Sunday, June 21, 2009

working on the chain gang

According to a new report, India isn't doing enough to combat human trafficking.

By Jason Overdorf - GlobalPost
Published: June 21, 2009

FARIDABAD, India —Teerath Ram came to Faridabad, on the outskirts of New Delhi, to work in one of its many stone quarries. Recruited by a labor contractor who promised he'd earn much higher wages here than he could ever make in his native state of Chhattisgarh, Teerath Ram took a notional "advance" of a few thousand rupees to pay the contractor for getting him the job and agreed to work in the quarry to repay his debt. Fifteen years later, he's still there.

The high wages he was meant to receive never materialized, and at the end of the month when the rock he had risked his neck to blast out of the ground was weighed against the dynamite he'd "bought" from the company store, the owner told him that his wages were just enough to cover the interest on his debt.

"They just kept records of what they loaned me in a notebook," he said. And because Teerath Ram is illiterate as well as desperately poor, "They could change the figures anytime they wanted."

There are literally millions like Teerath Ram in India, which has failed to meet minimum standards to combat human trafficking, according to the 2009 Trafficking in Persons Report released by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton this week.

"India is a source, destination, and transit country for men, women, and children trafficked for the purposes of forced labor and commercial sexual exploitation," according to the report.

Because it has been on the “tier two” watch list — the second-worst category of offenders — for two years, India now faces the prospect of being moved to the “tier three” blacklist of egregious violators next year if it fails to improve its record in fighting human trafficking. Those countries face sanctions under which the U.S. can withhold non-humanitarian aid and oppose aid projects from agencies like the International Monetary Fund and the World Band, though it is likely India would receive a presidential waiver.

The sad thing for India is that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Though they are still being cheated and exploited, laborers like Teerath Ram, for instance, don't even understand that they were the victims of trafficking, since nobody clubbed them on the head and threw them in the back of a truck. Nor do the police.

“The word trafficking has not been defined in India,” said Bhuwan Ribhu, a lawyer with the New Delhi-based Global March Against Child Labor. “There is no comprehensive definition, despite the fact that trafficking in human beings has been banned as [violating] a fundamental right.” That means when people are duped into migrating for work, rather than kidnapped, India's law enforcement agencies rarely recognize them as the victims of traffickers.

Technically, Teerath Ram is now no longer a bonded laborer. He knows exactly how much money he owes the quarry owner and the rate of interest on his debt. He can leave anytime, provided he finds someone else — which would mean another labor contractor — to grant him another loan to pay off his debt. But he still has to pay for the blasting equipment he uses from the quarry to which he's indebted, and the owner and debt-holder still assesses the value of the rock Teerath Ram blasts out of the ground. Naturally, the price of dynamite always seems to climb, while the price for stone plunges.

The quarry workers of Faridabad — only a 15-minute drive from the heart of Delhi — are victims of what some Indian economists are terming "modern bonded labor."
Unlike in the past, when agricultural laborers were forced to work because of traditional feudal ties to landlords or debts that went back generations, these modern bonded laborers migrate to new farms or industrial sites where wages are higher. They enter "freely" into loan agreements with their employers and sometimes even pay off what they owe at the end of the year. This has prompted some economists to argue that the laborers aren't the victims of traffickers, and that they opt to take these jobs because they are better than the alternatives available to them elsewhere, said Professor Ravi Srivastava, a labor economist at Jawarhalal Nehru University.

But, as Teerath Ram knows, the reality is very different. "This is the way the new bonded labor relationships are emerging," Srivastava said. These relationships are not purely economic contracts, even though employees may enter them due to necessity, rather than compulsion. And once employees enter into these relationships, there are high exit costs that the employees did not understand at the outset.

Bonded labor has been illegal in India since the enactment of the Bonded Labor System Abolition Act in 1976, and a series of progressive Supreme Court judgments expanded India's definition of bonded labor to make it more comprehensive.

India's highest court ruled in Bandhua Mukti Morcha vs. the Union of India (1984) that all laborers who are working for below the nationally mandated minimum wage should be presumed to be bonded to their employers. The ruling recognized that economic compulsions can be as powerful as historical feudal relationships and even the threat of physical harm, and that proving exploitation can be a knotty problem when employers keep all the records and their workers are illiterate and mathematically ignorant.

While this law doesn't go so far as to define anybody who is working for less than minimum wage to be a bonded laborer, it shifts the burden onto the employer to prove that his employees are there of their own volition. But despite this progressive interpretation of the law, forced labor, debt servitude and even slavery persist, according to the National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganized Sector.

Numbers are hard to come by. The Bandhua Mukti Morcha (or Bonded Labor Liberation Front) claims that as many as 300 million Indian workers should be presumed to be bonded laborers, based on the Supreme Court's definition.

The working conditions for such laborers are grim. They handle hazardous chemicals — and even explosives — without any safety equipment. Crippling and fatal accidents are routine. The work is backbreaking, and the pay is miserable. For instance, the “rapaswala,” a kiln worker who buries the bricks before firing, earns only 8 rupees (or about 20 cents) for every thousand bricks he produces.

Things are no better for Teerath Ram and the other the “modern” bonded laborers of Faridabad, even though they have fought long and hard for their rights, and, according to some definitions, they're free.

Organized by the Bandhua Mukti Morcha (Bonded Labor Liberation Front) in 1984, they have secured a school and access to electricity at the cost of the life of one of their own — allegedly at the hands of company goons. But they still have yet to receive the legally mandated minimum wage for their labor. They handle dynamite and blasting caps without proper safety equipment because their employer requires them to pay for their gear themselves, and fatal accidents are so commonplace no one has an accurate count.

"I owe 20,000 rupees ($500), which I borrowed to buy dynamite and other equipment," said Resham Lal, another quarry worker. "Every month, I repay 250 rupees. Nobody has told me how long it will take me to pay off my debt at this rate, and I keep working and spending more money on equipment and the interest on my loan keeps growing."

Friday, June 19, 2009

everybody was kung fu fighting

South Indian prostitutes learn martial arts to protect against creeps and other bad customers.

By Jason Overdorf - GlobalPost (
Published: June 19, 2009

CHENNAI — Scorned by society and ignored by the police, sex workers in the South Indian city of Chennai are learning karate to protect themselves against the beatings, robberies and rapes they say are part of a prostitute's daily life here.

“Sometimes I make an agreement with one customer, and then later he tries to bring his friends along as well,” said Kalaiarasi, a woman who works as a prostitute near the Chennai neighborhood of Anna Nagar. “Other times they want to have sex with me and they beat me up so they don't have to pay.”

According to the Ministry of Women and Child Development, India has about 3 million prostitutes. But other organizations, like Human Rights Watch, suggest that the figure could be as much as five times higher than that.

Because of desperate poverty, high rates of unemployment and the low status of women in Indian society, these sex workers have few options. Prostitution is illegal, and, recently, efforts have been made to decriminalize prostitution and make clients — instead of just the prostitutes — liable to prosecution. But these efforts have had little impact.

Kalaiarasi is all too aware that it is rape, not business, when a client brings along his friends. But in the past she has never been able to do anything about it because the local police are not interested in the legal rights of a woman who takes money in exchange for sex. In fact, if the allegations of local sex workers and activists are true, the police officers charged with upholding the law are the worst offenders.

“The law never says the policemen can beat them up, they can rape the women, they can abuse them,” said AJ Hariharan, founder of the Indian Community Welfare Organization, a nonprofit that aims to protect the rights of sex workers and homosexuals. “The law doesn't say that. But the people implementing the law are taking advantage of it ... So no one can go and complain to the police.”

That's why, along with 75 other sex workers here, Kalaiarasi is learning karate so she can fight back. So far, Kalaiarasi has only taken a 15-day crash course. But as she and her fellow students kick and punch in imitation of their instructor, you can already see how the basic knowledge of karate — together with the recognition that they have the right to protect themselves — has given them a huge surge in confidence.

Dressed in white karate uniforms and wearing Spiderman masks to hide their faces from my camera, these women are clearly having fun. At one point, Valli, another sex worker, attacks Kalaiarasi with a wooden knife — haieeya! Kalaiarasi blocks the thrust with her nunchaku, or “numchuks,” catching Valli's wrist with the chain connecting the wooden sticks and twisting it painfully so her would-be attacker is forced to drop the knife. Everyone's Spiderman mask shakes with laughter.

While most karate students will probably never have to use their skills on a real attacker, the prostitutes' precarious position in society makes an assault almost certain.

“The clients feel that the women are vulnerable,” Hariharan said. “If they pay, they can do anything [they believe]. We want to pass on a message that this is enough. That the women will protect themselves.”

“I have to keep going out after dark [because of my job],” Valli said. “Sometimes clients misbehave. Sometimes they refuse to pay. What we want is to be able to protect ourselves from hooligans.”

Hariharan hopes that learning karate will not only help protect these women from abuse, but also raise awareness about their plight and cause others to realize that sex workers, too, deserve basic human rights.

“When you look at the [total] number of sex workers, the number who know self-defense is very less,” he said. “But we want to send this message across the country, (to) women in Kanyakumari and other districts of Tamil Nadu, or elsewhere in the country, maybe Rajasthan or Delhi or Gujarat. We want this message to be taken that sex workers can equip themselves to prevent violence against them.”

Saturday, June 06, 2009

How I – and 138 million in his target audience – missed Obama's historic speech

I have always been a bit skeptical about the existence of the “Arab street” that some of my colleagues keep talking about. But I can tell you for certain that the “Indian street” doesn't exist. This country is just too big, and too diverse, to sum up as having a single opinion. This afternoon I went looking for it anyway. My task: Find a bunch of typical Indian Muslims with whom I could watch Obama's historic speech.

My translator, Salman, an Indian Muslim himself, wasn't too optimistic. “To be honest,” he said, “we can find some cafe or something and round up some people, but we're not just going to find somebody who is watching it.”

There were several reasons. India is not a Muslim country. And even though its 13% Muslim minority means it has the world's third-largest Muslim population, with some 138 million believers, after Indonesia and Pakistan, Indian Muslims have never really considered themselves part of “the Muslim world.” As a minority that faces discrimination, Indian Muslims are less interested in the much-discussed clash between Islam and the West than they are with the more immediate problems they face at home. And because of the recent election and the furious pace with which the new government is unveiling big-ticket policies – including a speech by the Indian president to reveal Manmohan Singh's 100-day agenda today – Obama's superspeech kinda slipped under the radar. There were no big previews, just some agency copy on the international pages, buried deep in the newspaper.

Therefore, we needed politically aware, educated Muslims, Salman declared. So we decided our best chance was on the campus of Jamia Millia Islamic University, a school that, as its name suggests, has a good number of Muslim scholars, but is also known for its cutting edge film and multimedia department. Outside the Islamic Studies department, we spoke with 25-year-old Muhammad Yafiruddin, a bearded MA student dressed in a traditional salwar kameez and wearing a skull cap.

“Are you planning to watch Obama's speech to the Muslim world?” I asked him.

“No,” he said. “I'm not interested in what he has to say. He's just another oil and war hungry American. He's only doing this to keep America's interests safe. His Muslim identity is only a disguise.”

“As an Indian Muslim, do you think that this speech is addressed to you?” I asked.

“His speech is directed at the heads of state and bureaucrats in the audience; it's not meant for common Muslims on the street like me, nor are we interested. The only difference between Obama and Bush is that Obama has a clean past and Muslim ancestry. One I hate, and the other I'm indifferent to.”

It sounds pretty bad when I write it down like that, but it wasn't the ravings of a fanatic. More like the typical political fire you'd get from a politically active college student anywhere. Muhammad was a friendly guy, and happy to talk with me. He just wasn't going to watch Obama's speech – no matter how we tempted him with getting his name on the Internet.

He did, however, know where we could find a cafe with a TV where a lot of Indian Muslims hang around. “La Jawab Coffee House,” he said. It turned out the place was in the neighborhood famous for last year's so-called “Batla house encounter,” in which several young Muslim men, suspected of being terrorists, were gunned down by the police. The community has called for an independent probe into the incident.

Unfortunately, though, it hasn't turned La Jawab Coffee House into a hotbed of political discourse. When my buddy Salman and I got there, a Hindi film called Gayab had just started on TV, and nobody wanted to miss it to watch Obama make history. 27-year-old Rizwan had dibs on the TV, and he refused to back down. The movie is a comedy about a nerd who turns invisible so he can get a girl, fails to make her love him, and becomes a superhero instead. So naturally I understood where they were coming from. But this was yet another time I wished I had a TV camera—even a fake one. People will do whatever you want if you tell them they're going to be on TV. They'd have switched over to Obama in an instant.

As it was, by the time Salman finished his pitch, Obama's speech was half over, and we'd come up empty.

Instead, I had to walk across the road to the Madrassa, where I met Maulana Mohinuddin Zulfi, the imam and speaker of the mosque. He was in charge of about 50 eight and nine year old kids who were apparently learning to shout at the top of their lungs, so he wasn't planning to watch Obama's speech either. But I was somewhat cheered that he planned to watch the highlights later. I'm a highlights guy, too, I thought. What is this nonsense about a clash of civilizations?

So we asked him what he thought.

“Bush was a devil, but Obama is the exact opposite—as of now,” he said. “Now we must wait and see what he does. George Bush's bad deeds have given a bad name to America, and that's why a lot of Muslims hate America.”

“Well, I can see you're busy now, but it sounds like you're interested in hearing what Obama has to say, right?”

“I'm looking forward to it. I will read every detail of what Obama says in the newspapers. I hope he speaks well. He is a man of good intentions, and he has a good chance of succeeding in bridging the gaps caused by hatred by telling the world that America is not essentially anti-Islam.”

“What about American culture? Are you afraid that your way of life is under attack by Western influences like MTV?”

“There's no fear,” the imam said. “But we feel a certain disgust about these things. It would be better if MTV were closed down, but it caters to a certain audience. So we can just tell our people not to follow that culture.”

Salman and I slunk out of the Madrassa with the stink of failure surrounding us. Not only had we not been able to find any Muslims glued to their televisions—well, except the guys watching Gayab (the invisible superhero). But also we had missed Obama's speech ourselves.

From the highlights, though (yep, I watched 'em), it appears that Obama may, indeed, have gone a good distance to satisfy exactly the demands of India's politically aware Muslim community. At Jamia, I'd asked Yafiruddin to tell me what he wished Obama would say in his speech—even if he wasn't going to watch it. “The first thing Obama should do is apologize for what has happened in Iraq and Afghanistan,” he said. Another MA student, 25-year-old Rashid Aziz, said, “The first thing he should do is stop the settlements and the destruction of Palestine—especially the use of white phosphorus.”

You guys all caught that live while I was arguing about Hindi movies. But I believe he came pretty close to doing both.