Slavery, Labor Exploitation, and Poverty in India: An Interview with Jiwan Kshetry

The following is an interview with Jiwan Kshetry , a freelance writer and social justice advocate located in Kathmandu, Nepal, regarding the problems of slavery, labor exploitation, and poverty in India.

India is one of the countries whose economy is growing fast and it’s included in the BRICS group. But it also has more than 13 million ‘slaves.’ Is this the right way to growth? Is Indiareally growing? Is the price for rapid growth acceptable?

Let me clarify one thing first: growth and inequality are not as mutually exclusive as is often portrayed; they often coexist and sometimes dangerously so. And the wealth gap resulting from such a coexistence is at the heart of a phenomenon that is present from time immemorial in the subcontinent, but is now suddenly popular by the name of ‘slavery’ thanks to a report by ‘Walk Free Foundation’. As it becomes clear with close reading of the WFF report, this phenomenon is not unique to South Asia though here lies, as I have said earlier, an entrenched pocket of slavery.

Now coming to India’s case, yes, India is growing up despite the oscillating rates of GDP growth over the years. And as you imply, there is a certain price for this particular form of growth. Not that the collateral enslavement of such a huge proportion of population was inevitable, but given the social, political, and economic realities of India and the subcontinent, people are forced to live and work in horrible conditions. This is definitely the wrong way to pursue growth; but convergence of a host of factors has led to this situation, from which, rather unfortunately, India is unlikely to step out of any time soon.

Do you think slavery and labor exploitation is an important part of the Indian economy? I mean, is the Indian economy dependent on slavery and labor exploitation What about other countries like Nepal and Bangladesh?

This fact may be puzzling to anyone from Europe or North America, but things here in South Asia are really very much different from those in Spain or the US. You can properly define terms like ‘labor exploitation’ when you have an upbeat formal economy with proper provision to remunerate people for their labor and, most importantly, your rulers (political or otherwise) abide by the rule of law. If you are new to this, let me introduce you with this monstrous thing called ‘informal economy’ that rules the roost in the developing countries. When the politicians, bureaucrats, and the responsible people in other branches of the state like the armed forces, who are supposed to uphold the constitution and the law of the land, do precisely the opposite to sustain their wholly or partly illicit business empires, the formaleconomy is bound to be stunted. What sort of remuneration, rights, and privileges for the workers can you imagine in a venture that is illicit in itself?

Let me elaborate this with an example to show how this informal and shady part of economy impacts the overall economy of the country. A nexus of politicians and businessmen take hold of a large swathe of territory that holds, say, coal, by colluding with or hoodwinking the state authorities and evicting the people there and with liberal deforestation. Now, they employ the increasingly desperate people to extract coal and sell it, making handsome gains in short time. The output of the other industry that uses the same coal is now part of the formal economy even if the original mining activity exists nowhere on paper. Similarly, when a racket of child-traffickers and shady businessmen get hold of, say, 300 children, and lock them up in a garment factory, the garments become the part of formal GDP the moment they reach the market although nobody ever comes to know the factor of child trafficking and their inhumane exploitation. Same thing is true for Bangladesh and, to a lesser extent, Nepal.

Is the Indian government doing enough to eradicate the slavery in this country? Do you think the slavery is in the agenda of the politicians? What could the government do for this ?

I think much of this question has been already answered. So long as the politicians and other prominent people in the society keep intact their share in the informal or ‘black’ economy, no government anywhere in the developing world can do anything about this. Again, please be clear that there are many instruments of the aforementioned phenomenon – illegal mining and human trafficking are only two of innumerable tools being used.

Let me add here a new complication to this: in their focused venture to growth and, by implication, their own enrichment, the politicians are increasingly cozy with the business houses and corporations. The latter, in turn, naturally demand a lax environmental regulation and a near-absent protection of the workers. This is a win-win situation for either side, with the displaced, evicted, and working people as the sole sufferer. A classic example of such collusion was seen after the infamous Bhopal disaster in 1984, when the state government was more focused on taming the victim’s voices rather than seeking justice for them in the form of compensation by the owners of the plant. Their demand for justice remains unfulfilled to this day and that is the apt metaphor for the workings of Indian democracy.

Nowadays, there are more laws (including international ones) than years before related to child labor, human rights, and slavery. Do you think the states follow the rules? Are the states more conscious about this issue than before (I mean both the ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ states)?

Again, to know about the rules and the laws, people have to feed themselves first. Then comes education, then awareness and information. Unfortunately, most of those who have all of these are in the upper or upper middle class, and a very tiny fraction of these people speak for the ill-fated people in the society. Coming to the role of the state, either it has to provide people with decent means of livelihood or leave them with whatever pathetic and indecent means of living they have. It cannot simply tell: here, you are being exploited or enslaved, so please go and die with hunger. This is particularly true in cases of the developing countries. Again, things are not as uniformly hopeless as it appears from what I have said so far, there are significant pockets of progress under honest and efficient rulers across both time and place. They are just not enough to break the vicious cycle of a strong informal economy pushing more people to destitution; and more people ending up in the mercy of shady businessmen, loan sharks, corrupt politicians, and so on.

Of course, the governments of states like India and Pakistan are now more conscious of their international standing with data of an embarrassingly high proportion of people under slavery; but as I have said, there is little they can do in the short term with so much entrenched interest of the powerful section of society in maintaining the status quo. In the long term, one can definitely hope for a change for the better, but there also doubts do exist.

Are the big companies too free to do everything in the developing countries, specifically in South Asia?

Big companies in developing countries are associated with the sorry state of affair of so many people in many ways. Among the string of scandals that have rocked the Indian establishment over the past three years, one related to a woman mediating things as serious as choosing the cabinet members at the behest of some business houses. Formation of one of the most ruthless vigilante armed group named ‘Salwa Judum’ in one Indian state in order to ‘flush’ the leftist rebels from the tribal areas followed the mining agreement between the state and some of the prominent Indian companies. As you must know, after the devastating Rana Plaza disaster this year that claimed the lives of more than 1100 Bangladeshi workers, the garment workers in Bangladesh continue to work in some of the most horrible working conditions in the world. These are the very industries from which the cheap garments at Walmart and elsewhere are sourced.

When the big companies themselves are unwilling to do the dirty job in these countries, there are always the local proxies in the form of associates, business partners, or simply as the middlemen.

What kind of relationship do the governments from South Asian countries have with the big companies from Europe and US ?

As must be clear by now, much of the prosperity of those in government and in politics in South Asia is based on their cozy relationship with the companies, both local and the ones from Europe and US. The moment they want to ask those companies to play by the rules of the game including in, say, ensuring worker’s safety and rights, they have to first play by the similar rules of game outlined in the law of the respective country. The entire paradigm of the governance has to change then, and meritocracy has to give way to the favoritism and nepotism that is so much a part and parcel of doing business in developing countries.

To exemplify, after the Bhopal disaster, the victims demanded the punishment of the then-Union Carbide CEO, Warren Anderson, for the criminal recklessness that led to the disaster as much as the monetary compensation of all the death and maiming they sustained as a result of the disaster. But that issue remains unresolved to date, as you know, UC’s parent company, Dow Chemicals, has gone as far as sponsoring the London Olympics amid the protests in India. To sum up, money increasingly shapes the events and the companies have a very high amount of it. They can thus get away with literally anything they do in the developing world.

The big foreign companies create a lot of jobs in the developing countries, but the conditions of these jobs usually are not appropriate (low salary, hard work, etc). What do you think about this? Are they helping these countries to develop?

Here comes the catch. If the companies in US and Europe had not heavily out-shored factories and outsourced jobs to China, India, Vietnam and so on, much of the prosperity around these countries would not have been there, i.e. there would have now been a much higher level of poverty; one cannot simply deny it. As a matter of fact, such jobs created by the foreign companies are known for relatively higher pay (compared to same in similar companies at home, though with exceptions and despite the fact that the payment is a fraction of what the company would ordinarily pay an American or a European worker). Also interestingly, such jobs are much freer from the influence of the omnipresent informal or black economy back home: workers go to banks to deposit the money and to malls to shop. They support the families back home, thereby making the dreaded loan sharks ineffectual by the day. It is precisely this kind of people who are referred as the ‘new middle class’ in countries like India and China.

But please note that, while talking about poverty and slavery in these countries, we are not talking about these people employed by Microsoft or Walmart. It is precisely the people left out of this process – those illiterate and feeble people in the clutches of the feudal landlords and loan sharks in villages and urban slums, poorly clothed, ill-fed and malnourished and without education and little or no chance of upward mobility, who live pathetic lives. Ironically, the lives of the unemployed in Bangladesh are scores worse than that of those working under harrowing conditions in the garment factories.

As I have mentioned in my FPJ article, one novel, ‘The White Tiger,’ by an Indian writer, Arvind Adiga, perfectly sums up such kind of existence of people in India who have an unbreakable wall of exploitation and outright oppression between themselves and prosperity.

On a different note, what can be harming the countries like India and China in the long term by the activities of big foreign companies can be the looming ecological disaster resulting from an endless demand of natural resources by the productive activities.

The usual victims of slavery in developing countries are people without resources and with low level of education. Are they conscious that they are slaves? What can they do to change their situation as slaves ?

Yes and no. Many of them are conscious of their status but have resigned to fate that the rest of their lives would remain like that. As I indicate in the article, a large section of these suffering people has brazenly maladapted to the status quo by resorting to alcoholism, blind religiosity, and to some extent, delinquency.

On doing something to change their situation, one model is the protagonist in Adiga’s novel, a poor driver to feudal lords who smashes the head of his boss to flee to the other corner of the country to start a vibrant enterprise. While this may be an extremist portrayal, the reality is that the journey out of the depressing lives is not all that easy. At individual level, a strict emphasis on education for the young is the only reasonable way for the poor to join the middle class, but the sheer negligence of the state resulting in dire status of public schools and colleges poses a substantial challenge.

What do India, Bangladesh, Pakistan or Nepal need to do to decrease the poverty numbers they have ?

This question is probably intended for a policy-maker or a scholar and I am neither! Yet my rudimentary knowledge on the matter says that the states need to have reasonable, knowledgeable and visionary political leadership if any large scale change is to be expected.

Uri Avnery, a well known Israeli commentator, has characterized the Israeli politicians like this in a recent columnIsraeli politicians, like most of their colleagues elsewhere, are not well versed in world history. They are party hacks who spend their lives in political intrigues. So is the case with politicians elsewhere and they are too absorbed in their own self-interest to have any reasonable view on the pressing issues of the day.

I have often argued that eliminating corruption and alleviating poverty or eradicating slavery are easier said than done, and understanding the complex dynamics of corruptibility of people and poverty is the first step towards getting rid of them. And much of my writing so far focuses on the need for such comprehensive understanding.

Given that the experiments involving radical leftist revolutions to get rid of human suffering have miserably failed over the past century, with the collapse of USSR and the evolution of China towards capitalism, the most relevant part of the worldwide discourse on the issue has largely excluded the radical approach and is evolving day by day. Still, the best possible approach to reining in poverty and eliminating slavery in any society can be summed up with the following points, as the responsibility of the state is:

1) Ensuring accountability at every level of governance

2) Institutionalizing participatory democracy in its true sense, not merely in the form of periodic elections

3) Employing an effective positive discrimination by the state to ensure that the poor and the marginalized (by gender, region, religion, caste, etc.) get a chance for upward mobility

4) Striking a balance between the need of the private capital in growth and the need of the state to avoid sellout of the resources

5) Resisting the temptation of the private companies to use/dump/pollute everything in the planet at any cost for the environment

Finally, I would like to thank you for this brief exchange. More of my work on this and other issues can be seen in my blog South Asia and Beyond ( www.jiwankshetri.blogspot.com).

Jiwan Kshetry is Kathmandu-based freelance writer. He regularly writes for his blog “South Asia and Beyond” and occasionally contributes for Asia Times Online and Foreign Policy Journal. His primary areas of interest are poverty, injustice, corruption and violence, particularly in South Asia. He can be reached at jiwan.kshetri@gmail.com and can be followed in Twitter @jkshetry.

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