In most indices, which try to determine social conditions of nations across the world, India is often either at the top or one among the worst. In the latest Global Slavery Index, India topped the list in absolute numbers with an estimated eight million people living in modern slavery on any given day in 2016. ‘Modern slavery’ is defined as forced labour, forced marriage, human trafficking, debt bondage and slavery-like practices. Interestingly, the index also adds the exposure to the risk of modern slavery to a country, through the products it imports.
Though it ranked 53 in a list of 167 countries surveyed for modern slavery, the massive population of over 1.3 billion in India tilts almost all statistical studies against it. In the modern slavery index, the definition itself is a loaded dice given how marriage for example, is still largely an arranged family dictated affair rather than one of individual choice in India. Likewise, with a huge number of people still living under below poverty line, labour in India is voluntary livelihood rather than coercion. The questions asked in the survey, therefore, would not be able to capture the socio-cultural context and nuance in which individual choice is curtailed in India.
However, that is not to say that India does not have a ‘modern slavery’ problem. From some of our big corporations in metro cities to small traders in small towns, employers have been paying low wages, subjecting employees to long working hours, sometimes, without providing any health or insurance benefits. Our labour in factories, mines, sanitation and cleaning, construction etc. work and live in dangerous environmental conditions. Even as smaller changes have been made, the government is yet to introduce major labour reforms. Therefore, India cannot always escape the blame whenever global indices show it in poor light. To avoid international opprobrium, India must introspect and take corrective measures to improve its socio-economic standards.