Modern Slavery in India – Forced Labour, Forced Marriage & Human Trafficking

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According a latest report, there is an estimation of about 29 million women and girls are victimized by modern slavery, and exploited by practices such as forced labour, forced marriage, debt bondage, and domestic servitude. According to Walk Free anti-slavery organization, one in 130 women and girls is experiencing modern slavery now, which is greater than the entire population of Australia.

Global Slavery Index reveals that, in 2016, there were 8 million people living in modern slavery on any given day in India. India ranked 53 among 167 countries in the index. North Korea topped the list and Japan at the bottom. But in absolute numbers, India topped the list on prevalence due to its huge population.
The Index is published by Australia based “The Walk Free Foundation” which is a global organisation with an aim to end modern slavery in our generation by mobilising a global activist movement against it.

This topic of “Modern Slavery in India – Forced Labour, Forced Marriage & Human Trafficking” is important from the perspective of the UPSC IAS Examination, which falls under General Studies Portion.

What is Modern Slavery?

  • Modern Slavery is not defined under any law but is an umbrella term used to describe situations of exploitative nature in which the person cannot refuse or leave due to threats, violence, deception and abuse of power.
  • Therefore modern slavery includes exploitative acts such as forced labour & debt bondage, forced marriage, and human trafficking.

Forced labour and Debt bondage in India

Bonded labour is defined in the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act of 1976 as a system of forced or partly forced labour in which a debtor gets an advance of cash or kind in return for his labour or service to the creditor.
Forced labour and debt bondage are common practice across the primary, secondary and tertiary economic sectors in India, with the high number of cases being reported in certain industries such as brick kilns, carpet weaving, textile and garment manufacturing, embroidery, manual scavenging and agriculture.

Who is affected by debt bondage?

  • Members of marginalised castes, tribes, religious minorities, refugees and migrant workers are most affected by debt bondage.
  • There are also instances of Nepali and Bangladeshi migrants being subjected to forced labour in India through debt bondage and recruitment fraud.

What are the Causes behind forced labour in India?

  • The social and economic marginalisation of weaker sections and their inability to move out of their respective group makes them particularly vulnerable to forced labour and human trafficking.
  • Informal and unregulated sectors which are estimated to employ around 94% of the workforce in India. And the debt bondage continues to be prevalent in these sectors. Moreover, the lack of labour regulations in these sectors creates huge power imbalances in employer-worker relationships and increases workers’ vulnerability to exploitation. Note- Labour legislations only available for formal sectors.
  • Chronic underpayment of minimum wages in low-skilled and semi-skilled work is also a major reason for debt bondage because due to the non-payment, the large-scale workforce has to depend on debt bondage to meet basic consumption needs, medical needs, social ritual needs etc.
  • Most often, the members of the vulnerable groups lack good livelihood opportunities and access to credit and financial services, which makes them vulnerable to constant indebtedness.
  • Failure of authorities to effectively implement measures to address the issue is also a reason for the prevalence of forced labour in India.

What are the impacts of forced labour?

  • The labourers under forced labour and debt bondage are most often experience a wide range of exploitations such as contract substitution, holding back of the documents, non-payment or delayed payment of wages, exhausting working hours, deception and coercion.
  • In extreme cases, this exploitation becomes human trafficking for labour exploitation or slavery.
  • Furthermore, higher degrees of poverty and illiteracy remain among these communities than the general population due to the forced labour practice.

What are the measures taken by the government against forced labour?

  • Bonder labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976 was enacted by the government in order to provide a legal framework against the practice of bonded labour in India. The Act is strengthened by labour legislations such as the Contract Labour Act of 1970, the Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act, and the Minimum Wages Act. The Act abolished debt bondage and explicitly stated that all traditions, customs, contracts, and agreements which requires a person to provide bonded labour are null and do not have any legal or binding force. It also abolished bonded labour and provides for corporate and criminal liability which prescribes up to three years of imprisonment and a 2000 rupees fine for the acts of bonded labour. The act also provides for the establishment of vigilance committees across the country in order to identify and help the bonded labourers.
  • Child Labour Act of 1986 prohibits children under the age of 14 from working in certain industries such as domestic works, roadside restaurants, mines, factories and other industries.
  • Juvenile Justice Act of 2010 outlaws exploitation of juvenile or child workers such as procurement of juvenile for hazardous employments, keeping them in debt bondage, or withholding their wages.
  • Labour laws – There are over 40 central legislations which are classified by industry or type of work and cover a wide range of work in factories, plantations and construction work. These legislations deals with the issues such as minimum wage, maximum working hours, health, safety and working conditions.

How is the implementation?

  • With 90% of workers in the informal sectors in the country, the labour legislations are ineffective since it covers only formal sectors.
  • Despite the abolition, debt bondage is still prevalent in India mainly because of the low prosecution rate for these crimes and in the case of a conviction, the penalties of imprisonment are imposed very rarely.
  • According to Anti-slavery international, large numbers of Vigilance Committees have been established across India with an aim to identify and help bonded labourers. However, in reality, these committees are generally inactive and ineffective in its functioning.

What is the way forward?

Instead of just focussing on capturing and prosecuting the criminals, the government should also focus on addressing the root causes such as huge informal sector, marginalisation of communities, lack of financial and credit services, lack of livelihood opportunities etc.

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Human trafficking in India

According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, South Asia with India at its centre, is the fastest growing and second-largest region for human trafficking in the world, after East Asia. About 90% of trafficking in India is internal and the most vulnerable are lower caste people, tribal people, religious minorities and women and girls from excluded groups.

What are the causes behind human trafficking in India?

  • The rise in mobility and growth of industries employing forced labourers are important factors for the human trafficking.
  • Lack of regulations for work placement agencies which attracts adults and children for sex trafficking and forced labour including domestic servitude under false promises of providing work.
  • Terrorist groups such as Naxalites are trafficking children as young as six for the purpose of spying, couriers, planting improvised explosive devices and fighting against the government.
  • Various groups are working across the country who traffick children and force them to beg.

What are the impacts of human trafficking on victims?

  • Human trafficking results in mental disorders including depression and anxiety for the victims.
  • Trafficked women are forced into prostitution and slavery, which adversely impacts their fundamental rights.
  • Women who are forced into trafficking also affected by diseases such as HIV, Tuberculosis and other Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs).
  • Children as young as six are removed from their families and their basic rights such as right to life and education have been deprived.

What are the measures taken by the government against human trafficking?

  • The Immoral Trafficking Prevention Act, 1986 penalises trafficking for commercial sexual exploitation. The penalties under the act ranging from 7 years to life imprisonment.
  • The cabinet recently approved the Trafficking of Persons (prevention, protection and rehabilitation) bill, 2018 which aims at addressing the issue of trafficking with objectives of prevention, rescue and rehabilitation. It covers various forms of trafficking which includes trafficking for the purpose of forced labour, begging, marriage etc. It also provides for punishment, confidentiality of victims, rehabilitation of victims and institutional mechanism for effective enforcement of the law.

How is the implementation?

  • There were several cases of inaction by police and prosecutors which signifies poor enforcement of the anti-trafficking legal framework, corruption and absence of awareness or capacity in several parts of the country.
  • Victims often face issues such as difficulty in accessing justice including their inability to travel to court, social stigma and intimidation, and considerable delays in trials.

What is the way forward?

  • The government should stop the penalisation of trafficking victims such as restrictions on their travel and increase effective prosecutions and convictions for all forms of trafficking.
  • The government should also increase prosecutions and convictions of officials who are complicit in the enforcement of laws against trafficking.

Forced Marriage in India

Even though India is fast developing and moving towards a better tomorrow, forced marriage still affects many Indian families and society at large. When a girl crosses the age of 18, she is emotionally convinced and is forced into marriage. Evidence proves that forced marriage often results in slave-like conditions for the women in Indian families.

What does forced marriage mean?

Forced marriage happens when one or both spouses do not agree to the marriage. Children and adults with mental disabilities cannot consent to marriage. Girls below the age of 18 and Boys below the age of 21 cannot legally marry in India.
Forced marriage is different from arranged marriage in the sense that unlike latter, forced marriage doesn’t need the consent of the persons who are going to marry and often involves threat, coercion, violence, pressure etc. In extreme cases, parents drugs and kidnaps their own child to make the marriage happen.

What are the reasons behind forced marriage?

  • Persons who are having a developmental or mental disability are most often forced to marry since they cannot give their consent.
  • Forced marriage occurs often in the name of protecting family honour.
  • The need to retain ancestral land, property, and wealth in the family is also a factor for the forced marriage.
  • Parents often react to social pressures such as neighbours and older relatives to force their children into marriage.
  • High poverty and debt levels also drive the parents to coerce their children into marriage in return for dowry.

What are the impacts of forced marriage on victims?

Victims often endure violence in the forced marriage which threatens them and breaks them to make sure that they can’t withdraw from the marriage. The violence may include rape. When the rape results in the birth of a child, mothers often find it difficult to leave the marriage. Their right to life and personal liberty under Article 21 of the constitution taken from them.

What are the initiatives taken by the government?

  • There is a number of laws related to forced marriage which includes the Guardians and Wards Act, 1890, the Family Courts Act, 1984 and the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005 (PWDVA) and Prohibition of child marriage act, 2006.
  • PWDVA recognises the forced marriage as a form of domestic violence so as to prevent child marriages or forced marriages of daughters.
  • The Delhi High Court declared that the right to choose one’s life partner is a fundamental right and an integral part of the right to life. Therefore, the right to life includes the right to consensual marriage in India. Hence forced marriage is a violation of the fundamental right and the victims can move the Supreme Court directly to get justice.

What is the way forward?

  • Securing access to quality education for girls at primary and secondary level can prevent forced and early marriages since education will enable them to take decisions on their own and also gives them exposure to various initiatives of the government against forced marriages.
  • Despite RTE implementation, girls still face multiple barriers in accessing education such as fees, geographic barriers, sexual harassment at school, lack of safe and sanitary toilet facilities, lack of adequate teachers and corporal punishment. Hence, there is a need to solve these issues to eradicate forced marriages in India.


The country will not be able to achieve its sustainable development goals if the majority of its population are under slavery or slave-like conditions. In the words of Sheryl WuDunn, “The tools to crush modern slavery exist, but the political will is lacking”. Therefore, it is high time that the government take proper actions against the forced labour, forced marriage and human trafficking in order to make the country a better place to live.

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