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  • Tejaswini Kaushal


Updated: Dec 19, 2023


Nestled at the confluence of the Ganges, Brahmaputra, and Meghna Rivers in the Bay of Bengal, the Sundarbans is a sprawling mangrove area that spans the Sundarban Reserve Forest (SRF) of Bangladesh, boasting the distinction of being the largest mangrove forest globally. Stretching from the Baleswar River in Bangladesh's Khulna division to the Hooghly River in India's West Bengal state, this unique ecosystem encompasses closed and open mangrove forests, agricultural lands, mudflats, barren areas, and a network of tidal streams and channels. Recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Sundarbans is renowned for hosting the world's largest expanse of mangrove forests, comprising four protected areas. However, this ecological treasure faces formidable challenges, especially in the Indian Sundarbans, where vulnerability to tropical cyclones results in devastating impacts like storm surge-induced floods, escalating intensity of cyclones, embankment breaches, and saline water intrusion. These environmental challenges significantly affect the lives and livelihoods of the local communities, leading to the displacement of villagers. And for many of them, it turns them into victims of trafficking. 

This post will zero in on how the floods are not only uprooting crops and houses in the Sundarbans, but also claiming innocent lives due to the crippling poverty induced by these floods. It will identify legal and procedural loopholes and suggest measures to impact their lives positively.

The Floods

Recurrent climate disasters in East India during the 2023 summers have exacerbated poverty, leading to a surge in human trafficking. Authorities have singled out the Sundarbans area in West Bengal as a significant concern, predicting an escalation in trafficking as the climate crisis persists. The region is witnessing an increased number of victims, primarily females, who are tricked, abducted, and forced into prostitution, bonded labour, or sold as brides. The region, already affected by extreme poverty, with half of them living below the poverty line, has been severely hit by cyclones and rising sea levels, making it more vulnerable to trafficking. 

The Trafficking

Article 3(a) of the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons defines trafficking as the recruitment, transportation, harbouring, or receipt of persons through coercion, fraud, or abuse of vulnerability for exploitation. India’s human trafficking situation is concerning, with the US Department of State’s 2022 report stating that India does not fully meet minimum standards to combat trafficking. In 2020, the government identified 5,156 trafficking victims, including 2,837 in bonded labour and 1,466 in sex trafficking. However, despite about 8 million Indians estimated to be in bonded labour, the government had only identified and rescued 3,13,962 people, the report said, quoting the Ministry of Labour and Employment’s report. In the Sundarbans, merely 50 were rescued out of 190 cases reported in the last three years.

The Measures

Article 23(1) of the Constitution of India prohibits trafficking. On the legislative front in India, trafficking is defined under Section 370 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860, which includes elements highly congruent with that of the Protocol. Furthermore, the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 2013 renewed Section 370 and introduced Section 370A of the Indian Penal Code, addressing trafficking, child exploitation, and organ removal. Article 23(1) of the Constitution of India prohibits trafficking within the Indian grundnorm.

Additionally, special legislations have been passed in India to tackle different aspects of trafficking. For instance, the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, 1956 addresses trafficking for commercial sexual exploitation. The Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 2013 introduced a renewed Sections 370 and introduced Section 370A of the Indian Penal Code, addressing trafficking, child exploitation, and organ removal. The Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act, 2012, protects children from sexual abuse. Many others, like the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006, Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976, and Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986, indirectly prohibit trafficking. 

On the executive front, the government has taken administrative measures, including setting up Anti-Trafficking Cells by the Department of Women & Child Development. It has also issued advisories, curated Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs), conducted training workshops, and initiated schemes like the UJJAWALA scheme. Complying at the global stage, India has adopted and joined international conventions like the United Nations Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime (UNCTOC), the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) Convention, and the India-Bangladesh Bilateral Treaty aiming towards prevention, rescue, repatriation and reintegration of human trafficking in women and children.

On the judicial front, proactive jurisprudence has emerged through various court cases. In cases including Bhandua Mukti Morcha v. Union of India, Lakshmi Kant Pandey v. Union of India, PUDR v. Union Of India, and M.C. Mehta v. State of Tamil Nadu, the courts highlighted the state obligations towards trafficking prevention and control under Articles 15(3), Article 21, Article 24, Article 39(e), Article 39(f), and Article 45 of the Constitution, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. In Bachpan Bachao and Ors v/s Union of India, Gaurav Jain v/s Union of India, and Court on its own motion v/s Government N.C.T of Delhi, the courts issued directions to the concerned governments for placing safety measures and implementing the 3C (Counselling, Cajoling, and Coercion) approach to better implement different statutes for restricting trafficking. However, despite these legal and judicial efforts, concrete actions based on court directions are yet to be witnessed, pointing to the loopholes that plague the implementation of Indian anti-trafficking initiatives. 

The Loopholes

There are three major issues that the current Indian trafficking framework face: First, the process of seeking justice for trafficking victims is disheartening and cumbersome since it may take up to a decade to reach the courts, and even if the cases go to trial, the conviction rate is less than 2%. Second, trafficking gangs frequently use threats of violence or murder to deter victims and their families from filing cases and put pressure to withdraw their complaints. Even NGOs and awareness raisers assisting survivors in seeking justice report being targeted and threatened by traffickers on multiple occasions. Thirdly, in regions like the Sundarbans, the cyclic seasonality of cyclones poses a threat to livelihoods, pushing people towards vulnerability as incomes diminish, making trafficking and exploitation more prevalent.

The Solutions

The solutions to tackle trafficking may be three-pronged: Firstly, establishing a robust government-backed community network to educate young people about traffickers’ dangers will foster victims’ resilience and determination to bring traffickers to justice. Taking prompt action after incidents will support victims, prevent further exploitation, empower survivors, and raise awareness among vulnerable youth.

Secondly, while nature supposedly has the final say in the trafficking situation in Sundarbans, the government policy must steal some of it away to protect the locals from the tragedies that await them with the oncoming cycle of floods. The government must consider their problems and arrange resources and options for healthier alternative livelihoods to avoid them falling into the trap. This approach is based on the understanding that the solutions do not solely depend on strengthening the anti-trafficking setup but also on empowering the community to better cope with the yearly cycle of floods, both economically and psychosocially. For this, countries neighbouring India provide the perfect case studies to work around and extract potential solutions owing to the similarity in culture, geography, and topography.

In China, a region highly prone to regular and extreme floods, a study indicated that certain factors, namely education level, available space, access to credit, and long-term village support, influence the choice of flood adaptation strategies and livelihood options for farmers’ families. The Chinese government has been leveraging these principles by facilitating a ‘Sponge City’ program in Wuhan, establishing a strategic ‘flood management system,’ directing government resources towards rescue and rehabilitation, and partnering with international organisations for monetary relief allocation.

In Bangladesh, on the other hand, change has been driven predominantly at the grassroots level. Rural households in districts like Gaibanda, Bogra, and Shirajganj have diversified their income sources by adopting alternative flood-resistant livelihood strategies, including floating gardens and nurseries, fisheries in floodwater, and small-scale enterprises like poultry farming. The practice of floating gardens, utilising water hyacinths, and other aquatic weeds, allows local communities to cultivate crops on floating platforms, enabling them to continue farming even during prolonged flood periods. Additionally, vulnerable communities have proactively established Community-Based Organizations (CBOs) to support each other during crisis situations, including flood disasters. These CBOs engage in search and rescue operations, provide aid and treatment to affected individuals, and conduct awareness-raising activities using public dramas, folk songs, rallies, and school-based campaigns throughout the year. Government agencies play a  pivotal role in financially funding CBOs’ initiatives of providing training and equipment, organising community meetings to demonstrate mitigation techniques, and raising awareness about flood preparedness.

Thirdly, and most importantly, collective engagement in every aspect of the anti-trafficking cycle (prevention, recruitment, rescue, reintegration, and transportation) is a sine qua non. Otherwise, the laws and policies will remain solely on paper, leaving victims vulnerable to ongoing exploitation.

Therefore, India needs to undertake measures both on the grassroots and the extrinsic levels. By holistically embracing CBOs for crisis management, encouraging alternative flood-resistant livelihood strategies, establishing a strategic flood management system, integrating relief allocation strategies at the Central and State budgetary meetings, and anti-trafficking policy changes can effectively address flood challenges through systematic and monetary governmental support. Borrowing foreign jurisprudence and implementing it in an Indianised manner can support India to expediently establish a structure and reign in the appalling conditions of human trafficking in Sundarbans. Fail to take action now, and the Sundarbans will find itself in a similar fate as it has for the past several decades. 

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