Guess why slavery persists in India
How do you shed ‘gulami ki mansikta’ when gulami is so deeply entrenched in our socio-economic fabric?
When Prime Minister Narendra Modi exhorts Indians to shed their 'gulami ki mansikta (slavish mindset)', he is referring to our so-called colonial hangover, and evidently not to the entitled Indians, affluent landlords and high-powered moneylenders who enslave, for all intents and purposes, the poor and dispossessed among their own fellow Indians.
Take for example the Katkari tribals who do not even dwell in some forgotten corner of the country but just 84 km out of Mumbai, the financial capital of India, and home to Mukesh Ambani, Asia’s richest person, with a net worth of $94.3 billion (about Rs 7.8 trillion).
The Mid-Day newspaper ran a campaign on how the impoverished Katkaris have been ruthlessly exploited over the years by landlords and brick-kiln owners from whom they borrowed money mainly to buy food. For context, the 2023 Global Hunger Index ranked India at 111 out of 125 countries, behind Sri Lanka (60), Nepal (69), Bangladesh (81) and Pakistan (102).
Mid-Day quotes a yet-to-be-released government survey that found as many as 95 per cent of Katkari households saddled with an average debt of Rs 14,000. There are instances of tribals, unable to repay their debts, being forced into life-long bonded labour. The loans in this exploitative system accrue usurious interest and extend across generations, but the lenders, often politically connected, get away.
Debt bondage is one of the most prevalent forms of modern slavery, and it persists in many parts of India. It persists because of crushing poverty and entrenched socio-economic inequities and caste prejudices. Pointing out that government officials avoid visiting these areas to witness first-hand the humiliation these tribal people are subjected to by their captors, Mid-Day reports that ‘some of these enslaved tribals have been rescued by NGO workers and social activists, not (government) officials’.
In the absence of government assistance, they have not, however, been rehabilitated, the report adds.
Scheduled Tribes (STs), alongside the Scheduled Castes (SCs), live on the fringes of society and are known to be among the most deprived social groups in the country, across a range of socio-economic indicators. Some of the most precarious of them, with alarmingly high levels of illiteracy, malnutrition and serious maladies, are identified by the government as ‘particularly vulnerable tribal groups’.
The Modi government announced in Parliament in 2016 that its 15-year vision is aimed at “total abolition of bonded labour” where it would identify, release and rehabilitate around 18.4 million bonded labourers by 2030.
"Since its statement in 2016, [the government] has been able to release only 32,873 people from bonded labour, a yearly average of 4,696," reported IndiaSpend, a data analyst on India’s social and political economy, in October 2023. "This would mean that at the same annual rate, by 2030, the government would have achieved only 2 per cent of its 18.4 million target, leaving 18 million Indians in bonded labour."
Hundreds of fresh cases of bonded labour and trafficking for work are reported every year, though slavery is prohibited by the Constitution and despite the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act of 1976 that outlaws it. The Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act of 1989 also provides for special/ exclusive courts to try such offences and for rehabilitation of victims.
According to the 2023 Global Slavery Index (GSI), published by human rights group Walk Free Initiative, India is home to over 11 million slaves, the highest number worldwide. This is particularly disconcerting, as China, ranked second in the index, has a tally of 5.8 million and Russia, ranked #3, is home to 1.9 million slaves.
"Slavery in India manifests in various forms, including forced labour, human trafficking and child exploitation," mentions GSI. "Despite the significant strides the nation has made in terms of economic growth and technological advancement, slavery remains deeply entrenched in its societal and economic structures, victimising millions of vulnerable individuals."
Aggravating the situation is the prevalence of domestic servitude and child labour. Reports indicate that it is not uncommon for servants employed in households across the country to be confined to the homes of their employers, and subjected to excessive work hours, constant abuse and exploitation. The forced recruitment of children, in turn, is among the most appalling forms of modern slavery, where they are driven into strenuous labour, often under hazardous conditions.
The National Crime Records Bureau’s ‘Crime in India 2022’ report underscores the vulnerability of the country’s STs and SCs when it notes that 1,347 (13.4 per cent) of the 10,064 atrocities committed against STs in 2022 concerned rapes of tribal women, and an additional 1,022 (10.2 per cent) pertained to ‘assault on women with intent to outrage their modesty’. Moreover, 5,274 (9.2 per cent) of the 57,582 cases of outrage against SCs were of criminal intimidation. These records were of registered cases, while it is well known that most such crimes remain unregistered.
In India, the practice of slavery has been facilitated by its hierarchical social and economic structures that have institutionalised exploitation of the weak and largely freed the oppressors of any accountability. It has besides been helped by a lax enforcement of labour laws, limited access to justice for marginalised communities, and a widening divide between the haves and have-nots.
"Slavery in India manifests in various forms, including forced labour, human trafficking and child exploitation. Despite the significant strides the nation has made in terms of economic growth and technological advancement, slavery remains deeply entrenched in its societal and economic structures, victimising millions of vulnerable individuals.2023 Global Slavery Index
Oxfam India’s ‘Survival of the Richest’ report says the richest 1 per cent in India own more than 40 per cent of the country’s total wealth, while the bottom half of the population share just three per cent. Between early 2020 — when the Covid-19 pandemic began — and November 2022, billionaires in India have seen their collective wealth surge by 121 per cent, or Rs 3,608 crore a day in real terms. On the other hand, 64 per cent of the Rs 14.8 lakh crore collected under GST in 2021–22 came from the bottom 50 per cent of the population.
The sudden lockdown during the pandemic pushed 75 million people into poverty and annihilated small businesses that thrived on these migrant workers. More than 230 million people (16 per cent of the population), still experience poverty—the highest among all emerging economies, says a recent UNDP report, with the ‘poor’ being those living on less than $1.8 (Rs 150) a day.
Oxfam points out that billionaires in India increased from 102 in 2020 to 166 in 2022, with the combined wealth of the 100 richest in the country touching $660 billion (Rs 54 lakh crore), ‘an amount that could fund the entire Union Budget for more than 18 months’. It added: ‘Taxing India’s ten richest at five per cent can fetch [all the needed] money to bring children back to school.’