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70 years of freedom, but India home to largest number of slaves

  • Globally, human trafficking is one of the fastest growing underworld trades, just second to narcotics and arms smuggling.
  • India and its neighbourhood contribute a significant percentage to these trades.
  • It is common knowledge now how women and children are trafficked from Nepal, Bangladesh, several states of India’s northeast.
  • They are sold to brothels in Maharashtra and sent to illegal placement agents in Delhi-NCR for domestic help or sold as brides in states like Haryana.
kishalay bhattacharjee human trafficking
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Predictably, there hasn’t been any reaction over the latest NCRB data released on August 30 for the year 2015. The data is ominous but we have become so inured by the statistics of crime that nothing seems to shake our collective conscience. 

 

A conference in Delhi organised by the National Foundation for India(NFI) and the International Justice Mission(IJM) with a large number of young journalists from across the country tried to raise this very issue to identify why the media is not provoked by such horrific revelations.

 

Globally, human trafficking is one of the fastest growing underworld trades, just second to narcotics and arms smuggling. India and its neighbourhood contribute a significant percentage to these trades.

 

Interestingly, the conduits for them are often the same making it even difficult to identify the kingpins. In the latest Indian data too, trafficking tops all other crimes, an increase of over 25% in 2015 with Assam, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Telengana reporting the highest cases. Around 6500 incidents were reported and that is just a fraction of the trade that flourishes.

 

In December last year the Supreme Court had asked the government to complete the consultation process for a comprehensive law against trafficking, the draft of which is now ready.

 

But what the conference in Delhi debated was how the media covers this issue and why we are so cagey about acknowledging that India is the home to the largest number of ‘slaves’ in the world?

 

Media’s reluctance or indifference to reporting human trafficking is part of the larger problem of skewed ground reportage on most issues and failure to have sustained coverage of such abuse. There is also a lack of understanding that human trafficking is not just about sex trafficking but it includes bonded labour as well “where an individual due to debt or other obligation (customary, caste-based or economic), forfeits basic rights and freedoms.”

 

The Labour minister in the Rajya Sabha stated the government’s intent to identify, release and rehabilitate 1.84 crore bonded labourers in India (Since 1976, MoLE figures state that around 3 lakh have been rescued and rehabilitated). There are several laws against bonded labour but the perception in the media has largely been that labour trafficking are labour issues rather than a crime.

 

It is common knowledge now how women and children are trafficked from Nepal, Bangladesh, several states of India’s northeast and sold to brothels in Maharashtra and sent to illegal placement agents in Delhi-NCR for domestic help or sold as brides in states like Haryana. No matter where you live chances are that is happening nearby.

 

But neither does the NCRB data reflect or media discuss how for example men are trafficked from Bangladesh to be killed in cold blood by units of the Indian Army for headcount to be shown as performance in insurgency theatres. No editorials, no prime time debates, no opinion pieces or cover stories appear on human trafficking. It is just not an editorial choice like so many other critical issues.

 

There is an increasing recognition that human trafficking must be seen as modern day slavery. But that semantic shift is not quite accepted yet. Around the world millions live in bondage. They labour in fields and factories under brutal conditions and are subjected to violence if they want to escape.

 

Last year a labourer’s hands were chopped off in Odisha and that is a rare case reported by the government and the media. These labourers work in home for families and are kept virtually imprisoned. They are forced to work as prostitutes or beg in streets. They are forced into marriage in skewed sex ratio areas where they are sexually exploited and kept under harsh conditions.

 

About 56% of global slaves come from Asia-Pacific region and the global economic meltdown has seen a spike in taking more slaves. What is appalling is that almost half of this slave population is children employed into child prostitution, pornography, child soldiers, debt slaves and domestic help.

 

The global estimate on illegal profits from forced labour are significant. In 2014, the ILO estimated that forced labour alone generates illegal profits of $150 billion every year. Siddharth Kara in his book Bonded Labor: Tackling the System of Slavery in South Asia, estimates the return on investment for industries in South Asia from bonded labour is 1293%.  This is even higher for brick kilns--a whopping 1750%.

 

There are more slaves today than any point in human history and that's important to first recognise and then identify the synergies to make effective intervention. Media must be the forefront driving this change.

 

kishalay bhattacharjee human trafficking

Kishalay Bhattacharjee is a senior journalist and author. His most recent book is Blood on my Hands: Confessions of Staged Encounters (Harper Collins 2015). The views expressed here are his own.

 

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