India, home to most of world's slaves, prepares to take a step forward

With more than 18 million people enslaved, India on Monday unveiled a comprehensive proposal to increase prosecutions and treat survivors as victims in need of aid.

Bernat Armangue/AP/File
An Indian child rescued from slavery poses for a 2014 portrait at the Mukti Ashram in New Delhi, India. Nearly 46 million people live in slavery in the world, according to a report released Tuesday by Australia-based human rights group Walk Free Foundation. The greatest number live in India.

India unveiled an ambitious proposal this week to combat human trafficking by treating survivors as victims in need of aid rather than criminals.

The country has more than 18 million people enslaved because of debts, forced marriages, being sold to brothels, or having been born into servitude, the most in the world, according to the Australia-based Walk Free Foundation.

India’s victims of human trafficking make up 40 percent of the world’s estimated 45.8 million slaves, though the highest prevalence of slaves is in North Korea, the foundation estimates.

The anti-trafficking proposal would unify several existing laws while focusing on survivors' needs and stopping victims – including those discovered in raids on brothels – from being arrested and jailed, The Indian Express reports.

“The bill shows far more compassion and makes a very clear distinction between the trafficked and the trafficker, which is a nuance that should have been made 60 years ago,” Maneka Gandhi, India’s minister for women and child development, said Monday as she unveiled the draft Trafficking of Persons (Prevention, Protection and Rehabilitation) Bill, 2016.

A series on human trafficking:

How to free Modern Slaves

While slavery in India has risen 15 percent since Walk Free last conducted its survey because of better data collection, the government’s comprehensive anti-trafficking act could help reduce the number who are living in bondage, said Fiona David, head of global research at Walk Free.

What is new is that the Indian government is taking really exciting steps to bring different pieces of legislation together into one anti-trafficking act. It’s a huge step forward,” Ms. David told the Thompson Reuters Foundation.

Britain’s Modern Slavery Act, approved last year, has been seen as a milestone in preventing human trafficking. Under the act, business are required to disclose what actions they have taken to stop the use of slave labor in their global supply chains.

Minister Gandhi said India’s draft bill would also help strengthen convictions for trafficking by creating a dedicated investigative agency to make it easier to track what was being done in different states and collect more data on trafficking.

The country’s National Crime Records Bureau estimates there were 5,466 human trafficking cases registered in 2014, though activists say this total is likely underestimated, The Indian Express reports.

Another provision would also allow the recovery of fines from people convicted of trafficking, which could then be used to compensate victims, such as for lost wages.

Determining an exact tally for the number of victims of human trafficking is often difficult.

The Walk Free survey is based on interviews with about 42,000 people conducted by the polling service Gallup in 53 languages across 25 countries, then extrapolated in some countries to estimate numbers for other nations.

In its survey of 167 countries, the group found that about 58 percent of people in slavery live in five nations — India, China, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Uzbekistan. North Korea, Uzbekistan, and Cambodia had the largest number of people living in slavery relative to their populations.

The foundation said the Netherlands, the United States, Britain, Sweden, and Australia were the countries taking the most action on human trafficking.

The UN’s International Labor Organization, by contrast, estimates 21 million people are victims of forced labor, though it doesn’t take into account all types of slavery.

David, of Walk Free, cautioned that while the India’s response to trafficking had improved, the bill hasn’t yet been put in place. “After all, a law is just words on paper until it is implemented,” she told the Thompson Reuters Foundation.

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