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Slavery Still Alive and Well in India

A comprehensive report, released late last year, named India as the country with by far the most people living as slaves. The Global Slavery Index, published by the Walk Free Foundation, indicated that out of the 30 million people still enslaved worldwide, India has an estimated 14 million. From unskilled labor to sex slavery to child workers, India has the largest concentration of forced servitude in all areas.

This isn’t without historical context, as slavery is a terrible remnant from pre-colonial times. Slavery was widely practiced by the fractured kingdoms of the subcontinent before the British Raj. After gaining independence in 1947, India outlawed slavery as per its Constitution. Unfortunately, this has done little to help the millions trapped in forced servitude under terrible conditions. Reinforced by the social prejudices of the caste system, slavery became institutionalized. Authorities often turn a blind eye to these horrendous crimes and do little to help rehabilitate former victims. Steps are slowly being taken to reform the system and eliminate this injustice.

Slavers use a variety of techniques to force people into the system. The most prevalent has been debt bondage. This system was legally abolished in 1976, but due lack of reporting and weak enforcement of law, it still results in the bonded labor of millions of poor Indians. Debt bondage begins when a lender gives a borrower some kind of loan. Unbeknownst to the borrowers, most of whom are illiterate, these loans come with astronomical interest rates and have harsh penalties attached to them. Eventually, the power disparity between the lender and borrower devolves into slave-like exploitation. The amount that borrowers owe keeps increasing, and eventually their kids inherit this debt and continue the cycle. This type of forced servitude is most common in the agriculture and textile industries. The Bonded Labour Liberation Front claims that about 65 million children – and an even larger number of adults – are victims of debt bondage in India.

Sex slavery is another horrendous system of abuse within India. Every day, thousands of young girls are kidnapped and sold throughout the country. Organized sex trafficking lures girls with promises of better lives through fake jobs in the city or promises of marriages to wealthy businessmen. From then on, they are trapped in a nightmare of an existence. Often as young as 11, these young girls are kept in brothels and forced to have sex with up to 40 men a day. Girls who fight back or offer resistance are beaten, raped, and drugged into submission by their pimps. Most don’t last very long in this lifestyle and end up dying by the time they’re 18, from a combination of physical violence and sexually transmitted diseases.

Due to the woeful lack of diligence displayed by the government, the charge against slavery in India has been taken up by NGOs. One such organization, Manav Sansadham Evam Mahila Vikas Sansthan (MSEMVS) enters communities where trafficking and slavery is prevalent and provides aid and education. In addition, MSEMVS identifies villages where bonded labor is particularly intense, and in those locations it provides a transitional school with meals and vocational training. Hopefully, as more people take a stand against this inhumane treatment of fellow Indians, the system can be broken down.

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