By PANKAJA SRINIVASAN – February 19, 2016
“Human trafficking is the number of people on a square meter of a traffic signal.” A doctor’s response to a question on human trafficking reinforced 24-year-old Pankhuri Agarwal’s desire to tell people about this horrific issue. “Sure, there are statistics. Here are some popular ones. According to the International Labour Organisation, human trafficking generates $150 million a year in illegal profits, and there are around 36 million victims across the world.” Pankhuri obligingly provides the numbers and follows it up with “I do not believe in statistics as these represent only the tip of the iceberg but they do help in communicating the enormity of the situation.”
Pankhuri — now studying for her Masters in Development Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London, as a Felix Scholar — has just released a documentary called Freedom Matters to spread awareness about human trafficking. Along with production house The Storygraphers, she made a short film that tries to answer questions about human trafficking, why we should be bothered and how we may actually be perpetuating it. And what we can do — irrespective of our educational or professional background — to stop it.
This was not what Pankhuri dreamt of when joined Sri Ram College of Commerce, Delhi. Her dream was to be a CEO of an MNC. She had the qualifications to make that come true when, after graduation, she was placed in a reputed company. But, in 2011, just after India won the ICC World Cup in 2011, an article titled “Thanks to the match, sex workers have a day off” changed things.
Within a year, she had resigned her job and started working with NGOs involved in different aspects of human trafficking from rescue and rehabilitation to prevention. “This has been my boldest decision so far,” she says. In the course of her work with NGOs, she learnt about the modus operandi of human traffickers. She picked up valuable insights working with advocate Ravi Kant, the founder of Shakti Vahini, including the legal and rehabilitation tools to provide relief to victims and survivors. “Every story is different, every person is different. The traffickers are organised and change their routes. This is what makes saving lives harder. The experience is emotionally draining. However, it has taught me the importance of freedom, hope and courage at a very young age.”
Pankhuri is struck by how people don’t know what they can do. “Existing documentaries or the visual media tell us to do something. But what is that ‘something’? One need not be a social activist or from the Government to do something. For instance, many people ask if online petitions even work. I know they do. So I wanted to create a platform that not only spoke of specific action points but also provided authenticity of their impact.”
Pankhuri also wanted to debunk false notions that human trafficking is only prostitution or that only poor people and women are trafficked. “I wrote the initial script with everything that I wanted to convey. I wanted to tell people that we perpetuate it and that it also affects us; therefore, it is in our selfish interest to take action. My friends helped give soul to my words.”
She then discussed the idea with Hardik and Ashish, co-founders of The Storygraphers (See box). They had their first meeting on April 28, 2015. “The same day, we started interviewing random people on the streets of Delhi to gauge what they know about the issue. We met regularly to spend more time with children and sex workers in Delhi’s red-light area. We interviewed people and shot at different places. Editing took a lot of time. We had multiple drafts because we wanted to be sure that we communicate our message effectively and simply. The Storygraphers gave wings to my dream project. They hold equal credit and ownership for everything related to this documentary.”
Freedom Matters has voices of many respected and passionate anti-human trafficking activists and researchers including Nobel Laureate Kailash Satyarthi and actor Kalki Koechlin. Pankhuri’s mentor, Dr. P.M. Nair, introduced her to Satyarthi. “I wrote to Kalki and she replied! She had so many questions. She wanted to be very specific and clear in what she said. She prepared a lot for this interview.”
The Storygraphers did this as a public service project and Pankhuri’s friends and family helped raise the money needed. The challenges lay elsewhere. “Finding the right visuals was a challenge, as we did not have the kind of money to experiment. So, MTV Exit helped us with some video clips; the rest was shot in Delhi. The most challenging part was editing and bringing all of this together.” In nine months, on January 26 January, 2016, the documentary was released.
Pankhuri wanted to understand how different social science disciplines interact to solve human rights issues. She hopes her stint at SOAS will teach her that. “After my studies, I will continue to work against human trafficking, both activism and research-based advocacy. I also plan a PhD, which will make a contribution in saving lives.”
Pankhuri is sustaining the discussion and queries that Freedom Matters is generating. “Besides, I am volunteering at the Anti-Slavery International in London.”
She wants to establish a home for survivors; not a shelter but a home owned and managed by them. “I also intend to act as an interface between and within NGOs and other stakeholders as the flow of information has to be enhanced if we want to expedite the process of fighting this crime. I hope that Freedom Matters helps us sustain this platform for discussion and action. We are the problem, we are the solution,” she says.