Amid concerns voiced by American lawmakers over "human trafficking", specially of Dalits, in India, a top US official has said the issue has been raised with New Delhi at the highest level, even as she noted that the Indian government has taken steps to address the problem.
"As far as India is concerned, I have certainly raised this not only with (Indian) Ambassador (to the US, Meera) Shankar, but also with the Foreign Minister (S M Krishna) as has Undersecretary (Maria) Otero, Secretary (of State Hillary) Clinton, (Assistant Secretary) Bob Blake," said Luis Cdebaca, Ambassador at Large, Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons.
Responding to questions from lawmakers at a Congressional hearing wherein they expressed concerns over the increasing human trafficking in India, specially of the Dalits, Cdebaca said Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Robert Blake cares very much about this.
"I think he saw it in his iterations in the embassies in the region, recognises that the South and Central Asia region is kind of a hotspot for a lot of this activity," she said.
At the same time, she praised the steps taken by Indian government in this regard. "We are heartened to see that India finally has characterised bonded labour as part of their trafficking fight... But bridging the federal and state gap in India will be critical," Cdebaca said.
"You can't devolve power on such an important human rights issue fully to the state and locals lest you do have simply those bright spots that we've identified whether in Uttar Pradesh or in Mumbai," he said.
"So we're working with the Indians to use our experience with federalism, use our fight as far as how we manage the interplay between local law enforcement and the federal anti-trafficking as an example of how they can deal with that problem," Cdebaca said.
Later, one of the experts David Abramowitz, director of policy and government relations at 'Humanity United', said they are trying to see if US President Barack Obama can raise the issue of the Dalits in some way during his India trip in November.
"I think if, you know, the First Lady were to meet with Dalits while she was in India that would have been amazing...," Abramowitz said.
"If she were to meet with a Dalit population to talk about the importance of education, those kinds of steps can have an important impact on raising issues in ways that are difficult to quantify but I think can have a real impact. I'll just leave it," Abramowitz said in response to a question from Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee.
Jackson Lee said: "I know the First Lady has many issues. She's an eloquent spokesperson, and so I would like to join in that effort and join also as raising my voice against this dastardly deed."
Abramowitz said the administration needs to ensure continued high-level support for US diplomacy on trafficking issues.
"Making a difference in perennially difficult cases laid out in the TIP (Trafficking In Person) report will require high-level diplomatic intervention. For example, will human trafficking be raised at or around the (US) President's summit with Prime Minister Singh of India later this year?"
Testifying before the House Foreign Affairs Committee at the hearing on global human trafficking, Mark Lagon, chair for the international relations and security concentration and visiting professor at Georgetown University, identified India as the "most significant place" for human trafficking.
Congressman Ed Royce said "the Indian government has made recent efforts to protect Dalits, but clearly much more needs to be done to eliminate a very longstanding and entrenched practice.
"As I said, no country is immune from the problem of human trafficking. Only with increased accountability and honesty can we help some of the world's most marginalised people."
Congressman Christopher Smith "strongly urged" the Obama administration to "undertake a comprehensive reassessment" of at least two watch-list nations, China and India, for "failing" to meet the minimum standards prescribed for not taking significant action to comply.
"Some years ago the UN Population Fund actually did a study and suggested that in India they are missing at least 60 million girls due to sex-selection abortion...," Smith said.
He hoped the Administration will take a good, hard look at this nexus between this terrible crime of forced abortion and sex-selection abortion and human trafficking, because it is only going to get worse.
"Of the 28 million people around the world that the UN considers human slaves, the UN recognises that most live in India and most are Dalit. Today, Dalits are the largest number of people categorised as modern-day slaves, so we really cannot have a discussion about human trafficking and not look at India and regard the problem of the Dalits," said Beryl D'souza, who heads the health care initiative of the Dalit Freedom Network, an Operation Mercy India foundation.
"Because of their poverty and the resulting desperation and lack of options, trafficking is not simply a problem the Dalits face. It is an atrocity that has swept Dalit culture in all parts of the nation... Their lack of access to education, health care and a living wage leaves most Dalits resigned to a hopelessness that, without an intervention, will not change," she said.
"Despite the bleakness of the situation, especially for India's 250 million Dalits, India is making progress in combating human trafficking. First and most notably, the country's top leaders have spoken into the public record that human trafficking is India's number-one social problem, with estimates of 100 million people involved," D'souza said.
The 2010 TIP report recognised Sattaru Umapathi as one of the nine global heroes, she said. An anti-human trafficking officer, he led rescue operations, contributed to multiple convictions, forged partnerships with NGOs and educated law enforcement community about victim rights.
Further, dedicated NGOs are combating trafficking through rescue and restore, as well as preventive and preemptive programmes.
"But there are still major challenges looming ahead for India. As we anticipate the publication of the 2011 TIP report, we recognise that India is at serious risk for demotion to Tier III if significant efforts at improvement are not initiated and registered in the next six months. Only seven per cent of India's police personnel have received anti-trafficking training," D'souza said.
Responding to a question from Congressman Ed Royce, D'souza said Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has deserved an accolade for being bold enough to address the issue of human trafficking.
"I think the entire issue of Dalits has been a political issue in the Indian government ever since we've had our independence, and by boldly declaring that as an issue, it has led to more pre-emptive measures both from within the government as well as with the non-governmental organisations to deal with this significant problem," she said.
"If it is determined that there's no real progress being made, let's say, within India because it goes from 7 per cent to 7.1 per cent, the number of police officers trained, then those countries are going to fall down to Tier Three and therefore be subject to sanctions," Abramowitz said.