Why is India in denial that it's 'home to the highest number of slaves in the world'?

IB asking government to campaign against International Labour Organisation report shows our priorities are misplaced.

 |  5-minute read |   04-10-2017
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In the scorching summer of 2017, a few Indian "madams" and "maids" went into a "war" within the confines of a plush gated community in Noida, Uttar Pradesh.

Soon the incident became a full-blown class war between the "modern-day slaves" and their much-privileged masters, laying bare the dirty secret behind the facade of New India's acquired luxury lifestyle.

Less than three months later, the country's false sense of pride is hurt again following an International Labour Organisation (ILO) and Walk Free Foundation (WFF) report that declared India "home to the highest number of slaves in the world". So much so that the Intelligence Bureau (IB) has warned the Central government that India is being “targeted”.

A "secret" IB note, which has been submitted to the Prime Minister’s Office, the national security advisor, the external affairs and labour ministries and R&AW last week, also suggested the government to launch "a diplomatic offensive against it and a strong campaign to discredit the data".

According to The Indian Express, the IB note warns that the ILO-WFF report could "harm India’s image and efforts towards achieving Goal 8.7 in the Sustainable Development Goals". (Goal 8.7 calls to eradicate forced labour, child labour, modern-day slavery and human trafficking.)

International surveys since 2013 have found India to have the highest number of people working in modern slavery “under threat or coercion as domestic workers, on construction sites, in clandestine factories, on farms and fishing boats, in other sectors, and in the sex industry".

According to the ILO-WFF report, "Global Estimates of Modern Slavery: Forced Labour and Forced Marriage", 40 million people are victims of modern slavery - men, women and children who were being forced to work against their will under threat. 

The same news report refers to the latest ILO-WFF report, which says the products the modern slaves “made and the services they provided", in many cases, "ended up in seemingly legitimate commercial channels". They produce "some of the food we eat and the clothes we wear" and they clean "the buildings in which many of us live or work".

reuters_100417055421.jpgImage: Reuters photo

The IB believes the ILO-WFF report is questionable because of the unfair sample size and also, it has pointed out, the WFF (created by Australian mining businessman Andrew Forrest in 2012) was endorsed by Hillary Clinton, Tony Blair and Bill Gates, which in other words mean that it is funded by the US government.

The Indian Express  report goes on to say that the IB has recommended a "three-pronged strategy: 1) The "motivated" advocacy should be counted with a "credible slavery estimation through a much larger sample survey"; 2) The WFF’s questionable estimate must be “discredited”  through a rejoinder from Indian Statistical Institute; 3) Diplomatic intervention to force the ILO to "dissociate" from WFF - a private foundation. 

It's surprising that while suggesting the measures to counter the report it didn't occur to the IB to recommend a few measures to address the real problem - modern-day slavery - that is eating away at the country's soul.

But then that would mean accepting the reality. The vestiges of slave culture runs deep in India. 

At the heart of the latest noise lies a long history of slavery in India. Much before the colonial powers "enslaved" Indians, they had produced a considerable "empire" of slaves, and continued to do so even after gaining independence. We cried, fought and suffered to gain freedom only to enchain and bind our own countrymen.

Although there has been no recent record of any mass clashes over modern slavery in India (except a couple of isolated instances like the Mahagun Moderne episode), skirmishes between employers (especially in the unorganised sector) and employees are a regular feature. 

Can the IB mitigate the presence of millions of child labourers, sex workers, forced labourers in India? The countless men, women and children flooding the streetsides, plush houses and AC offices serving their masters? What about those grown-ups who started to work since childhood to repay the debts inherited from their fathers, only to plunge deeper into the debt cycle? What about the farmers, daily wagers, domestic workers - some trafficked, others forced - to be a part of the modern slavery within India's workforce?

While India has shown considerable efforts in tackling slavery with measures such as agreeing on a total ban on bonded as well as child labour, one also cannot deny that the country has failed to implement these laws. As a result we lock up our maids in houses without food and salary while we go on vacations to foreign countries, let alone hiring children to wash, clean and cook for us with the excuse of helping out the poor family.

There have been numerous instances when women and minor girls and boys have been smuggled not just outside the country but also within India and forced to work as either sex slaves or domestic helps. There have been famed NRIs and even diplomats who allegedly preyed on their maids, denied them their salaries and dignity.

Can we forget all that and instead launch into a counter-campaign to "discredit" reports and surveys that bring all these realities to the fore?  

Major laws, landmark court judgments and tonnes of governmental gyan have failed to protect the most vulnerable and underprivileged from various forms of exploitations in this country. Reason: We don't care. Also, we live in denial. 

The IB's reaction and subsequent recommendations reflect the same denial. 

Until we learn to accept the reality, India will remain a slave to its culture of oppression and false pride. 

Also read: ‘Ban the Bangladeshi maid’: Why Noida housing society violence isn’t just about class

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