India: Time to Put an End to Slavery

A 16-year-old girl sits inside a protection home on the outskirts of New Delhi November 9, 2012 where she was brought by a charity which rescues victims of bonded labor. Mansi Thapliyal/Reuters

I met a 15-year-old girl, a Dalit, or “untouchable,” in Varanasi, India, last month. Kidnapped by a member of her village, she had been raped and sold to a brothel in Mumbai hundreds of miles from her home.

When she was finally rescued, she and her family had the courage to go to the police to file a complaint against her trafficker. Her ordeal was ignored. The police had no interest in investigating the enslavement of a Dalit girl.

With the support of her family and help from one of the partner organizations in India of the Freedom Fund, the charity I work for, which is dedicated to ending modern slavery, the girl got a lawyer to file her complaint. Her reward was to become the target of a sustained campaign of harassment not just from the police but the leaders of her village, too, who were concerned about the damage a prosecution for slavery would do to their standing. The Dalit girl and her family were forced to go into hiding.

That’s what the weak rule of law in India means in reality. Local politicians and other power holders often own the very brickworks or quarries in which bonded laborers or children spend their lives. In big cities like Mumbai and Kolkata, highly visible brothels—black holes for many trafficked girls—remain free to go about their business because of the complicity of police and other officials. Bribes and favors are commonplace.

There are, however, activists, lawyers, judges and officials in India who are seeking to use the full force of the law to end this culture of complicity and impunity. They are having some success in fighting and winning cases against the odds. In doing so, they not only bring justice for victims and deter other offenders but ensure that the rule of law is gradually strengthened while slavery is made increasingly unacceptable in Indian society. These efforts, and the steps required to build on them, are detailed in a report just published by the Freedom Fund.

The latest Global Slavery Index sets out a challenge to countries and companies around the world. Over 200 years after the first steps were taken to end this terrible practice, there are still 36 million slaves globally in a crime which touches every society and almost every community.

But while the Index highlights the universal reach of slavery, it also shows how central India is to our ambitions to finishing the work of the 19th century antislavery campaigner William Wilberforce, Abraham Lincoln and present-day abolitionists. India may not have the highest proportion of modern slaves for its population—that shame belongs to Mauritania—but with 14 million slaves it easily has the highest overall number of slaves.  

It is not just the huge numbers that put India at the heart of this battle. We talk of slavery being a hidden crime. But that’s not the case across much of the country, where it remains an openly accepted fact of life. It is hard, for example, to hide the 100-foot chimneys of the brick kilns where many tens of thousands of bonded and child laborers work in a state of slavery and fear.   

So why is slavery so prevalent and visible in India? For slavery to thrive, there must be demand for extremely cheap labor and a large pool of people on the margins who can be exploited. Both these factors are evident in India. Despite substantial economic growth and development in recent decades, India remains a profoundly unequal society. Abject poverty sits alongside great wealth. The caste system is still intact. Women are too often treated as second-class citizens.

And while these conditions are essential for the existence of slavery, it can only continue to exist on such an enormous scale when the law offers little or no protection for those trapped in its web. This sadly is the case in India.

India does not lack the laws to tackle trafficking and slavery or to bring those behind the crimes to justice. Such laws exist and have been strengthened in recent years. But there is not the will to enforce them. Until the police seriously investigate complaints, until the authorities bring cases to court, until judges convict those responsible and until politicians keep up the pressure on all three to fulfill their responsibilities, they will not provide the protection to victims nor the deterrence needed to abolish slavery once and for all.

Those interested in ending slavery in India—and globally—need to support efforts to put justice first in India. Doing so will decisively change the risk-benefit calculations of the traffickers and will help bring about the freedom of millions currently enslaved.

Nick Grono is CEO of the Freedom Fund, the world’s first private donor fund dedicated to ending modern slavery.

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