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Above: The locked door of a maid’s quarters in Delhi, India‘s capital. Below: trafficked bride works on a farm in the northern Indian state of Haryana.

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Slavery Thrives In India Today,
With 46 Million Victims





It took hours to arrange my first conversation with Paratapa. He agreed to an interview for my research on contemporary slaveholders, but he wasn’t free until late evening.

When he finally greeted me on his sprawling estate, I learned why. He balances the demands of his large farm in India with the presidency of a local agricultural bank that makes loans to farmers like him.

I met Paratapa while travelling across India to interview men whose businesses rely on bonded labour, a form of modern-day slavery. During our conversation, it became clear that where I saw human rights and labour violations, he saw something else. He explained that, in his father’s and grandfather’s time, his family “used to keep bonded labourers, and they used to stay here, even their children and their wives”.

In exchange for their work in the fields, Paratapa’s family provided the labourers with food, housing, even wedding planning. “Even if they required many things from my house, I would lend to them,” he said.

He was clearly upset that this way of life had changed. He once considered his bonded labourers part of his family, but all that changed once they started taking him to court.

Thanks to a growing abolitionist movement, labourers and their allies worldwide are working towards eradicating slavery in all its forms. These labourers are increasingly finding the law on their side, and organisations are on hand to help them overcome corruption and discrimination and see justice served.

My interviews with slaveholders in India revealed that they regard the emancipation of labourers as an injustice, the loss of a “family feeling”. They perceive the upholding of these human rights as a gross violation of communal and social bonds, ties rooted in a history that, they insist, runs deeper than new laws.

The men I spoke to while researching my book represent just one variety of perpetrator. A diverse range of people keep operations running across the many forms of exploitation involved in trafficking and slavery. Finding, breaking and controlling fellow human beings requires a division of labour.

There are women, mothers among them, who traffic infants. There are women who, once trafficked into prostitution, now work as brothel madams, an upward move seen as a sort of empowerment and freedom. There are powerless and unemployed workers, arrested for introducing other vulnerable workers to trafficking networks.

Of course, there are also sadists who delight in the harm of others: this is a brutal truth.

For me, the fact that many perpetrators are otherwise ordinary people is far more unsettling. Some are doing anything to get by; others, like Paratapa, are engaged in economic activities inherited from previous generations. Born at the top of India’s Hindu caste hierarchy, members of Paratapa’s family have enjoyed the privileges of status for generations.

No wonder he opposes change.

If estimates of contemporary slavery are reliable – about 46 million people are victims currently – we cannot simply rely on the law and the power of arrest to end the problem. More sophisticated and sustainable approaches to emancipation will emerge as donors and policymakers recognise the diverse motives and mindsets of involved in slavery.

The crude caricature of such people as “evil villains” obscures more than it illuminates. Perpetrators of slavery and trafficking are rights violators and lawbreakers. But ending the practice requires recognising that modern slavery is a complex phenomenon that exists in a wide range of social, political, and economic contexts.

Brutal enforcers threaten and resort to violence. Recruiters, facilitators and brokers work to find and secure victims for exploitation. Trafficking for sexual exploitation is driven by people who pay for sex, who are likewise perpetrators.

Unfortunately, those who benefit most from these operations are often never caught: corrupt police and unscrupulous corporations with dirty supply chains are prime examples. Even ordinary investors who never bother to ask what’s in their mutual funds must share blame.

For that to change, we must not only end slavery in places like Paratapa’s farm but also purge our investment portfolios of links to the practice. This requires fresh thinking.

A good start would be recognising that although many slaveholders belong in jail, some could simply be redirected into sectors of the economy that don’t rely on the violation of human rights.

[Courtesy: The Guardian. Edited for]
May 5, 2017

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