Indian court backs slavery survivors in compensation fight

CHENNAI: An Indian court has ordered the state of West Bengal to give trafficking survivors the full compensation they are entitled to without pre-conditions, a ruling lawyers said could help other victims access the money they need to rebuild their lives.

In a first, the Calcutta High Court last week quashed West Bengal’s policy of forcing survivors to put their victim compensation money in a 10-year bank scheme, and only allowing them access to the monthly interest payments.

In its ruling, the court said that the amount of money awarded to victims by the government was already “meagre and ought not to be further fettered” while calling on state authorities to end their “big brother” approach.

“The court has empowered survivors,” said policy advocate Kaushik Gupta, who represented the victims in court.

“The state had a very patriarchal and parental approach towards an adult citizen. Survivors should be given financial guidance but their money should not be controlled.”

India reported 3,000 cases of trafficking in 2017, with the victims largely being poor women and children being lured with better jobs and pushed into slavery by traffickers.

West Bengal has traditionally had very high trafficking numbers and has struggled to successfully rehabilitate survivors, anti-trafficking campaigners said.

Currently, less than 1% of India’s trafficking survivors win victim compensation — which is funded by the central government but distributed by states.

Such compensation awards are hindered by low awareness of the schemes and the high burden of proof it takes to succeed, studies have shown.

Every state has its own version of the scheme, with compensation running from 100,000 rupees to 1,000,000 rupees with pre-conditions attached.

My choice

Supia Khatun was among those who chose to apply for trafficking victim compensation after she was rescued in 2010. She was hoping to educate herself further and invest in the shop her family is running.

She was awarded compensation of 400,000 Indian rupees in September 2019, but ordered by West Bengal authorities to put 75% of the amount in a monthly scheme for 10 years.

“I was excited that I had got compensation but then sad when they said I would only get 1,400 rupees every month in hand,” Khatun, one of the two petitioners, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone on Tuesday.

“I am an adult — why should anyone else decide anything for me?”

In court, the state argued that compensation payments were often misused by trafficking victims.

In his order, Judge Sabyasachi Bhattacharyya said that use of the compensation by survivors to buy property, make ornaments, get married, or educate their child cannot be labelled as “misuse” and real instances of misuse were rare.

The judge also said states could provide financial guidance to survivors but made it clear that their money could not be controlled by any authority.

“Officials think they know what is best for us, but it is not true,” said Khatun.

“I should be allowed to exercise my choice because that money is for the trauma I have been through.”