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Bonded Labor

Aidan MacQuade

RBondedLabor.jpgSiddharth Kara
Columbia University Press,

Bonded labour is a form of slavery in which a person is required to pay back an excessively high interest loan through their labour, which is generally undervalued. It consigns communities and families to years, sometimes generations, of poverty. It is the largest form of slavery in the world today, affecting millions, particularly in South Asia. So Siddarth Kara is to be complemented for bringing it to wider attention with this book. However it is a bit of a curate's egg of a book.

To begin with the good: over a period of years Kara has travelled to South Asia interviewing hundreds of bonded labourers in industries across the region. He provides excellent descriptions, based on their testimonies, of life as a slave. Kara confirms the caste bias of bonded labour, calculating that 97% of those he interviewed were Dalits or from scheduled castes. And he calculates the economic value of this form of slavery to the slaveholders: the profit for slaveholders almost zeroes out the cost of labour.

These aspects of Kara's work demonstrate the value of clear economic analysis in research into contemporary forms of slavery. However the book is limited by its very strength: this narrow economic analytic framework. Slavery after all is not merely an economic phenomenon. It is also a social and political one and one that, particularly in South Asia, touches fundamentally on the question of rule of law. These are points that Kara makes in passing but does not dwell upon or elucidate, so vital questions are barely addressed.

For example, he disparages Nepal's efforts to stop bonded labour in the 1990s calling it an exemplar of 'how not to do it', but doesn't say how Nepal could have done better, particularly as a new and extremely poor democracy. India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, which he visited, are also crippled by corruption, caste prejudice, and lack of institutional capacity, but the political questions of how to stop slavery in such, sometimes feudal questions is barely acknowledged. Where there have been advances, such as India's 1976 Bonded Labour Act, this has resulted from intense political activity by Indian civil society, including Dalits and bonded labourers themselves. The question of how these groups can keep the issue of slavery a high political priority for the ruling elites is fundamental to the elimination of slavery in the region.

It is in his prescription for the eradication of slavery that Kara is at his most glib. Some of his suggestions, such as establishing a national minimum wage, are sensible, particularly for countries such as India which have a bewildering array of state and job-related minimums. However for none of these proposals does he consider even fleetingly the political and institutional constraints that may be factors in  adopting and implementing any of them.

Some of his proposals are highly fanciful. Kara advocates, amongst other things, a transnational police force to deal with slavery across the region. Setting aside the intense nationalisms at play in the region which might in themselves make this a politically difficult matter, and the not inconsiderable fact that India and Pakistan are still at war, this is a very troubling idea as it completely ignores some basic rule of law questions such as whom this police force would be accountable to, and what risks of power abuse it might entail. Kara's proposal that the force should be overseen by an executive board made up of representatives of the Human Rights Commissions of the participating countries and 'some NGOs', to my mind strains credibility.

Elsewhere he advocates the fast-tracking of slavery cases in India's court system, dismissing the possibility for more thoroughgoing reform of the Indian judiciary. On 30th December 2012 Olga Kazan and Rama Lakshmi in the Washington Post noted that amongst the reasons that rape is endemic in India is that the country has only 15 judges for every million people compared to 159 judges for every million people in China. Kazan and Lakshmi also noted that an unnamed Delhi high court judge once estimated that it would take 466 years to get through the backlog of cases in Delhi alone. India, in response to the gang rape of a student in December 2012, has fast-tracked such cases. And while slavery and rape are amongst the most egregious abuses that any court would consider it may not be helpful to treat them as special cases for fast tracking for anything other than a transitional period. The backlog of cases in India represents tens of thousands of citizens with diverse legitimate concerns who have a right also that these concerns should be subject to rule of law. The absence of transparent and publicly accountable redress for them would likely create a climate of reduced public confidence in rule of law, something that would further threaten faith in democratic institutions, may  lead to people taking the law into their own hands and may reduce public appetite for addressing the underlying causes of the fast tracked issues.

Furthermore the International Senior Lawyers Project has pointed out to me how sometimes that best remedies for human rights abuses do not arise from human rights law: in India for example Indian antislavery activists have identified the 1948 Factories Act as a potential law which could provide remedy for some of the bonded labour abuses that Kara so ably describes in this book. In this vein also India has in recent years introduced a couple of measures which, while lacking the grandiosity of Kara's proposals and not addressing bonded and child labour explicitly, seem intended to tackle these very matters. The National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme guarantees 100 days work for rural poor each year in government schemes. This addresses a fundamental cause of bonded labour - the extreme poverty of those vulnerable to slavery.

The government has also introduced a law for compulsory education for children, which may draw many children away from labour in the sorts of industries Kara describes. The impact of these measures are not considered by Kara, perhaps coming too late for him to include them in his book. Certainly to date reports of their impact is patchy.

But fundamental to the success or failure of these measures, and many other rights and poverty reduction measures, is extending effective rule of law across India, to ensure that these and other laws are consistently and transparently administered. Rather than fast-tracking through the courts one set of crimes the shocking disfunctionality of the Indian Court system in regard to slavery and rape in particular and other criminal and legal mattes in general suggests an imperative for sustained international and national support to establish this vital component of rule of law on an appropriate institutional footing. Aidan McQuade