With India immersed into democratic nuances of the ongoing Lok Sabha elections, pertinent issues have received platform for discussions and debate. From LGBT reforms to women empowerment, and even issues of water management, have all become major talking points for India's politicos.
But certain issues, despite their relevance in nation's political hot bed, continue to remain on the back burner; slavery being one among those.
In a national embarrassment, a study conducted by an international anti-slavery organisation Walk Free Foundation revealed that India led the states with the worst slavery track record. While it ranked fourth on the Global Slavery Index 2013 of 162 countries, India managed to top the list of countries with the largest population of enslaved citizens.
The numbers, as enlightening as they are, are shocking.
So what is modern slavery?
Even though most nations, including India have formally and legally abolished slavery, it shockingly continues to exist in the 21st century in various forms. On their website, Walk Free Foundation, defines it as “conditions of treating another person as if they were property”. It also classifies forced labour and human trafficking as forms of modern slavery.
Forced labour has been identified in factory work, agriculture, brick making, mining and quarrying, the textiles and garments industries, domestic work, and forced begging. Bonded labour, whether through debt or other forms of ‘bondage’ of workers, is rife in stone quarries, brick kilns, construction and mining.
What's our problem?
The report diagnoses, “India exhibits the full spectrum of different forms of modern slavery, from severe forms of inter-generational bonded labour across various industries to the worst forms of child labour, commercial sexual exploitation, and forced and servile marriage.”
Our own Integrated Plan of Action to Prevent and Combat Human Trafficking in 2008 stated, “India is a country of vast dimensions. The formidable challenge is the enormity of the problem, both in number of trafficked persons and increasing number of locations.”
The US Trafficking in Persons Report, that estimates this number at 20 to 65 million, suggests that 90% of trafficking in India is internal, a result of internal migration.
There are others, though, trapped into forced labour as a result of debt bondage to a local landowners or are even born into slavery because of caste, customary, social and hereditary obligations.
Similarly, the ILO Committee of Experts noted in 2011 that while India had rehabilitated 267,593 slaves, bonded labour in agriculture and in industries like mining, brick kilns, silk and cotton production, and bidi making was likely to be affecting millions of workers across the country.
Beyond the numbers
These, of course, are simply figures that highlight the development distortion that urban India is wary of. It must be noted here that some of those affected by slavery do not even officially exist – they have no birth registration or ID so it can be hard for them to access protective entitlements.
The real plight, however, lies in the collective apathy, explains activist Lenin Raghuvanshi, a member of the District Vigilance Committee on Bonded Labour in Uttar Pradesh.
Lenin, who is also the founder of People's Vigilance Committee on Human Rights (PVCHR) reveals, “In just the last two and half years PVCHR released and rescued 243 bonded labours.”
He observes, “All the released labour belonged to Dalits, tribal, OBCs and minorities communities. So, it wouldn't be so far fetched to say that existence of caste system, communalism and patriarchy are the real causes of persistent slavery.”
Corruption or non-performance of safety nets and practices of land grabbing and asset domination by high caste groups leaves people without protections.
Further asserting this hypothesis, he adds, “Landless poor, agricultural labourers, some artisans and those without employment are the main victims of this system. Workers employed therein are members of SC, ST and minorities who are mostly non-literate and non-numerate and do not easily understand the arithmetic of loan/ debt/ advance and the documentary evidence remains with the creditor and its contents are never made known to the debtor.”
Providing credence to this, the World Bank reports, blame poverty and India’s caste system are significant contributing factors to its modern slavery problem. It observed, in 2012, that 32.7% of Indians lived below the international poverty line of less than US$1.25/ day (PPP). Indians, it added, most vulnerable to modern slavery are those from the ‘lower’ castes (dalits), and the indigenous communities (adivasis), especially women and children.
How can we fix the problem?
As a grass-route activist, Lenin explains how they work with rescuing the bonded labourers, “There is a gap between identification, release and rehabilitation of those enslaved, on account of which sometimes even the freed labourers lapse back to the vulnerable condition.”
The survivors, of course, require rehabilitation to cope with not just emotional, physical, and psychological needs, but also economic difficulties.