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Why Sex Workers' Organisations Aren't Pleased With the Draft Anti-Trafficking Bill

In addition to saying that the government hasn't given enough time for them to send in comments, some lawyers believe the Bill attempts to criminalise sex work entirely.

Kolkata: On Sunday (July 11), the All India Network of Sex Workers (AINSW) wrote a letter to the Ministry of Women and Child Development seeking an extension of time for submitting comments on the Draft Trafficking in Persons (Prevention, Care and Rehabilitation) Bill, 2021, alleging that the government gave too little time for assessing the provisions.

On Monday, the Durbar Mahila Samannaya Committee (DMSC), Bengal’s largest organisation of sex workers which is also part of AINSW, will be sending a separate letter to the ministry and is scheduled to hold a press meet to protest the government’s attitude. If the request for an extension is not met, they will oppose the Bill, members of both organisations told The Wire.

In their letter to the ministry, AINSW, which is a network of sex workers’ organisations from 17 states in the country, with over three lakh female, transgender and male sex workers as members, wrote that they “regret to note” that while the ministry had taken over two years to draft the Bill, affected groups and communities were given less than two weeks to share their views and feedback.

“The Draft Trafficking in Persons (Prevention, Care and Rehabilitation) Bill, 2021 is a complex document that covers aspects of criminal justice and social support and rehabilitation for victims. It traverses provisions of other laws like the National Investigation Agency Act, 2008,  the Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act, 1999, the Information and Technology Act,  2000, the Prevention of Money Laundering Act, 2002, which needs to be understood in the context of the Draft Bill. The short notice given by the MWCD for submitting feedback does not do justice to the complexity and importance of the subject,” the letter said.

The 38-page draft Bill was uploaded on the ministry’s website on June 30, when the government also gave “all the stakeholders” time till July 14 to “offer their comments/suggestions”.

Also read: How a Nagpur Police Raid to ‘Rescue Underage Sex Workers’ Criminalised an Entire Neighbourhood

“AINSW with their partners and other civil society organisations and members are concerned that the Draft Bill conflates trafficking in persons with sex work, which may have significant consequences for the community. Our members, partners would like the opportunity to examine the Bill and its clauses carefully in order to make comments and suggestions to the Government,” said the letter signed by as many as 80 organisations and individuals from across the country.

Amit Kumar, AINSW’s national programme coordinator, said that they would oppose the Bill if the deadline for submitting comments was not extended. They want it to be extended till August 13. DMSC spokesperson Mahashweta Mukherjee said that they would also reach out to political parties, urging them to raise the issue in the Rajya Sabha where the Bill is likely to be introduced.

The letter added that the “tight deadline” given by the MWCD does not allow them to communicate and consult with different groups and networks spread across the country, including in towns and cities that are still under lockdown or restricted movement orders due to the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The Draft Bill is only available in English. To discuss the provisions of the draft Bill with sex workers and know their assessment of the provisions, we need to translate it into regional languages and distribute it among them. Lawyers need time for careful examination of the clauses and assess possible implications. Two weeks is no time at all,” said Protim Ray, a Kolkata-based doctor associated with DMSC.

The AINSW letter highlighted how sex workers have been “allies” in anti-trafficking efforts and how their “role and participation was considered necessary” by the Supreme Court of India in the Budhadev Karmaskar v State of West  Bengal case. The apex court had appointed a panel to deliberate and make recommendations on the rehabilitation of trafficking victims who had landed in prostitution and DMSC had served on the panel.

“We hope that the principle of ‘Nothing about  us, without us’, which was given effect to the Hon’ble Supreme Court in the panel, will  continue to be followed by the Ministry in letter and spirit,” the letter said.

While most of the sex workers’ organisations have not yet been able to make an assessment of the draft Bill, some lawyers cited clause 23, headlined ‘Trafficking in Persons’ as a problematic one.

For example, it says, “the consent of the victim shall be irrelevant and immaterial in the determination of the offence of trafficking in persons if any of the means mentioned at (b) above is used to commit the crime.” The clause 23 (b) mentions: (b) By means of threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of authority or of vulnerability, or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person.”

This could mean even the sex workers who are willingly in the profession end up in jail, DMSC vice-president Bishakha told The Wire.

Also read: Anti-Trafficking Bill: What Meenakshi Lekhi’s Suggestions Got Wrong

Abhijit Datta, an advocate based in Howrah district of West Bengal who has started studying the draft Bill, said that it appeared to him that the government was trying to prohibit prostitution altogether.

“Section 370 IPC covers trafficking quite extensively and its scopes are being further extended in this draft Bill. While it will take more time to understand the implications of all the provisions, at present it seems that the government is not going to allow it even if an adult comes to prostitution willingly. This will be fatal and undemocratic. Besides, there is no detailed plan of how the sex workers are going to be rehabilitated properly when they are not allowed to be in sex work. To discuss all these issues, more time is a must,” Datta said.

Snigdhendu Bhattacharya is a journalist and author based in Kolkata.