund be set up.

Subsequently, in 2008, the Code of Criminal Procedure was amended to insert section 357A, the provisions of which require states to prepare their own victim compensation schemes. The DLSAs and SLSAs are required to award compensation following the guidelines of the National Legal Services Authority (NLSA).

The system actually started functioning after the Central government notified, on October 14, 2015, the establishment of the Central Victim Compensation Fund Scheme. It also asked the states on July 13, 2016, to notify their own victim compensation schemes.

West Bengal, thereafter, replaced its Victim Compensation Scheme of 2012, which offered a maximum amount of Rs 20,000 as compensation for rape, with the new Victim Compensation Scheme of 2017. The minimum compensation for rape was set at Rs 3 lakh, as per central government guidelines.

State gets only 2% of all applications

An analysis of the data on compensation and trafficking trends show that West Bengal, which accounted for 7.54% of India's population in 2011, had recorded 10.3% of India's total human trafficking cases in 2017 and 2018 (The state did not share 2019 data with the NCRB). But the state's compensation record was poor in comparison to its crime record.

Between April 2018 and March 2021, West Bengal received only 2.3% of the total applications for compensation in the country (1,055 of 46,249) and the compensation awarded made only 1.99% (Rs 10.55 crore) of the total amount (Rs 529.4 crore) awarded in the country, as per NLSA.

The fund is also meant for survivors of other forms of atrocities, apart from trafficking, as we said. There is a specific guideline for acid attack survivors--they must be paid Rs 1 lakh within 15 days from being reported to the DLSA, and the rest Rs 2 lakh "positively" within two months of that. But there is no timeline for victims of human trafficking or rape.

In 2018, West Bengal recorded India's highest number of acid attack cases--50 of 228 cases nationally, around 22%. These 50 cases involved 53 survivors, 38 of whom were women. But human trafficking is a much bigger problem in the state, as data show. In 2018, the state recorded 172 cases of human trafficking involving 262 survivors.

IndiaSpend emailed the state home secretary for a response but none was received till the night of September 6. The story will be updated with his response if we receive it.

Why few seek compensation

The survivors' struggle does not end even after the order for compensation is given, experiences of the survivors reveal. In the letter to the chief minister, members of three trafficking survivors' collectives, Bandhan Mukti, Utthan and Bijoyini, that together have about 150 members, said that getting an order for compensation itself meant undergoing the traumatic experience of retelling their stories repeatedly before the police and the DLSA.

"After my rescue, I was nearly ostracised by my own village," said Suchitra Shikari (name changed), who applied for the compensation on May 3, 2018. "I sought help from the local panchayat and other administrative officers but none heeded. I was even told that just because I had been trafficked I was not entitled to any privilege. Then, NGO workers helped me apply to the DLSA. Getting the compensation awarded was itself hard enough a battle." She was awarded Rs 4 lakh as compensation--Rs 1 lakh for human trafficking and Rs 3 lakh for rape--on December 8, 2020.

NGO workers engaged in anti-trafficking activities said there are multiple reasons why few survivors in West Bengal apply for compensation. In states like Bihar, Odisha and Rajasthan, a large number of human trafficking survivors are men rescued from bonded labour. But in West Bengal, most of the trafficking survivors are women rescued from prostitution: 93.15% (735 of 789) of rescued trafficking victims from West Bengal in 2017 and 2018 were girls and women, as per the NCRB data.

"We have to keep in mind that trafficking survivors, especially women, are victims of many betrayals. They do not tend to trust people easily. Revealing what they underwent before any authority is a mentally stressful task for them," said Subhasree Raptan, who works with the Goranbose Gram Bikas Kendra that works towards prevention, rescue and rehabilitation of human trafficking survivors in South 24-Parganas district. Many survivors tend not to pursue the legal battle, she said.

There are also problems related to documentation. Raptan cited the example of a minor from South 24-Parganas who had been trafficked to Maharashtra and had her Aadhaar card registered in Maharashtra by the offenders. All these documents had to be modified to reflect her real identity before the legal process could begin. Several others had no identity card of any kind; some were school dropouts with no documents indicating their educational qualification.

Shambhu Nanda, the programme coordinator at Partners for Anti-Trafficking, an umbrella of eight NGOs working against human trafficking in the district of North 24-Parganas, said the lack of awareness explained why few survivors apply for compensation. "We have come across several survivors who were rescued more than a year ago but neither the police nor shelter home authorities informed them about the compensation scheme," Nanda said.

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