Slavery in India and Pakistan

The return of democracy in Pakistan last year has once again put feudal politicians firmly in charge of the nation's affairs. Both major parties, the PPP and the PML, are heavily dominated by the country's biggest landowners, who are reliability voted into power by their poor landless peasants making up the majority of the electorate in Pakistan.

British writer William Dalrymple has accurately described the politics in Pakistan as follows: "There is a fundamental flaw in Pakistan's political system. Democracy has never thrived here, at least in part because landowning remains almost the only social base from which politicians can emerge. In general, the educated middle class - which in India seized control in 1947, emasculating the power of its landowners - is in Pakistan still largely excluded from the political process. As a result, in many of the more backward parts of Pakistan the local feudal zamindar can expect his people to vote for his chosen candidate. Such loyalty can be enforced. Many of the biggest zamindars have private prisons and most have private armies."

The Pakistani landlord's "private prisons" came in sharp focus recently with the news of 170 peasants being held against their will by Sindhi landowners, in violation of the court orders.

Responding to questions about the situation during US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton's recent visit, Luis CdeBaca, President Obama's ambassador-at-large to monitor and combat trafficking in persons, told Time magazine, "we are exploring ways we can help Pakistan to confront the scourge of captive workers, to deliver freedom for these workers and realize the promise of Pakistan's 1992 emancipation law."

In his recent column in the New York Times, Nicholas Kristoff argued that the feudal systems remains the biggest obstacle to reform in Pakistan. Addressing those who have not been to Pakistan, Kristoff explains that they "should know that in remote areas you periodically run into vast estates — comparable to medieval Europe — in which the landowner runs the town, perhaps operates a private prison in which enemies are placed, and sometimes pretty much enslaves local people through debt bondage, generation after generation. This feudal elite has migrated into politics, where it exerts huge influence. And just as the heartlessness of feudal and capitalist barons in the 19th century created space for Communists, so in Pakistan this same lack of compassion for ordinary people seems to create space for Islamic extremists. There are other answers, of course, such as education, civil society, and the lawyers’ movement. But I wonder if land reform wouldn’t be a big help."

There have been rare instances when media attention and public pressure have compelled the government to free haaris from private prisons. In April this year, a private TV channel GeoTV reported that police freed 14 people including 8 children and 4 women from the private prison of a landlord in Faiz Muhammad Brohi Goth in Gadap Town near Karachi.

Though Pakistan has been in the news lately for its continuing practice of slavery, it is not alone. Bonded labor in South Asia is considered the problem in modern slavery affecting millions of people. The UN believes 20 million people are enslaved worldwide, the majority of whom are in South Asia, according to a BBC report.

A recent report by US State Department for 2009 said that “India is a source, destination, and transit country for men, women, and children trafficked for the purposes of forced labor and commercial sexual exploitation.”

India is listed with 52 countries on the watch list of nations that have failed to meet the minimum standards against human trafficking but are making efforts to do so. The blacklisted countries are subject to US sanctions if they don’t make greater efforts to fight trafficking.

The Philippines, Cambodia, Bangladesh and Pakistan have recently been added to the U.S. “watch list” because of what the report calls a worsening trafficking record in those countries.

“This is modern slavery. A crime that spans the globe, providing ruthless employers with endless supply of people to abuse for financial gain,” Secretary Clinton said as she released the report.

For the first time, India, China, Russia, Sri Lanka and Egypt and other countries that have been on the on Tier 2 watch list for two years, face the prospect of being automatically moved to the Tier 3 blacklist next year without a presidential waiver if they fail improve their trafficking record, the State Department said.

A 2004 study by the International Labor Office (ILO) estimated that there are up to a million haari families in Sindh alone, the majority living in conditions of debt bondage, which the U.N. defines as modern-day slavery. Last fall, Pakistan's Daily Times newspaper quoted the labor minister of neighboring Punjab province as saying that landlords hold millions of forced laborers in "private prisons" across the country.

Amidst all the cries for democracy, independent judiciary, human rights and social justice in Pakistan, nothing has fundamentally changed during the last year under "democracy", except the worsening economy, much longer power outages and a growing sense of insecurity. Regardless of the party labels and promises, the feudal power continues to endure in the name of democracy. The choices remain narrow for Pakistanis: Choose between the military and the feudal class. There is no third choice as long as the middle class remains small and unable and unwilling to exert strong influence to bring about much-needed reforms. The only hope for real democracy and necessary social, political and economic reforms lies in continued robust growth of the middle class over an extended period of time of another decade or two. There are no guarantees that the current feudal rulers will permit that.

Here is a video about global slavery:

Related Links:

India Not Combating Slavery

Bonded Labor in India, Nepal and Pakistan

Feudalism in Pakistan

Is Democracy Right For Pakistan?

Slavery in Pakistan

US State Department Report on Human Trafficking 2009

Feudal Power Dominates Pakistani Democracy


Meenakshi Iyer said…
The piece is well researched and quite an eye opener, but I slightly disagree when you talk of return of democracy in Pakistan. It is nothing but a farce. I somehow feel that Pakistan was lot better under Musharraf's military regime than under "so called" democratic Zardari. What do you say...Was Pakistan better under military rulers?

I completely agree with you that slavery is just not restricted to Pakistan. From South Asia it stretches up till Africa. I would have wanted to know more about these Pakistani landlord's "private prisons"
Riaz Haq said…
#PMLN Senator Sardar Yaqoob Nasr: "Poor are born to serve the rich... God made people rich or poor" … via @indiatoday

"The poor of this country will never get to decide their own fate," Haidar said.
To this, Nasar remarked that if everyone were to become wealthy, there would be no one to grow wheat or to work as labourers.
"This is a system created by God and He has made some people rich and others poor and we should not interfere in this system," he said.
Haider countered that socio-economic classes were man-made and God had nothing to do with it.
Another Senator, Mohammad Usman Khan Kakar, too said that God created all people as equal and that the poor were not meant to serve the rich.
But Nasar could not be convinced and said: "Once in China all people were considered equal, which did not work out well.
"Those who cannot get an education and cannot earn more have no right to live the life of a bureaucrat," he said.
Riaz Haq said…
#Modi government advised to ‘discredit’ #slavery research that shows half of the world's slaves are in #India. #BJP

Prime minister Narendra Modi pressured to condemn Australian report on modern slavery over fears it could tarnish India’s image

The government of India has been advised to launch a campaign to “discredit” research into the country’s modern slavery problem because it has the “potential to substantially harm India’s image and exports”, according to an Indian news report.

The Walk Free Foundation, an anti-slavery organisation established by Australian mining magnate Andrew Forrest, was specifically singled out in a memo reportedly prepared by the Intelligence Bureau (IB), an Indian security agency, and obtained by the Indian Express.

It was produced days after the release of a report last month by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and Forrest’s Walk Free Foundation that estimated the global population of modern slaves at 40.3m in 2016.

India was not specifically mentioned but successive research has estimated the number of modern slaves in the country to be between 14m and 18m people –the most in the world.

Modern slavery refers to people involved in forced labour, people trafficking, debt bondage, child labour and a range of other exploitative practices affecting vulnerable populations.

According to the Indian Express, the Indian security agency wrote to the prime minister’s office and other high-level government departments advising them to “discredit” the September report and to pressure the ILO to disassociate itself from Walk Free.

The foundation was established by Forrest, one of Australia’s richest men, in 2012. It produces an annual estimate of the number of slaves worldwide, lobbies governments to strengthen and enforce labour laws, and invests in frontline social programs.

The intelligence memo claimed that researchers were increasingly “targeting” India as a modern slavery hub, according to the news report.

It said estimates such as those produced by the ILO and Forrest’s foundation had “potential to substantially harm India’s image and exports and impact its efforts to achieve Sustainable Development Goal 8.7” – a target for eradicating forced and child labour, and human trafficking.

The security agency also said the scale of India’s modern slave population was based on “questionable statistics”, citing the fact the ILO-Walk Free survey interviewed 17,000 people in India but only 2,000 in countries such as Russia, Bangladesh and Pakistan, the report said.
Riaz Haq said…
No work, new debt: #coronavirus creates perfect storm for #slavery in #India. #Australian charity Walk Free Foundation has put the number of bonded laborers in #India at 8 million, highest in the world, in its 2018 Global Slavery Index. #Lockdown #Modi

By Anuradha Nagaraj and Roli Srivastava

CHENNAI/MUMBAI, India, April 13 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When the coronavirus outbreak brought India to a halt last month, Bhagwan Das lost his only income as a construction worker in Delhi and embarked on a three-day trek back to his village.

Then the loan shark came knocking.

Unable to maintain repayments on the 60,000 rupee ($787) loan he took out in 2017 for his daughter's wedding, Das had no choice but to offer his son's labour to service the rising debt.

"My son works on the money lender's farmland now. He gives him food, but no wages," the 55-year-old told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from central Madhya Pradesh state.

"We have to repay a loan and will do whatever work he gives us," added Das, who has yet to even clear the loan's interest.

A coronavirus lockdown - due to end on Tuesday but set to be extended - has left hundreds of millions of informal workers without cash or food, and fearful that lacking paperwork or a bank account will hinder their access to government assistance

Coronavirus: our latest stories

Many families will instead resort to taking out loans at high interest rates in order to survive, while others will fall deeper into debt and end up trapped in bonded labour - India's most prevalent form of modern slavery - according to activists.

India identified at least 135,000 bonded workers in its 2011 census, while the Australian charity Walk Free Foundation put the number at eight million in its 2018 Global Slavery Index.

"The only capital they (internal migrant workers) have is their labour and the only people they know how to negotiate their livelihood with is the middleman," said Rudra Pattanaik, chairperson for the migrant labourer welfare charity PARDA.

"Cash flow in a migrant worker's home rotates around loans and working to repay them and that process has been completely derailed," he added. "The money lenders and middlemen are definitely going to recover the money, by hook or by crook."

"It is a very risky time ... this crisis will only deepen."


In a survey of about 3,200 informal workers who were walking home last week from cities to their villages, nearly a third had loans to repay - mainly to money lenders from their communities.

Almost half of those who were in debt said they feared their inability to service the loans could see them subjected to some form of violence, according to the survey by charity Jan Sahas.

In Odisha, charities are using short videos inspired by the animated film "Madagascar" to inform villagers about coronavirus and warn them against taking out loans from local money lenders at high interest rates - a practice known to fuel slave labour.

The Indian government says at least 300,000 people have been pulled out of slavery since 1976, and it has committed to rescue and rehabilitate more than 10 million bonded laborers by 2030.

Yet such efforts could be set back as people turn to the most convenient source of cash - lenders their families have known for generations - despite aid promised by the government for the country's poorest, according to labour rights activists.

"Money lenders may increase interest rates ... distress migration will increase," said Binoy Peter, executive director of Centre for Migration and Inclusive Development, a non-profit.

"It is going to be a catastrophe."

A labour ministry official, who declined to be identified as he was not authorised to speak to the media, said government guidelines for employers to not deduct wages or terminate employment should prevent workers needing to take out loans.

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