Kolkata, Apr 23: Over nine years since 2005-06, India's gross domestic product (GDP) rose 76 per cent, hiding darker changes that evolved in concert with this economic transformation.
One of those is a 20 percent rise in human trafficking related to "purposes of prostitution", with West Bengal accounting for a fifth of such cases and being the epicentre of India's human-trafficking industry.
Forty-two percent of minor girls captured by traffickers nationwide are from West Bengal
We met Aamina and Pinki in Sanlaap, an NGO-run home in Naredrapur, 17 km from central Kolkata. Their future is uncertain, but thousands of minor girls sold into sexual slavery don't get even these breaks, especially not in West Bengal, which is particularly dangerous for minor girls from impoverished families.
Consequently, Sonagachi in central Kolkata is reported to be Asia's largest red-light district, destination of many trafficked girls, most with little or no hope of escape.
In 2014-the latest year for which data are available - India witnessed a 38.7 percent rise in human trafficking over the previous year, according to a National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) report. With 1,096 cases, West Bengal accounts for 20.1 percent of India's total.
The state accounted for 42 percent (850) of minor girls acquired by traffickers nationwide, the NCRB data revealed.
Despite several government programmes, there is a "severe lack of awareness" across West Bengal of the dangers from human traffickers, said Geeta Banerjee of Sanlaap.
A colleague, Tapoti Bhowmick, pointing to the ubiquity of such trafficking in West Bengal, narrated a tea stopover with some police officers on the road into Kolkata. The demeanour of the tea-stall owner appeared "shifty" and troubled her. On her return, she called the local administration and spoke of her "hunch". Two weeks later, Bhowmick was told the police had rescued 50 Nepalese girls from the basement of the tea stall - 19 of those were aged between nine and 14.
Not enough anti-trafficking units: Given Rs.1 lakh per month, many don't bother
Why do so many girls never escape the world of traffickers and brothels? The answers lie in the inadequate response of state and central governments.
After ratifying a global convention on transnational organised crime in 2011, the Centre proposed it would set up 335 AHTUs (anti human trafficking units) in half of India's "vulnerable" districts and train 10,000 police officers, prosecutors, judges and other stakeholders. For more than a decade, New Delhi has also issued to India's states 15 detailed advisories on the subject.
These plans are failing, as an IndiaSpend investigation revealed, for two leading reasons:
1. For instance, of the proposed 335 AHTUs to be established by 2013, no more than 270 were set up until January 2016, according to a government answer in the Rajya Sabha.
2. These units, together, were given Rs.20 crore during 2010-11 to 2014-15, or Rs.1 lakh per month per unit, or less than half the Rs.54 crore needed, by the centre's reckoning. Many did not even use this money, minutes of AHTU meetings reveal. In one case, after buying 10 tables, a computer and a Rs.3,000 mobile phone, there was nothing left.
Why the anti-human-trafficking units are failures
A table, 10 chairs, a desktop computer, two mobile phones (not more than Rs.3,000 each), a video camera, a motorcycle.
This is the equipment that the Centre provides each AHTU, supposed to be established in half the police districts in each of 29 states and union territories vulnerable to human trafficking. Establishing and training such units first began a decade ago, a joint initiative of India's Ministry of Home Affairs and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
In Bengaluru, the AHTU is "adequately equipped", said deputy superintendent of police D N Shettennavar. It operates out of a single room but has six computers and multiple telephone lines. It's headed by a superintendent, with a team of three DSPs, three inspectors, four head constables and two constables.
Still, "(the) workforce is not enough, and central funding is inadequate," said Shettennavar.
Compared to the Bengaluru AHTU, its Kolkata counterpart is a poor cousin.
Here, at ground zero of India's trade in women forced into sexual slavery, the AHTU does not even have a dedicated telephone line - it shares one with the Protection of Women and Children Cell.
AHTU chief, West Bengal, Sarbari Bhattacharjee was not available for comment. Queries sent by email to Malay Kumar, a senior home ministry bureaucrat, went unanswered.
In 2011, West Bengal had four AHTUs - it should have nine for 19 districts (till June 2015). In 2012, instead of rising, the number fell to three, according to Lok Sabha data. From Rs.30 lakh, money from the Centre to set up AHTUs in West Bengal fell 25 percent to Rs.22.7 lakh.
With a 2,217 km border with Bangladesh, 92 km with Nepal and 175 km with Bhutan, West Bengal is a trafficking transit point. The lack of policing is manifest in the state's rising tide of trafficking, evident in the women who populate the pubs and bars on Kolkata's outskirts.
Across India, a new generation of traffickers uses technology to outsmart police
A private tutor, a pharmacist and a life-insurance salesman were some of the people involved in trafficking underage girls and young women, police investigation in West Bengal revealed.
The story is much the same across India.
Traffickers have become "super advanced" and "technology has accelerated and diversified the forms of trafficking in India", said Sunita Krishnan, awarded a Padma Shri in 2016 for the work as founder of Prajwala, an advocacy that rescues and rehabilitates trafficked women.
A gang-rape victim, Krishnan said society is "caught in a time warp", believing that only rural girls are trafficked. "The reality is traffickers nowadays are trafficking literate, urban girls, too," she said. "We have failed to understand that human trafficking is organised crime, not a social problem."
Human trafficking is the fastest-growing criminal industry in the world, according to a United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNDOC) report, estimated at $32 billion, third only to illegal drugs and arms smuggling.