By Roli Srivastava and Anuradha Nagaraj
MUMBAI/CHENNAI, India, March 31 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - C orrupt doctors and village leaders in India are helping traffickers to obtain fake documents to pass child victims off as adults and evade justice for crimes affecting thousands of minors, a rights group said.
More than 9,000 children were victims of trafficking in India in 2016, up 27 percent on the previous year, according to the latest government data. Many were sold to brothels or forced to work in spinning mills, hotels and as domestic help.
Following a two-year study of criminal networks trafficking girls from Bangladesh to India, the charity Justice and Care found that school leaving certificates were the most forged document used by traffickers to hide the age of their victims.
"These documents, prima facie (on first impression), seem exactly like genuine ones and as a result can potentially derail the law enforcement process," said Justice and Care spokesman, Adrian Phillips.
"The law of the land puts a greater emphasis on certain documents over medical or forensic tests," Phillips said, referring to birth certificates and school leaving certificates which rights groups say are rarely checked for forgery.
Child trafficking is currently prosecuted under a range of laws in India. Under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, suspects accused of trafficking or sexually abusing children cannot be bailed.
"In child trafficking cases, the punishment is between seven years and life imprisonment," rights lawyer, Harish Bhandari, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"But if shown as adults, the quantum of punishment is much lower and traffickers can also seek bail."
In a report, Justice and Care quoted a printing press owner on the border between Bangladesh and India who said he had helped to falsify up to 600 school leaving certificates for use by traffickers.
It also said members of village councils were often under pressure from their bosses to sign or approve fake documents.
"The council members are themselves part of the smuggling syndicate," report said.
The report, due to be published next month, said fake birth certificates were easily available for 1,000 rupees ($15) each.
Traffickers also arranged for fake parents to appear before authorities seeking to verify the age of victims through their identity documents, it said.
Brothel keepers and in some cases even parents of trafficked children influence doctors, particularly in small health centres, to certify a rescued child as an adult in bone density tests carried out to ascertain age.
Police in some parts of India say they were aware of the use of fake identity certificates in trafficking cases.
Mahesh Bhagwat, police chief of the southern state of Telangana, said his officers had been instructed to treat young victims as minors in cases where their ages are in doubt.
($1 = 64.8500 Indian rupees) (Reporting by Anuradha Nagaraj and Roli Srivastava, Editing by Katie Nguyen. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)