The forced labour agenda


Kajal Basu :
The riotous aftermath of the AAP’s ascension to power has helped the beleaguered Congress party in significant ways. One is, of course, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal’s inadvisable chill-weather dharna in support of his law minister, who singlehandedly cut down the AAP’s reputation for gender progressiveness by a couple of notches. This shindig also accomplished what its protagonists never intended, or even suspected: it hid from the Indian public’s view the results of a global socioecological survey that could hammer the Congress to its knees.
The Global Slavery Index 2013, whose first edition was recently brought out by the Australia-based, nonpartisan Walk Free Foundation, stunned the world with its findings (but not India, where it was overshadowed to virtual nonexistence by more frenetic events). Among the stats that should have made India – government and citizens alike – jump out of their socks in shock is that today’s superpower-wannabe India has the maximum number of slaves of any nation in the world. That’s right: slaves, or, to be in accord with sociology, modern slaves – those in debt bondage and forced marriage; children sold and exploited; children, women and men trafficked and armtwisted into forced labour….
There’s no better way to ruin one’s breakfast than to meet head-on statistics that belong in nightmares: 1) There are 29.8 million people locked in ‘modern slavery’ across 162 countries; 2) 76 per cent of them (or about 23 million) are located in the GSI list’s Top 10 countries. India, with 14 million modern slaves, occupies the apex.
Use macromaths, and India’s legion of dâsa and dâsi adds up to 46.8 per cent of the global number, and 62 per cent of the slaves in the Top 10 slaver nations (India, China, Pakistan, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Russia, Thailand, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burma and Bangladesh).
India’s share of both the dispossessed and the enslaved is disproportionate. The country’s population of 1.25 billion is approximately 17.5 per cent of the global population of 7.15 billion. But India has almost half the world’s slaves; moreover, while India has 30 per cent of the aggregated Top 10 population, it contains almost two-thirds of the Top 10 slave population. Both absolute number and proportion are staggering: a simile might help put it in perspective: Think of the population of India’s one and only ‘alpha world city’, Mumbai. Now, imagine each Mumbaiite a slave – it’ll be a megalopolis packed with bondwomen, children underfed and worked to the bone, men in shackles of permanent insolvency. And that’s the number of modern slaves in India.
2014 seems to have provoked unusual slavery stocktaking. The GSI 2013 was preceded by a survey in March 2013 by the SumAll Foundation, an American firm that deals in Big Data analysis. SumAll announced its arrival at a global slavery figure of 27 million, but its indifference of rigour vis-a-vis the GSI became evident later that year. Interestingly, SumAll had dredged up vassalage stats circa 1860: 25 million, estimated by the History Database of the Global Environment (2006).
In effect, slavery has increased by 4.8 million in about a century-and-a-half. It is prima facie a smallish figure; analytical maths might laugh it off: but the fact is that in 1860, a whopping 20 per cent of the global population of approximately 1.3 billion had an unending gulag partiya, a prison jamboree.
In 1841, wrote Sir Henry Bartle Edward Frere, governor of Bombay in 1862, there were 8-9 million slaves in India. They were mostly ‘predial’ slaves, forerunners of the bargadars, notional sharecroppers.
In 1958, direct administration by the British brought an ‘official’ ban on slavery (which, however, remained a paper proscription, nonchalantly sidelined by the long-tentacled, maritime schiavismo mafie until the first decade of the 20th century). Slavery was just as interdicted as it is today – and the Indian Penal Code, formalised in 1861, rendered it a mug’s game – but geoeconomics made it immune to eradication. The population of India circa 1860 was about 250 million: 9 million slaves comprised about 3.8 per cent of the global population, contrasted to 0.425 per cent today. Most readers would notice only that a far greater proportion of the population was enslaved a century-and-a-half ago; but 29.8 million is nothing to scoff at.
SumAll calculated the lifetime profits – to the ‘owners’ – of slaves in different parts of the world: In Brazil, a brickmaking slave makes a full-life profit of $8,700; in India, the ‘owner’ earns $2,000. But, surprisingly, while slaves cost slightly more today (a median price of $140, compared with $134 in 1860), the cost hasn’t kept pace with the jagged but ever-rising graph of inflation.
Debt slaves, or bonded labour, cost an average of $60; trafficked sex slaves cost $1,910. The average durée de servilité, says SumAll, is six years, during which time a slave pays off debt, escapes, or dies.
To Indians, this wouldn’t sound right: people here not only remain in hock all their lives, but also legate them to their sons and daughters after they die. Our slaves are multigenerational.
Nobody has listened to them for centuries. No one seems to be listening now.

(Kajal Basu is a freelance journalist based in Kolkutta)