Whenever he spots police 12-year-old Kanu hides behind the soiled curtains of a dimly lit tea shop in downtown Guwahati, the capital of northeast India’s Assam state.
“My employer has given me clear instructions to disappear whenever I see a policeman approaching the tea shop,” Kanu, a runaway from Nepal who crossed into India about three years ago.
Kanu, who declined to reveal his last name or any information about his parents, said he was aware that child labor was a crime in India, but added that he had no option but to work.
“If I don’t work, how will I eat? I don’t have parents to support me. I don’t have any money to go to school. I need to work to survive,” said Kanu, adding that his “owner” paid him a meager daily sum of about 40 rupees (60 cents) per day, along with bare minimum food for the hours he worked.
Kanu is among millions of people who are working in slave-like conditions or slavery in India, the world’s most populous democracy.
According to the Global Slavery Index Report 2016, which was released on Tuesday, India ranks as the worst and neighboring Bangladesh as the fourth worst among 167 countries where slavery is prevalent.
The findings of the survey, conducted by the Australia-based anti-slavery group Walk Free Foundation, indicate that about 1.4 percent of India’s population of 1.25 billion – about 18.35 million people – live under conditions of modern-day slavery. India is followed by China (3.39 million), Pakistan (2.13 million), Bangladesh (1.53 million) and Uzbekistan (1.23 million).
Northeast India: ‘A major transit point’
Andrew Forrest of the Walk Free Foundation said his group did not face any major resistance while conducting the survey in India.
“It was the Indian government who in 2013 encouraged our attempt to introduce country-by-country independent measurement through the Global Slavery Index as the first but most critical step to managing it out of existence,” Forrest said in an interview with Economic Times.
“We are standing on [the] edge of extinction of slavery. India is crucial to the whole effort toward removing slavery.”
India’s close proximity to Bangladesh, Myanmar and Nepal makes the country – particularly northeastern states such as Assam – an international hub for human traffickers, experts said.
“Trends of trafficking have changed drastically. Northeast India has now become a major transit point. Children from Bangladesh and Nepal are trafficked through border points of Kakarbhitta, situated on the Indo-Nepal border, using Siliguri (West Bengal) as the source point to the mineral-rich states across India for mining,” said Hasina Kharbhih, founder of the Meghalaya-based NGO Impulse.
Kharbhih has been credited with creating a comprehensive tracking system that brings together state governments, security agencies, legal groups and the media to combat cross-border trafficking of children.
To attract increased funding from foreign sources, some Indian charitable institutions collect dozens of children from areas affected by extreme poverty or natural calamities by persuading their parents that their wards will be given education and shelter, Kharbhih said.
“But on several occasions we have found that these children were taken to other states and left to fend for themselves,” she said.
The picture in Bangladesh
Walk Free defines modern-day slavery as the enslavement of people through human trafficking, forced labor, debt bondage, forced marriage and other circumstances.
But in Bangladesh, the head of an NGO that supports workers and was established 21 years ago by the country’s trade unions, said that many of his compatriots were questioning the Australian NGO’s definition of the word “slavery.”
“Many people may debate about [it], but the reality is that a huge number of Bangladeshis – both at home and abroad – have been working in hazardous situations for long hours with meager financial return,” Sultan Uddin Khan, director of the Bangladesh Institute of Labor Studies, told BenarNews.
“Why are they risking their lives at home and abroad? This is because we cannot ensure a safe workplace and a decent wage for them,” Khan added. “We have to start a discussion to eliminate this slavery-like situation. What the government must first do is ensure a safe working atmosphere, U.N.-stipulated working hours and fair wages for the workers.”
Meanwhile, at least one Bangladeshi official questioned the report’s accuracy.
“I do not agree with their findings. I do not accept their very notion of slavery,” Aminul Islam, a joint secretary at the Ministry of Labor and Employment, told BenarNews.
However, Matt Friedman, chief executive of Hong Kong based anti-slavery organization Mekong Club, described Walk Free’s estimated number of people in slavery in Bangladesh as plausible.
“Wherever there is poverty, there are people who will exploit others,” he told BenarNews.
“In Bangladesh, modern-day slavery happens both within the country and across borders. Each year, migrants from Bangladesh willingly travel to the Middle East and other parts of Asia with the hope of earning money that can be sent back to their family. Some of these migrants arrive in the country only to find themselves in a forced labor conditions.”
Friedman listed steps that government agencies could take to address the problem.
These include reviewing fee structures offered by recruitment agencies to ensure that they are fair and non-exploitative; providing more training to migrants leaving Bangladesh to help them understand their rights; establishing better systems and procedures to allow law enforcement officials to address forced labor situations; and emphasizing proactive efforts to search for victims within sex venues, brick kilns, fishing and agriculture sites, Friedman said.
Kamran Reza Chowdhury in Dhaka contributed to this report.