By Roli Srivastava
MUMBAI, Feb 1 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - India increased spending on women and children's welfare in Wednesday's budget but activists said it was not enough to tackle the growing trade of girls from the country's northeast.
In his 2017-18 budget, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley announced a rise of around 20 percent in spending on northeast women, children and various marginalised communities compared to the previous fiscal year.
The government will now spend nearly 1,100 billion rupees ($16.31 billion) on northeastern women and 700 billion rupees on children from an estimated total expenditure of 21.47 trillion rupees.
Increasing numbers of young women have been trafficked from India's impoverished northeastern states over recent years then forced into sex work and domestic labour.
Campaigners say a lack of education, resources and jobs have made girls in the northeast more vulnerable to traffickers.
While increasing the welfare budget is a long-term measure to prevent trafficking, it will not address the most pressing issues, activists said.
"Empowering rural women will reduce the likelihood of them being trafficked, particularly if they are skilled and have employment opportunities," said Diya Nag, senior program officer with non-profit The Asia Foundation.
She added there was a more urgent need to strengthen anti-trafficking police units that were set up in 2010 but lacked the resources to carry out rescues.
"The need of the hour is providing resources to law enforcement agencies, de-clogging the courts and working closely with public prosecutors and the legal services authorities."
Priti Patkar, founder of anti-trafficking NGO Prerana, said the northeastern states have always been neglected and she has observed a trafficking trend from them for some time now.
"No amount of money is enough but then the government is making an effort to address the problem," she said.
Budget allocations for child development could strengthen laws implemented over the last four years to protect minors from abuse, however.
"We can hope for trained staff and better resources to deal with children in conflict with law or those who have suffered with abuse," said child rights expert Asha Bajpai, professor at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences.
Campaigners estimate there are between 3 million and 9 million victims of sex trafficking in India.
South Asia, with India at its centre, is the fastest-growing and the second-largest region for human trafficking after East Asia, according to the U.N. Office for Drugs and Crime.
In May 2016, India unveiled a draft of the country's first-ever comprehensive anti-human trafficking law, which would treat survivors as victims in need of assistance and protection rather than as criminals.
The draft legislation provides for special courts to expedite trafficking cases, more shelters and a rehabilitation fund to help victims rebuild their lives.
($1 = 67.4346 Indian rupees)
(Reporting by Roli Srivastava; Editing by Ed Upright and Astrid Zweynert. Please credit Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org)