By Annie Banerji and Anuradha Nagaraj
NEW DELHI/CHENNAI, Dec 17 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) — From letters and postcard campaigns to meetings with lawmakers, modern slavery victims across India are pushing for the passage of a long-pending anti-trafficking bill amid fears it could be sidelined as general elections take center stage in parliament.
Survivors from 11 states have turned campaigners in the last few months by roping in their communities to write more than 110,000 postcards to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, urging him to ensure the bill is passed by parliament in the coming months.
The Trafficking of Persons Bill was passed by India's lower house of parliament in July and is expected to be tabled in the upper house in the ongoing session that ends on Jan. 8.
Campaigners, survivors and lawmakers alike fear the proposed law will be stalled or even shelved if it is not passed soon as political attention turns to next year's general elections.
"It needs to pass this time so that victims finally get all the help and facilities to start a new life," a 29-year-old who was trafficked into prostitution when she was a teenager, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation on condition of anonymity.
"It is high time traffickers pay for their crimes, they must be convicted and punished," the mother-of-one, who is part of the survivors' organization Vimukthi, said on the sidelines of a meeting in New Delhi between survivors and several lawmakers.
India is home to the largest number of slaves globally, with 8 million out of a global total of 40 million, according to the Global Slavery Index by Australia-based Walk Free Foundation.
Most of the 23,000 trafficking victims rescued in India in 2016 were women and girls, the latest government data shows.
The proposed law prioritises survivors' needs and prevents victims, such as those found in brothel raids, from being arrested and jailed like traffickers, who would face prison sentences ranging from 10 years to life under the legislation.
Activists and lawmakers say the bill unifies existing anti-trafficking laws and aims to make India a leader in the fight against such crimes in South Asia — one of the world's fastest-growing regions for forced labor, begging and forced marriage.
"It is sad to see how for the lust of money, people have shamed humanity. This must stop," said Akhilesh Prasad Singh, an upper house lawmaker from the main opposition Congress party.
"All parties ... should discuss this bill in this winter session and pass it with necessary provisions."
While the bill has been hailed by many campaigners, it has faced resistance from some sectors over fears that it could unfairly target consenting adults working in the sex industry.
Sex workers' organisations say the proposed law does not distinguish between victims of trafficking and women doing sex work out of choice, and could lead to the latter being held in rehabilitation shelters against their will.
Survivors and activists are demanding that the bill be debated in the current session to iron out any such differences, and pave the path for its passage before political attention starts to turn towards general elections which are due in 2019.
That is why unlike ever before, survivors — who often hesitate to share their stories fearing social stigma — have teamed up and stepped up efforts to drum up support for the bill during one of the final parliament sessions before elections.
While about 1,000 survivors have sent letters to state MPs, another 12,000 have signed or put their thumbprints on a petition — each accompanied with a personal story of entrapment, torture and despair — to press parties to green-light the bill.
"The bill aside, what this campaign has done is to mainstream human trafficking," said Uma Chatterjee, co-founder of non-profit Sanjog that works on gender equity and justice.
"The survivors have brought the issue out in the open," she said. "Suddenly, common people are stopping, listening and pledging their support. That is huge."
(Reporting by Annie Banerji @anniebanerji in New Delhi and Anuradha Nagaraj in Chennai; editing by Jason Fields and Kieran Guilbert. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters that covers humanitarian issues, conflicts, land and property rights, modern slavery and human trafficking, gender equality, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org to see more stories)