New Delhi: The Calcutta High Court has ordered the Government of West Bengal to ensure adequate funds with the State Legal Services Authority (SLSA) to disburse compensation to trafficking survivors within six weeks under West Bengal Victim Compensation Scheme, 2017. The court has also directed the state government and SLSA to file a report enumerating the steps taken for disbursal of funds within the prescribed time.
The High Court’s order comes in response to a writ petition filed by a trafficking survivor who had been pursuing the payment of victim compensation of Rs 1,50,000 since December 5, 2019 as per the order of the District Legal Services Authority (DLSA) of South 24 Parganas.
Victims of crimes are entitled to compensation under Section 357 (A) of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC). State Governments along with the Central Government are mandated to provide for a scheme that ensures compensation for the victim of the crime or their dependant for their rehabilitation.
Many survivors of trafficking, like the petitioner, have been waiting for over a year to receive their compensation funds, claim activists and lawyers from the state. In August 2019, a group of 27 survivors belonging to North and South 24 Parganas districts had written to Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee to help expedite the process. All of them had been awarded victim compensation between September 2019 to July 2021 but had not received the compensation amount in their bank accounts.
Sarifa Khatun (24) is one such survivor. She was awarded a compensation by DLSA worth Rs 4,00,000 in 2019. After she challenged the order at the SLSA, the compensation amount was increased to Rs 8 lakhs.
“But till now nothing has been credited to my account. I hope this order will benefit many more survivors like me who have been waiting for their compensation amount for years. I think this judgement is a victory for all of us,” said Khatun, who is also a member of survivors’ leadership collective Bijoyini.
The entire process of awarding the compensation including the required enquiry must be completed within two months from the date of application or court order for the compensation, as per CrPC.
However, the authorities hardly ever adhere to this timeline, Kaushik Gupta, a senior lawyer practising at the Calcutta High Court who appeared for the petitioner, told Behanbox. “In most of the cases, in my experience, this process takes two years or more instead of two months,” he said.
Survivors face multiple barriers in accessing the compensation including state inaction, lack of adequate funds and policy gaps.
Reena* (22) was trafficked and sent to a brothel in Gujarat by one of her relatives in May 2017. In the six months that followed, she was trafficked across multiple southern Indian states where she was subjected to extreme physical abuse. She was finally rescued by West Bengal’s Anti-Human Trafficking Unit (AHTU) of West Bengal in October 2017.
When Reena started putting together an application for the compensation, she faced many difficulties including police apathy. Since the beginning, the local police had not been cooperative with Reena and her family due to the trafficker’s influence in the region.
“When my father filed an FIR, they refused to take any action until he agreed to pay them (police personnel) for conducting the investigation. We also struggled to get the chargesheet and ended up paying for it in order to complete the application for compensation,” she said.
Reena further told Behanbox that the police harassed her father by implicating him in false cases acting on the behest of the traffickers.
In 2020, Reena submitted an application for compensation. But the order granting her compensation of Rs 4,15,000 came only in 2021. She is yet to receive the sum in her bank account. She has also filed an appeal for an increase in the compensation amount to Rs 18.5 lakhs. The appeal is pending enquiry.
“That money was supposed to facilitate my rehabilitation. But I have still not got it. How do the state authorities expect me to be rehabilitated?” she asked.
Such delays are a result of inaction on the state authorities’ part, claim activists.
The state machinery lacks cohesive functioning, according to lawyer Gupta. “The state should be able to arrange the required documents internally through DLSAs and SLSAs across different states. Instead it puts the burden on the survivors to provide state documents to the state authorities.”
Further the DLSA secretary is often busy with other administrative tasks and fails to give time to the lawyer to argue the survivor’s case for compensation, said Gupta. “In the event that DLSA’s award has been challenged in SLSA, the SLSA secretary has often kept matters pending despite the completion of the hearings. This leaves the survivors stuck in a limbo,” said Gupta.
Behanbox has reached out to SLSA for comments. The article will be updated when we get a response.
Lack of funds
Once the compensation is awarded by the DLSA, the matter goes to SLSA for disbursement. However, SLSA has claimed during the court hearings that it does not have any fund at its disposal, and that since it is only a disbursement wing, it cannot make any payments unless the state hands over a corpus. Whereas the state government claims that they cannot transfer the funds unless SLSA raises a bill.
“No one knows whose responsibility it is to ensure the payment of the compensation, but the survivor is the one who suffers,” said Gupta.
In July 2021, SLSA had submitted in the Calcutta High Court that it had only Rs 5,000 left in its account and that it had demanded funds from the state government but was yet to receive it.
The state government is supposed to allocate funds for the compensation in the annual budget. The West Bengal budget document for 2020-21 shows that the actual spending under the ‘Compensation Under the Victim Compensation Scheme’ was Rs 2,20,00,000, whereas the state’s District Legal Services Authorities (DLSAs) had awarded Rs 3,23,50,000 in compensation in that financial year.
March, 2022, was Rs 2,70,85,000.
Until 2020, the WBSLSA required beneficiaries of its victim compensation fund to deposit 75% of the funds received as a fixed deposit in a nationalised bank for ten years. This was later set aside by the Calcutta High Court in 2020. “By putting such conditions in place, the state infantilises the survivors and takes away their autonomy to use the compensation money,” said Gupta.
In most cases trafficking victims receive inadequate compensation, explained Sunita Kar, member of the survivors’ leadership groups Bijoyini and Indian Leadership Forum Against Trafficking. “Most survivors get between Rs 1,50,000 – 2,00,000 on an average. But is this enough to compensate for the years lost and for the opportunities missed? How is it possible for someone to go through unprecedented trauma and then rebuild their lives with such little resources?” she asked.
The trauma that is experienced by the survivors is compounded when they go back to their families after being rescued, claimed Kar. “Families often refuse to recognise the women due to the stigma associated with trafficking. This is why it is imperative for the compensation money to be disbursed on time since it promises the survivors a hope at a new life and helps them escape the cycle of abuse.”
Kar also pointed out the shortcomings of the upcoming Trafficking In Persons (Prevention, Care, and Rehabilitation) Bill, 2021, including the lack of a clearly defined system for victim compensation. “It does not delve into the details about who will compensate and how one would want to be compensated. Further the mandate for giving a proof of being rescued under TIP and the existing ITPA (Immoral Trafficking Prevention Act) excludes women and girls who manage to escape the trafficking networks, she said.
*Name changed to protect identity