By Nita Bhalla
NEW DELHI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Victims of forced or bonded labor in north India can break free from exploitation if they mobilize and exercise their collective power to demand enforcement of labor protection laws and social welfare entitlements, a Harvard survey said on Thursday.
The survey, which reviewed the work of local charity Manav Sansadhan Evam Mahila Vikas Sansthan (MSEMVS) in Uttar Pradesh state, found steps such as forming community groups and raising awareness of laws and government welfare schemes significantly helped to reduce debt and improve lives.
"Interviews with community members highlighted MSEMVS’s contribution to reducing indebtedness and threats of violence, improving wage levels and generating a sense of collective efficacy," the study by Harvard University's FXB Center for Health and Human Rights said.
"The intervention also had a strong effect on food security, access to medical care, civic participation and take-up of government programs such as the national rural job creation scheme."
India is home to almost half the world's 36 million slaves, according to the Global Slavery Index produced by the Australia-based Walk Free Foundation.
Many are from poor rural regions who are lured with the promise of good jobs, but end up sold into domestic work, prostitution, or industries such as brick kilns, textile units or farming.
In some cases, they are unpaid or held in debt bondage as security against a loan they have taken, or a debt inherited from a relative.
The study, conducted in Sant Ravidas Nagar district, looked at factors such as debt, access to health and government jobs as well as number of daily meals of 1,040 families at the start of the program in 2011. This was compared with data collected from 392 families four years later.
The results showed the proportion of households that had a family member in forced labor or debt bondage fell to 1.2 percent from 16.7 percent after MSEMVS had worked with them.
Only 21.4 percent of families had debts after four years compared with 84.8 percent before the intervention of the charity, it added.
The proportion of households that had access to the government rural job scheme increased to 69 percent from 37 percent and the number of daily meals families were having rose to 2.4 from 1.9, the survey found.
The report said that MSEMVS's strategy focused on building a movement among exploited villagers, most of whom are from poor low-caste or dalit communities, who are employed in agriculture, carpets and brick industries.
The approach involves residents forming community vigilance committees made up of bonded or forced laborers, which organize to secure their freedom by putting pressure on the local authority to enforce labor protection laws and provide access to social welfare schemes.
"It’s clear that tackling slavery has a range of socio-economic benefits – a 'freedom dividend'," said Nick Grono, CEO of the Freedom Fund, which commissioned the study.
"At a time when governments and international donors are looking to fast-track progress toward the new Sustainable Development Goals, this study makes a powerful case for global investment to scale these kinds of approaches."
(Reporting by Nita Bhalla, editing by Tim Pearce. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit news.trust.org)