Young girls sold off as maids, boys packed off to work as domestic helps, families forced into manual labour: this is the picture of modern slavery in India. Just like 17-year-old Krishna*, who left his home in a UP village for a factory job in the city and ended up as a domestic help in Gurgaon.
Or, Preeti*, 18, forced to work from dawn to midnight in Rohini and made to sleep outside the home. Delhi’s record in this score has been shocking to say the least, with three recent cases of brutal assaults, and even murder, of domestic helps who live a life of terror in educated, well-to-do homes.
Read: Preeti was trafficked to Delhi; 'worked till midnight, slept outdoors'
Last month, Walk Free, an Australia-based human rights group, brought out the Global Slavery Index 2013 and the facts thrown up are shameful for the world, and certainly, for India. Around 30 million people are enslaved worldwide, and half of them are in India. States such as Uttar Pradesh and Bihar are major culprits, with high levels of hereditary forms of debt bondage in rural areas, and of human trafficking.
Modern slavery is the denial of freedom and exploitation for profit or sex, usually through violence, coercion or deception. In terms of prevalence of slavery (as a proportion of population), India ranks fourth, behind Mauritania, Haiti and Pakistan, in that order. ‘Slaves’ could be entire generations of families working in marble quarries or brick kilns to pay off debts; young girls brought from the north-eastern states to serve in brothels in big cities, or boys put to work in sweat shops.
Three recent instances of torture of domestic helps in Delhi have left many people fumbling for answers. The question — “How can people be treated like slaves in this age?” — certainly begs an answer. The index attempts to provide one. According to the report, “Poverty and India’s caste system are significant contributing factors to its modern slavery problem”.
Despite being banned by the Supreme Court in 2006, child labour continues to be widespread due to weak enforcement. The 2001 Census says India has 12.26 million working children, aged 5-14, with the maximum coming from Uttar Pradesh.
Child and forced marriage, predominantly of trafficked girls, is another grave form of exploitation which, according to the 2013 India Country Assessment Report released by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crimes (UNODC), is prevalent mainly in Haryana, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh. “With skewed sex ratios it is impossible to find a bride for each man, and ‘importing a bride’ has become the only solution,” said the UNODC report. Punjab (893 females per 1000 males) and Haryana (877 females per 1000 males) have the lowest sex ratios in the country.
Ruchira Gupta, president, Apne Aap Women Worldwide, an NGO that fights sex trafficking, is not surprised by the data. “South Asia is the epicentre of bonded labourers and slaves. But the issue does not get priority because its victims are considered disposable,” she said. The need for stricter laws, be it to prosecute abusive employers or punish traffickers is the need of the hour.
*Names have been changed to protect the identity of those underage