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Working on the chain gang

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

An Indian laborer uses a sledgehammer on a boulder at a stone quarry. In some parts of India the work at quarries under harsh terms that make workers indentured slaves. The work includes putting dynamite into rocks, breaking stones and loading them onto dumper trucks. (Fayaz Kabli/Reuters)

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.