By Eric Chu
For ten days each year in September or October, the city of Kolkata, in the state of West Bengal, India, celebrates Durga Puja, a festival that pays homage to the Hindu mother-goddess, Durga, for her triumph over evil. In the city’s Kumartuli neighborhood, artists in small workshops spend months crafting sculptures of the goddess out of Ganges River clay in preparation for the festival. Some of the sculpted idols stay within the city for display in decorated pavilions called pandals, which people line up to visit during the festival, while others are sent to other Indian states or abroad for celebrations in Bengali diaspora communities. Public displays and performances of art, music, dance, and literature as well as culinary and religious traditions showcase the best of Bengali culture during the festival. On the tenth day of Durga Puja, processions carry the Durga idols to the Ganges and submerge them in the holy river, which signifies a homecoming as the clay that sculpted the goddess returns from where it came.
Bengalis around the world have long viewed the festival as a key part of their identity and thought it was only fitting when UNESCO inscribed the festival as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2021. But beyond its religious and cultural significance, Durga Puja is also a crucial contributor to the West Bengal economy. A British Council report estimated the economic worth of the creative industries associated with West Bengal’s Durga Puja in 2019 to be $4.53 billion, or 2.58% of the state’s gross domestic product. Workers engaged in pandal installation and decoration, idol making, lighting and illumination, and crafts and design depend on the festival for their livelihood. Bengalis in other parts of India or abroad often hire these workers to travel so they can revere Maa Durga, as the goddess is affectionately known, in their communities. The festival is also when Bengalis return to visit family and friends, supporting employment in the travel, hospitality, retail, advertising, and entertainment industries.
While large cultural events like this provide business opportunities for local communities, they can also become the locus of heinous crimes, such as human trafficking. Behind the glamor of the festivities can lurk a sinister story of human traffickers using the appeal of festival-related job opportunities to exploit vulnerable individuals.
As the internet has made it easier for people around the world to rapidly exchange ideas and information, especially since the COVID-19 pandemic began, it has also made it easier for criminals to prey on anyone with an internet-connected device. What begins as an innocent conversation about a job offer over WhatsApp or Facebook can twist into a nightmare for the thousands of men, women, and children sold into forced labor or sex work each year. The lack of awareness, insufficient employment opportunities, and frequent natural disasters in eastern India make young, marginalized, poor, and illiterate people particularly susceptible to human trafficking, or trafficking in persons (TIP). Many girls and women are trafficked to western India for sex slavery or forced marriages. In addition, eastern India borders Bangladesh, Burma, Bhutan, China, and Nepal, and the porous nature of these borders makes trafficking difficult to detect and prosecute. West Bengal has also emerged as a hub for traffickers sending victims to the Middle East as forced labor.
As part of Mission India’s countrywide strategy, the U.S. Consulate General in Kolkata has been working for more than a decade with civil society partners and state governments to create constituencies, build coalitions, and shape the media narrative to combat human trafficking. The consulate has organized anti-TIP conclaves in more than 100 cities and towns in 22 of India’s 36 states and union territories to advocate for the three pillars of the anti-trafficking movement: prosecution, protection, and prevention. The first anti-TIP conclave started as a modest gathering of stakeholders at the American Center in Kolkata in 2012.
With a $5,000 grant from the Department of State’s Office to Monitor and Combat TIP, staff members organized an event with 20 anti-trafficking NGOs, youth organizations, and socially conscious businesses participating in panel discussions, workshops, and an anti-trafficking awareness procession through the center of the city. Awareness campaigns and media coverage from the event reached tens of millions in the consular district and brought human trafficking to people’s consciousness, an achievement in itself. When the consulate floated the idea of a conclave against trafficking, some police contacts thought the focus was to reduce automobile traffic.
The idea has since developed into a multi-layered approach and employed a range of public diplomacy resources to approach the problem. Using the Department’s Arts Envoy Program, in coordination with Embassy New Delhi, U.S.-based digital storytellers worked with eight trafficking survivors to create short films advocating for the inclusion of survivor voices in policymaking. Likewise, capitalizing on the great popularity of field hockey, Mission India partnered with the Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs’ Sports Visitor Program to bring American collegiate field hockey players to participate in a hockey and leadership camp for 107 tribal girls from heavily trafficked districts. Another unique initiative, “I RISE,” adopted the medium of performative storytelling for change and conversation around gender empowerment. These efforts resulted in training programs for more than 1,500 police officers, 4,000 educators, 12,000 community workers, and half a million young people to counter trafficker recruitment efforts in India’s most targeted states.
To combat human trafficking, ConGen Kolkata employs an intersectional TIP working group for coordination and collaboration. Consul General Melinda Pavek and the political-economic section regularly raise the issue with high-level state government officials. The assistant regional security officer-investigator with the Office of Overseas Criminal Investigations frequently conducts briefings with law enforcement, immigration, and travel industry contacts to share best practices to prevent trafficking. To encourage temporary worker visa applicants to retain information about the National Human Trafficking Hotline and their rights when working in the United States, consular officers are piloting an initiative that provides visa applicants with information via QR codes instead of a large paper pamphlet. The working group drafted the specific sub-objective that was added to Mission India’s Integrated Country Strategy in 2022.
The anti-TIP conclaves have produced significant collaborations among Indian state governments, NGOs, law enforcement, the judiciary, academia, and the private sector and have led directly to positive legislative and judicial outcomes at the state level. The goal is to sustain and expand these collaborations to influence a national constituency against human trafficking that will result in national legislative change, increased prosecutions, and better survivor protections. At the most recent conclave, July 28, which focused on cyber-enabled trafficking and convened participants from India, Bangladesh, and Nepal, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Kailash Satyarthi urged participants to work together to reform India’s outdated anti-trafficking laws.
“I urge everyone to come forward and work together,” said Satyarthi. “This [new anti-TIP law] is not beyond our reach…With the strongest possible resolve, we will end trafficking.”
Eric Chu is a public diplomacy-coned consular officer at the U.S. Consulate General in Kolkata.