NEW DELHI: Activists against forced labor said Wednesday that while India tops a recent global slavery index, the situation is improving in the South Asian nation thanks to public awareness, legal reforms and police-backed raids on factories employing workers illegally.
The Walk Free Foundation counted some 18.35 million modern slaves in India in its index of modern slavery released Tuesday, or 40 percent of a global total of 45.8 million, an estimate 10 million higher than the group last reported in 2014. The figures include children and adults forced into labor, often unpaid or to pay off a debt, as well as child brides, child soldiers and migrant workers.
Officials with the Indian Labor Ministry did not immediately respond to calls for comment. Experts and activists said, however, that while the problem has persisted for years in India, there are signs that the situation is improving.
"We get 20 complaints per day from family members and public in general" reporting labor abuse — a sign that awareness of the problem was growing, said Ramesh Senger from Nobel laureate Kailash Satyarthi's charity Bachpan Bachao Andolan, or Save the Childhood Movement.
He noted that India's carpet industry used to employ 300,000 trafficked children just a decade ago, but that the number has come down to an estimated 5,000-10,000. Meanwhile, the number of children forced to work making plastic bangles in parts of the northern state of Uttar Pradesh is now negligible, whereas thousands worked in the industry 10 years ago.
India's garment industry hub in the Indian capital has also eliminated child labor, Sanger noted as an example of how police-backed raids can make a difference. "We rescued nearly 400 children in the area between 2012-2014," he said. "The garments industry in the area no longer employs child labor."
The global index showed China with the second highest number of modern slaves, 3.39 million, out of 167 countries surveyed for the report. China's foreign ministry did not immediately respond to a faxed request for comment. North Korea was found to have the highest per capita rate of modern slavery, with 4.37 percent of its population affected.
In India, the problem of slavery — including child marriage and bonded labor — has long been a challenge and cause for shame. Many saw the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize for children's rights activist Satyarthi, who was awarded along with Malala Yousafzai of Pakistan, as a sign that India would be forced to improve.
But child labor is widespread despite India's rapid economic growth over the past decade. Millions of children are forced to work, some as young as 5 or 6. Many end up in difficult and sometimes toxic jobs including rolling cigarettes, mining in stone quarries, dying leather in tanneries. Laws meant to keep kids in school and out of the workplace are routinely flouted.
On Monday, the Indian government published draft legislation to curb human trafficking without punishing its victims. "At present the law says the trafficked and the trafficker are both criminals and they both go to jail. Now, we are saying the victim will not go to jail," said Maneka Gandhi, the government's minister for women and child development, according to Press Trust of India.
But some blamed the government for maintaining an economy where bonded labor can still flourish thanks to high unemployment of around 10 percent and abject poverty in the countryside.
"The laws are there, but there is no political will on the part of the government to implement them," peace activist Swami Agnivesh said. "The government can't afford to annoy rural rich as well as the urban rich who are exploiting the situation."