Forced labour, 'child sex tours': how slavery thrives in India

Hampered by government corruption, India does not fully comply with minimum US standards to combat modern-day slavery, according to the 2011 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report issued on Monday by the US Department of State.

The report, which examines the human trafficking activity in 184 countries, ranked India in the second of three tiers, along with countries like Greece and Guatemala.

Countries are evaluated according to its efforts around trafficking prosecution, protection, and prevention. As a Tier 2 country, India was found to be out of compliance in fighting trafficking, although it was also recognised for making “significant progress” toward combating the problem.

Almost 90% of human trafficking in India involves exploitation of Indians within the country’s borders, including in forced labour. Danish Siddiqui / Reuters

As global enforcement efforts have improved, countries need to do more than pass laws criminalising human trafficking, said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. “As we assess ourselves and governments around the world, the true test of a country’s anti-trafficking efforts is not just whether a government has enacted strong laws consistent with that approach, but whether these laws are being implemented broadly and effectively. In short, it’s whether they deliver," Clinton said in a statement accompanying the release of the report.

But anti-trafficking efforts can be difficult to measure in places like India, where activity varies from state to state. “There is genuine, diligent attempt within the TIP office to get the best evidence for the report,” said Ginny Baumann, the associate programs director for Free the Slaves, a US-based nonprofit that has worked in India for a decade. “Those of us who work in a place like India where there are different practices in different states know that it’s hard to generalise across the whole country. Goa could arguably be a Tier 1, Bihar could be a Tier 2, and Uttar Pradesh could be a Tier 3. There’s a lot that happens in Delhi that doesn’t reach down to the places that it needs to.”

India’s forced labour problem

Rankings aside, human trafficking remains a problem in India and for countries around the globe.

As a hidden crime, statistics are difficult to come by, but in its analysis of Indian cases, the State Department found that 90% of human trafficking involves exploitation of Indians within the country's borders, and that it is home to a significant amount of forced labour. Adults and children alike are coerced through debt and sexual violence—including rape—into working in brick kilns, rice mills, agriculture, and embroidery factories.

The poorest and the 'lowest castes' appear to be the most vulnerable, the report noted, and children are also “subjected to forced labour as factory workers, domestic servants, beggars, agricultural workers, and, to a lesser extent, in some areas of rural Uttar Pradesh, as carpet weavers.”

But sex trafficking involving women and girls from India, Nepal, and Bangladesh also thrives in India. In particular, religious pilgrimage centres and cities popular for tourism sometimes facilitate child sex tourism, the report stated.

The circumstances are not benign, said Baumann of Free the Slaves, which works in 350 communities in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. “It’s not just working long days and not getting paid,” she explained. “There is serious violence being used against them.”

During a Monday briefing on the TIP report, Lou C. Baca, the Ambassador-at-Large for the Office To Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, described a case involving a deaf Mexican boy who was lured to New York City with photos of the Statue of Liberty and who was then forced to beg for change on the subway or face beatings.  Clinton also described meeting a Cambodian girl at a shelter for trafficking victims who had been sold into a brothel as a small child. When she tried to fight her way out of her situation, her trafficker stabbed her in one eye with a nail.

Hampered by corruption

Though India has made some strides in improving the prevention of trafficking and protecting those who are victimised by it, enforcement of India’s anti-trafficking laws has been uneven, according to the US State Department. Despite important convictions, including a landmark case in Tamil Nadu in July 2009—where labour traffickers were sentenced to five years in prison—Indian courts do not always handle trafficking with great sensitivity or alacrity.

For example, Indian courts also tend to have a “lenient attitude” towards bail, and upon their release, some perpetrators intimidated their victims. Other challenges to conviction include overburdened courts, a weak understanding of the anti-trafficking laws, and lack of commitment and awareness by some local authorities, the report said.

The complicity of government officials too facilitates human trafficking in India.

According to the report:

The pervasiveness of corruption in India, remained significant and largely unaddressed hurdles to greater progress against trafficking. Corrupt law enforcement officers reportedly continued to facilitate the movement of sex trafficking victims and protected suspected traffickers and brothel keepers from the law. Some police continued to tip-off locations of sex and labour trafficking to impede rescue efforts. Some owners of brothels, rice mills, brick kilns, and stone quarries are reportedly politically connected. India reported no convictions or sentences of government officials for trafficking-related offenses during the reporting period.

Free the Slaves’ Baumann said that when the organisation conducts rescue operations, it does not tell officials where they will be going because otherwise, “when you get there with the official, there won’t be anything to find.” And on the rare occasion where a trafficker is arrested, the police often try to book the perpetrator under a lesser crime, or try to pressure the victim to withdraw the case.

But because the poorest and the most disenfranchised are most vulnerable to trafficking, Baumann said, it’s ultimately the day-to-day government corruption that facilitates bonded labour and sex trafficking. “If the public distribution of food and the employment guarantee schemes were working without corruption, millions of people in India would be much less vulnerable to slavery than they currently are.”

India's anti-trafficking hero

The report also praised many Indian efforts to address human trafficking. In fact, the report also honoured 10 “TIP Report Heroes” who have dedicated their lives to combating human trafficking. Among them is Magistrate Swati Chauhan, who presides over Mumbai’s new special court that administers the Immoral Trafficking Prevention Act (ITPA). Since her appointment in 2008, Chauhan has cleared hundreds of backlogged trafficking cases, and assisted more than 1,200 victims. Last year, 164 trafficers were convicted in her court. Chauhan has also ensured that sex trafficking victims were no longer hit with a $2 fine for prostitution against their will.

The report also noted that the Ministry of Home Affairs launched the government’s “Comprehensive Scheme for Strengthening Law Enforcement Response in India,” to improve India’s law enforcement response to the issue. Through this initiative, $12 million has been dedicated to the issue, and it established 87 new Anti Human Trafficking Units (AHTUs) in police departments for a total of 125 in 17 states.

Out of India

Indian nationals can also be victims of labour trafficking abroad. This appears especially prevalent in the Middle East, where Indian labourers are lured out of the country through fraudulent recruitment processes. Alternately, they are sometimes forced to pay high recruitment fees that lead to debt bondage.

Many Indian victims of trafficking are brought to the US. The report stated that along with countries like Thailand and Mexico, the top countries of origin for trafficking victims to the US were from India.

Indians are also victims of debt servitude in the US. For example, as we have previously reported, more than 500 guestworkers from India filed a class action lawsuit alleging that they were victims of forced labour by an Alabama-based marine and oil rig manufacturer.


Updated Date: Jun 28, 2011 11:50 AM

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