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Human Trafficking in India: Abuse from the Rural Elite and the Wider Implications


Human Trafficking in India: Abuse from the Rural Elite and the Wider Implications

At any given time, India contains an estimated 18.4 million victims of modern slavery. Of that number, 26 percent, or 5.5 million, are children.

India is no exception to the trend that trafficking and subsequent slavery are shown to be most prevalent in countries producing consumer goods through low-cost labor, as the rural elite have used slavery to augment their industrial financial gains for generations. Forced labor – debt bondage, indentured servitude, caste-based slavery, trafficking, enticement, abduction – is distinctly used by the rural elite to increase production in agricultural or textile industries. Often, at the mercy of the rural elite, the victims of slavery belong to poor families, a low social strata of the society, or from low caste poor families and mainly work in rural areas. Unfortunately, this is no surprise. Approximately 70 percent of trafficking victims in India belong to Scheduled Castes or Tribes – also called ‘Dalit’ classes – and are among the most disadvantaged socio-economic groups in India.

Though most in the Dalit classes are prone to economic and social vulnerability, they are the most susceptible to trafficking and other forms of slavery because of opinions of the rural elite. The rural elite may see control of lower classes as their divinely ordained, seigniorial right over people they view as serfs. To make matters worse, those in lower classes face the pressure of making wealth to survive, the need to repay debts, illiteracy and the lack of education, all of which may serve as driving forces in their vulnerability to elites who view them as lesser beings.

There is also an increasing trend of children being trafficked for domestic labor for the rural elite, who also have been shown to subject entire villages to debt bondage. Further, children forced into slavery, either from their villages or captured individually, by the rural elite may have previously been kicked out of shelters, forced beggars, gang members, or trafficked by illegal placement agencies.  

The market of sex slavery in India best illustrates the exploitation faced by victims of human trafficking. Close to 80 percent of the human trafficking is done for sexual exploitation and India is considered as the hub of this crime in Asia, with young girls also being smuggled from neighboring Nepal and Bangladesh. More than half of total commercial sex workers in India are from Nepal and Bangladesh, which can be attributed to prevailing abject poverty and ignorance in both these countries compared with India. Thus, India is not only a destination for human sex trafficking, but also a transit country for trading these victims internationally.

The prevalence of sex trafficking has additional implications for the status of women in India. Female victims with a lower social status, little to no possessions, or financially desperate have been historically easy targets for traffickers. Additionally, social pressures compel women to remain within the confines of the domestic sphere and the restricted movement, lack of education, and prevention from social and economic activities deprives the women from accessing justice, equality, and subjects them to abuses of human rights. As a result, traffickers are able to coax women into giving in to commercial sexual exploitation in order to support themselves or their dependents, as well as better their financial situation despite their circumstances. These empty promises often result in kidnapping, forced marriages, selling or bartering women for opium, wealth, or labor, and recurrent rape. Women who are sold – specifically to brothels, placement agencies, or as child brides – are bought through dealers on the black market. Once sold as sex slaves, particularly to brothels, victims seldom come back to normal life, as the impact of the suffering is so intense they often lose their mental balance and accept life as prostitutes. Those who try to escape are either killed or punished so brutally they become permanently mentally or physically scarred. These horrifying realities faced by millions of women and girls is a product of one of the fastest growing organized crimes and most lucrative criminal activity in the world that is increasing annually.

Actions taken by the Indian government and intergovernmental organizations, individually and in collaboration, to combat human trafficking have yielded mixed results. The 2008 Vienna Forum, a United Nations conference bringing together Member States, other international organizations, the business community, academia, and civil society, was planned to address different dimensions of human trafficking. The Forum examined existing definitions of and practices related to the prevention of trafficking and, by focusing on decreasing vulnerability, planned to broaden the strategic impact of existing prevention efforts.

While the global community addressing the issues of human trafficking is a stride towards preventing the crime, especially as it included the business world, limited actions were taken following this conference. In India specifically, identifying those vulnerable is not an easy task, as poverty alone cannot be the sole criteria to identify the poor. In addition to the lack of material resources, one needs to include indicators such as lack of power and choice. Reduction of vulnerability for the poor, therefore, is difficult for the government alone to accomplish.

Instead, the Indian government has looked towards crime prevention as an approach to combating human trafficking. This includes toughened criminal penalties for child prostitution and forced marriage, as well as improvements to protect victims, as well as Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s 2016 demonetization scheme. This plan, announced in November of that year, was aimed, among other things, to hit out at black money, parallel economy and criminal activities to specifically impact industries run by the rural elite, as they thrive on illegally obtained income.

While this demonetization scheme will likely deal a severe blow to human trafficking activities, the India government will likely need to do more to aid victims and crack down on officials who are involved in human trafficking. In the meantime, the rural elite still profit from human labor and human rights violations continue to go undisturbed. The cycle of human bondage in India must be broken, and only time will tell if the efforts, past and present, of the Indian government and other outside organizations will pay off.



Victoria Watson

Victoria Watson is an undergraduate at Cornell University, where she is pursuing a degree in Government with minors in Arabic Language and International Relations.

Her previous work experience includes interning with the World Childhood Foundation USA, with the Millennium Villages Project as an on-site delegate, with the International Rescue Committee in the Economic Empowerment Division, and most recently with the Foreign Policy Association.

Victoria is interested in helping to find strategic solutions to getting more women engaged in government and hopes that empowerment of women will make for a better world.