The conviction of 39-year-old Geeta Arora alias Sonu Punjaban and her accomplice Sandeep Bedwal (41) by a Delhi Court on 22 July this year ought to serve as a deterrent to similar would-be offenders.
The cause for concern is that crimes against women transcends geography, class, culture, age, race and religion. In India, the violence committed upon women has many manifestations such as domestic and sexual violence including rape, sexual harassment, child sexual abuse, trafficking for commercial sexual exploitation, harmful practices such as dowry harassment, honour related crimes, acid attacks, witch-hunting, child marriage, sex selective abortion etc.
Like most scandals, Sonu Punjaban’s case too began rather innocuously. According to media reports, soon after completing high school in Haryana, Sonu worked for a beautician initially and moved to Delhi after marrying a carjacker. In 2004, after her husband was killed in a police encounter, she is said to have entered the flesh trade. Sonu managed to capitalise on an emerging set of middle class clients. She not only targeted new malls, Metro stations, farmhouses etc., but also engaged aspiring models, who turned escorts for clients across cities.
Arrested in 2007 under Immoral Trafficking Act, Sonu secured a bail only to be re-arrested a year later for the same offence. In 2009, her accomplice Bedwal kidnapped a 12-year-old minor who was sold and resold about four times by different people and the hapless victim finally landed into Sonu’s net. The victim was reportedly brutalised by Sonu who forcibly administered drugs to her so that she could not resist a customer who would sexually exploit her. She would apply chilli powder on the victim’s breast and into her mouth to create fear.
Now that the law has finally caught up with Sonu, one of the biggest sex racket operators in the national capital will have to pay a fine of Rs 64,000 plus first undergo 14 years rigorous imprisonment for offence under sections of Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, and thereafter, another 10 years rigorous imprisonment for offences under sections 366A (procuration of minor girl), 372 (selling minor for purpose of prostitution), 373 (buying minor for purpose of prostitution), 328 (causing hurt by means of poison), 342 (wrongful confinement), 120B (criminal conspiracy) of IPC. She will thus remain in custody (jail) for a total of 24 years as substantive sentence.
Her co-accused Bedwal will have to pay a fine of Rs 65,000 plus undergo 10 years rigorous imprisonment for offence under section 363 (kidnapping), 366 (kidnapping, abducting or inducing woman to compel her marriage), 366A, 372, 120B of IPC and thereafter, another 10 years rigorous imprisonment for commission of offence under section 376 (rape) IPC. He will remain in custody (jail) for a total period of 20 years as substantive sentence.
While awarding a compensation of Rs 7 lakh has been awarded to the victim, the Judge also observed "How a woman can outrage and brutalise the modesty of another woman, who is minor, in such a horrific way. The shameful deeds of convict Geeta Arora deprives her of any leniency from the courts. Convict Sandeep Bedwal began the commission of the offences upon the victim. The person, who committed such offences or is responsible for commission of such offences do not deserve any leniency and is liable to be dealt with firm hands of the law".
After drug dealing, human trafficking (sex trafficking is the most common form of it), tied with the illegal arms industry, is believed to be the second largest criminal industry in the world today, which is also the fastest growing. Considered as a modern-day form of slavery, studies have shown that victims of human trafficking that includes young children, teenagers, men and women are all subjected to force, fraud, or coercion, for the purpose of sexual exploitation or forced labour. Simply put, human trafficking is the "recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of persons, by means of the 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 vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation includes the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation. Globally, an estimated 4.8 million people are forced into sexual exploitation and child sex trafficking is said to affect than one million children worldwide, many of whom are left to simply suffer in silence. An International Labour Organization report shows that forced labour generates $150 billion in illegal profits annually. Two-thirds of that money is said to come from commercial sexual exploitation, while the rest is from forced economic exploitation, including domestic work, agriculture, child labour and related activities.
Similar to the gold smuggling episode using diplomatic channel that was unearthed in Kerala, in 2007, a Member of Parliament from Gujarat was arrested in Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport after he tried to 'smuggle' a woman abroad using his status. He allegedly tried to ferry two illegal migrants from Punjab into Canada having accepted Rs 30 lakh for the assignment. He had reportedly made two previous successful trips abroad to the UK and Canada ferrying an unspecified number of illegal emigrants using the same modus operandi. Now the 26-year old woman from Punjab and a teenaged boy were to go to Canada on the diplomatic passports of his wife and son. The MP and his “family” had gone past the statutory airport clearances including customs, immigration. His Diplomatic passport ostensibly opened the visa doors easily and using his clout he was about to board the aircraft along with his “family”. It so happened that the airline staff were checking passports of all passengers after a woman reported loss of her passport when the fraud came to light almost accidentally. The MP's ‘wife’ was also asked for her passport and, as a matter of routine, her name. To everybody’s shock, she muttered her real name instead of mentioning the name of the MP's wife. The immigration authorities were informed and rest is history. How the MP managed to tamper with his wife’s diplomatic passport is another story.
Although the issue of human trafficking was raised by the International community in the late 1980’s, it was recognised as a serious global problem only at the beginning of the 21st century after the United Nations came out with the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime and its Supplementary Protocols. The Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children set out the first definition of human trafficking that is still the benchmark used to define human trafficking today. In June 2011, India ratified the said UN Protocol. Accordingly, signatory countries to the Protocol are required to criminalise all forms of trafficking defined in terms of recruitment, harbouring, or transportation by means of force, fraud, coercion, or abuse of position of vulnerability for purposes of exploitation.
With no comprehensive law in India for the prevention of Trafficking of persons and Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, 1956 not defining trafficking comprehensively, there have been suggestions from several quarters to include the definition of trafficking by amending Section 370 of the India Penal Code to include forced labour trafficking and ensure that force, fraud, or coercion are not required to prove a child sex trafficking offence. More recently, the Empowered Committee for Nirbhaya Fund in the Ministry of Women and Child Development has recently approved a project for setting-up Anti Human Trafficking Units (AHTU) in all districts of the country at cost of Rs. 100 crore under Nirbhaya Fund. The AHTUs will provide counselling and support to the victims of trafficking.
The Department-related Parliamentary Standing Committee on Human Resources Development which had examined the issues related to safety of women in its report submitted to the Parliament this March has come out with some recommendations which merit consideration in the right earnest. An important suggestion of the Committee is to establish a National Anti-Trafficking Bureau with police officers, NGOs and other stakeholders having powers to investigate cases involving two or more States. The Bureau should be empowered to co-ordinate with international law enforcement agencies and formulate measures for combating and prevention of trafficking in children and women. Further, there ought to be an “Anti-Trafficking Relief and Rehabilitation Committee" for providing relief and rehabilitation services to the victims of trafficking. Victims ought to be supported through skill development and vocational training reintegrating them into the society.
So, can sex trafficking be tackled? Yes, at a macro level, many developed countries have been able to satisfactorily address the problem by institutionalising the three P’s: prevent trafficking, protect victims and prosecute traffickers. When prosecution is swift, stringent and sure it can serve as a deterrent.(Published on 27th July 2020, Volume XXXII, Issue 31)