Sense and sensibility: How the police in Manipur are adapting to the evolving challenges posed by trafficking

-Ibemcha Ayekpam
Ravi Singh was part of one of the teams that rescued128people just before they were about to be trafficked to Myanmar en route Moreh, a dusty border town in Manipur. Having been part of quite a few anti-trafficking operations before, Singh is well aware of the menace that has gripped this tiny north-eastern state and converted it into an easy transit point for cross-border flesh trade.
In a bid to understand how the police in Manipur have been battling trafficking and how much do they really understand it, CRY- Child Rights and You and Manipur Alliance for Child Rights spoke to around 110 men and women in uniformfrom 14 stations, spread across eight  districts in the state. An analysis of their responses provides us insights into how the police now view the phenomenon of trafficking in comprehensive totality, a perspective that has helped them to crack down harder on the traffickers.
Numbers tell a tale
Data available from a trafficking study done by the Women and Child Development department, Government of India, says that from 2008 to 2013 (August), there were 39 cases reported, involving 486 children. From November 2013 to June 2016, five cases were reported, involving 80 children. Around 530 children have been rescued, repatriated and rehabilitated into the mainstream. , says a government report on child trafficking.
Rescue operations that have taken place over the last 3 years, since 2016, indicate that the police have raised the ante against trafficking.
In February 2016, 29 children from Churchandpur, Ukhrul and Imphal were rescued from Meghalaya. Only two months later, 17 children from Thoubal district were intercepted by Sekmai police along the National Highway 102 (Imphal-Dimapur road), on their way to Tamil Nadu. In June, another 12 hailing from Churachandpur district, were rescued from Tamil Nadu.
In September 2017, eight girls, also from Churachandpur district, were rescued from the clutches of traffickers in Myanmar. 
Earlier this year, 128 people were rescued in raids across Moreh town and Imphal following a tip-off from Nepal about a group being trafficked across the border.In all, 310 cases of trafficking of trafficking have been reported in the first seven months of this year and there have been 179 rescues.
What can we infer?
The number of rescues steadily on the rise can perhaps be linked with the understanding of the police about the different nuances of trafficking, which has also come to the fore in the responses of the police to the questionnaire shared with them.  The responses also provide us insights into the root causes of trafficking and why it has spurted in a state like Manipur over the years.
While 53 per cent of the respondents have said they understand trafficking and why it happens, an astonishingly high 45 per cent said that for them, trafficking is synonymous with cross-border smuggling.
The parallel drawn here can probably be considered unique for a state like Manipur, which, by virtue of its geographical location (a state with international borders), has always been a hotbed of smuggling in items like contraband, arms and others.
The problem of rampant trafficking in strife-torn Manipur cannot but be seen as one in isolation. Most of the population is here below the poverty line; there is lack of infrastructure for education, economic equality and basic facilities of sustenance. Incidence of HIV-AIDS is very high and contraband smuggling, over the years, has affected the psycho-social well-being of the youth in a big way. The prolonged armed conflict in the state has left the population in a vulnerable condition.
This vulnerability of the populace – families, adolescents, victims of domestic violence, single-parent families et all – has left them as sitting ducks for traffickers to lure them to “greener” pastures, with consent, force, threat or otherwise. This is a phenomenon so stark and apparent that it resonates itself in the findings of the survey.
Asked what is trafficking, 42 per cent of the police have said that rampant trafficking is often a result of abuse of power in situations of extreme vulnerability. Around 38 per cent see the use of threat or coercion on socially and economically vulnerable communities, as the most important factor that sustains trafficking as a viable “trade”.
While poor socio-economic condition and protracted political armed conflicts have played a significant role in spurting trafficking in Manipur, the pattern has changed to a certain extent.  As per government and media reports, the traditional “destinations” of trafficking have changed.
In the incidence of child trafficking in the state, from 2008 to 2016, children have been trafficked in the name of free education, free accommodation and job placement, mostly to other states in the country.  Now, as details emerge about the recent anti-trafficking rescue operation in Moreh and Imphal in February, the state has been turned into a safe conduit for trafficking across the Myanmar border.     
With a subtle shift in “destinations”, the profile of the trafficked victims, however, remains the same. Around 62 per cent of the police, by virtue of their experiences on the ground and knowledge of the socio-economic scenario, have said that adolescent girls, in the age-bracket of 14-17 years, remain the desired prey of traffickers, who send them to other states, and indeed, South East Asian countries, to work in spa centres and massage parlours and even as domestic helps. Majority of these girls end up in brothels and red-light areas.      
“By virtue of its location on the border with Myanmar, Manipur has become an easy corridor to reach countries in South East Asia and Middle East countries, mostly for sexual exploitation,” says Dr. S. Ibomcha Singh, MPS Superintendent of police, Thoubal. Dr Singh played an active role in the recent drive to rescue the Nepalese victims at Moreh town. At the time, he was the SP of Tengnoubpal district.
According to the police, as reflected in their responses, lucrative job offers remain the top pretext for traffickers. A staggering 82 per cent of the police feel that recruiters still pick up their targets by offering them “lucrative jobs” in faraway lands, often in south-east Asia. Unemployment and bleak earning prospects at home makes it easy bait for unsuspecting victims. 
Mr Yumnam Kheda Singh, a retired SI, who was the in charge of the anti-Human Trafficking Police Unit, Imphal West, mentions poverty as one of the root causes of trafficking. “Poverty is acrucial factor.The helpless parents are easily lured by the trafficking agents with the promise of free education, lucrative jobs and placement for their children and young people”. 
Across the table
One factor that perhaps explains the heightened awareness among the police about trafficking is the sensitization and training workshops conducted by CRY, its alliance and partners with the police. Around 24 such sessions have been held over the past three years for around 1280 police personnel, educating them about the nuances of trafficking and also other child rights issues.
Discussions focused POCSO and the Juvenile Justice Act have not only broadened their understanding of the subjects, but also prompted them to master their knowledge of relevant acts in the Indian Penal Code, that can come handy in nabbing and prosecuting traffickers – a finding that has come to the fore in the responses of the police personnel we spoke to. 
Awards for police officers on such a prestigious platform have also helped motivate the rank and force to step up their fight against trafficking.
Mr N. Ingocha Singh, inspector, has played a major role in many rescue operations in Imphal city and Imphal airport. “The border state needs relevant regulations specifically to combat human trafficking. Multi-ethnic population along the border areas and lack of well-equipped check posts along the highways and international border have made it easy for traffickers to continue their operations and slip out of the radar,” he says.
Summing it up
Trina Chakrabarti, Regional Director, CRY, feels trafficking needs to be viewed from a composite lens in order to be able to curb it and nip it in the bud. “Trafficking as a phenomenon cannot be viewed in isolation. There are different aspects to it and the police need to be aware of them thoroughly. Our awareness workshops with the police have been aimed at boosting this understanding,” she says. 
The police brass in Manipur is aware of the task that lies ahead. Going ahead, an anti-trafficking unit in place in each and every district is definitely a good start.  Inspector Singh mentioned that the police are trying hard to ensure that FIRs are filed immediately in suspected trafficking cases.It is also necessary to coordinate with other departments and establish a good rapport with the general public to ensure a complete crackdown on traffickers.
The writer is State coordinator, MACR
CRY - Child Rights and You is an Indian NGO that believes in every child’s right to a childhood – to live, learn, grow and play. For 4 decades, CRY and its 850 initiatives have worked with parents and communities to ensure Lasting Change in the lives of more than 2,000,000 underprivileged children, across 23 states in India. For more information please visit us at media enquiries contact: Nilanjana Sen Dasgupta, Media Advocacy, CRY, email id: [email protected], phone no: +91 8697418805