Meet world's Number 1 slaveholder: India

Here comes one statistic where India is clearly hands down the worldwide leader.

Its nearest competition is China but India is miles ahead of China.

Unfortunately it’s a shameful statistic.

According to the newly-released global index on modern slavery released by Walk Free, an Australian-based rights group, India has emerged as the 21st century’s unquestioned Number One slaveholder.

Walk Free estimates there are 29.8 million slaves worldwide. It says about 13.9 million of them live in India. That’s almost half the world’s slave population.

China comes in at number 2 but with 2.9 million, followed by Pakistan with 2.1 million. Because of the population sizes if you rank the countries by slavery per capita, the order changes somewhat.


But the larger problem of labour trafficking is far more pervasive and insidious and unfortunately we are inured to it. Reuters

Mauritania heads the list followed by Haiti, Pakistan and then India. But that is cold comfort.

The report is going to raise hackles in India. It will be perceived as another way for the West to lord it over us. One of the problems is that slavery has traditionally been easy to identify – slave ships, cotton field workers in chains, the Bubba boss overseer with a whip.

Modern day slavery is trickier to define. No country permits slavery legally but as the report shows it exists in almost every country. It exists in stone quarries in India, orange orchards in Florida, garment factories in Saipan. It seems maddeningly contextual, and the line between exploitation and slavery extremely slippery.

“The word slavery is becoming this cool buzzy word being applied to every kind of labour abuse,” admits John Bowes author of Nobody in an earlier radio interview. But he says if you go to the heart of it the key issues to look for are “coercion” and “constraint.”

He says it boils down to this simple question: “Is the worker free to leave?”

And the answer to that is too often no. A migrant orange picker in Florida is afraid that his family back in Mexico will be harmed if he runs away. An Indian welder in Oklahoma has his passport held by his boss. A boy in a carpet factory in India, kidnapped at eight, has never known any other home than the loom beside which he sleeps every day.

Modern day slavery is not about selling people on auction blocks. It is about taking control of people and exploiting their labour coercively. That is why it can exist anywhere whether it’s a Congolese Coltan mine or a Washington DC diplomat’s home or that dhaba down the street.

But India is especially varied in its enslavement of its citizens. According to the Dalit Freedom Network the vast majority are Dalits or Adivasi tribals and they are trapped into servitude in a host of ways.

Bonded labour. Sex trafficking. Child labour. Domestic servitude. Ritual sex slavery. Bride trafficking. Harvesting organs.

A lot of attention is focused on only the sex trafficking bit, not least because Hilary Clinton as U.S. Secretary of State gave it a lot of attention. When she visited Kolkata she watched sex trafficking survivors dance and told a group of anti-trafficking NGOs “I’m totally your cheerleader.”

But the larger problem of labour trafficking is far more pervasive and insidious and unfortunately we are inured to it. For us, it’s as simple as rolling up the car window at the traffic light and fiddling with our phones until the little girl begging outside goes away. The problem seems so huge that it feels futile to even worry about it.

Yet as this report shows we cannot wish it away either.

We can argue cultural context all we want. We can say that the west just does not get the nuances of the mistress-maid relationship. Many of us feel we are doing some poor child a favour by providing food, shelter, perhaps even a little education. But it does not change the basic fact that about three quarters of domestic workers in India are believed to be between the ages of 12 and 16 and 90% of them are girls. The Indian government’s 2001 census says 12.6 million minors between the age of 5 and 14 are in the workforce.

When the fifteen year old girl was rescued in the upscale Vasant Kunj area in Delhi recently, she had bite marks, head wounds infested with maggots, and was naked. According to the Hindustan Times, Vandana Dhir, the mistress, allegedly did not allow her to wear clothes so she could not escape.

Our headlines called the teenager a “maid”. She was, in reality, simply a slave.

These cases shock us with their brutality but also in their extreme cruelty allow a host of other violations to pass as benign.

Another problem with the way we deal with slavery and trafficking is we tend to only focus on the rescue and not the rehabilitation. Anti-slavery activist Kevin Bales, author of the book Ending Slavery, recounts the story of how he went to Nepal in 2000 to encourage local groups fighting debt-bondage. Shortly after he left, a bonded labourer filed a petition demanding back wages for years of enslavement. Other labourers marched 300 miles to Kathmandu. The king eventually abolished debt-bondage slavery. Bales remembers “tears welling up in my eyes, for I believed I had contributed to a momentous and wonderful event. In my mind’s eye, the slaves were stepping into the golden light of freedom.”

But the morning after was not quite so rosy. Many slaveholders fearing arrest just threw their labourers out. Forty thousand families in five districts suddenly found themselves emancipated and evicted overnight. Pneumonia and dysentery racked hastily set-up refugee camps. Seven years after their emancipation, a third were still living in camps. “I wanted something to happen now, something dramatic that would kick-start liberation. I was a fool,” Bales says with remarkable honesty.

Despite the urgency of the situation, trafficking in human beings requires slow systemic, often un-dramatic grassroots responses. Groups like Manas Sansadhan Evam Mahila Vikas Sansthan, Pragati Gramadyog Sansthan, Jeevika have been doing a lot of that work against great odds. Often the ones in servitude just accept it as their fate and do not wish to rock the boat.

But that cannot be an excuse for the rest of us to shrug and pretend this is just the way things are in Incredible India. We are going into an election year. Our political parties who all claim the greatest empathy for the poorest of the poor could spend their energy talking about how they want to address this. Or they could quibble about semantics and see in it a global conspiracy to keep India as slumdogs when it wants to be millionaires.

Updated Date: Oct 18, 2013 12:09 PM

Also See