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Adivasis in India: modern-day slaves or modern-day workers?

India’s Adivasis often work in conditions commonly described as ‘modern-day slavery’, but they are not slaves. Their unfreedom is both the fuel and product of modern Indian capitalism.

A young Muria (Adivasi) man works a field. Collin Key/Flickr. Creative Commons.

India occupies a distinctive position within representations of ‘modern-day slavery’. According to recent indexes of global slavery produced by the Walk Free Foundation, the country’s “modern day slavery problems are immense”. In 2014, Walk Free proclaimed that more than 14 million people—from a population of 1.2 billion—are trapped in “all forms of modern slavery”. India is consequentially regarded by Walk Free and others as the country in the world with the highest absolute number of people living as modern-day slaves.

This politics of numbers is accompanied by a series of further arguments that vulnerability to modern-day slavery is higher among some groups than others. “Indians most vulnerable to modern slavery”, states the 2013 report, “are those from the ‘lower’ castes (dalits), and the indigenous communities (adivasis), especially women and children.” In a similar vein, the 2014 report notes: “Evidence suggests that members of lower castes and tribes, religious minorities, and migrant workers are disproportionately affected by modern slavery.”

These types of statements are heavily dependent on how the concept of slavery is defined and applied. If we take the Walk Free Foundation’s definition of modern-day slavery at face value, it is indeed true that India has the highest absolute number of modern-day slaves and that specific groups, such as Dalits and Adivasis, are overrepresented in their ranks. What I want to call into question, however, is precisely the claim that “modern-day slavery” is an appropriate description of the highly exploitative and oppressive conditions under which many poor Indians try to make a living. I want to do so with reference to India’s Adivasis.

The Adivasis

Who are India’s Adivasis? Put very simply, the term Adivasi—which means original inhabitant—refers to a range of ethnic groups that predominantly inhabit hilly and forested areas across rural India. They are classified by the Indian constitution as belonging to the category of 'scheduled tribes', a designation which reflects the fact that Indian authorities do not recognise Adivasis as being indigenous people, but rather define them as ‘tribal’ according to a specific set of features. These include their dependence on subsistence agriculture and their distinct ethnic and cultural identity, which tends to position them beyond the pale of even the ‘lowest’ rungs of India’s caste system. Constituting roughly eight percent of the country’s population, the Adivasis are vastly overrepresented among the poor in India: according to recent data, almost half of all Adivasis—some 44.7 percent—live below a very meager poverty line of 816 Rupees (£8.32/$12.75) per month for rural households.

When perusing the Global Slavery Index, it would be very easy to conclude that ethnic otherness and abject poverty are the reasons why Adivasis are particularly vulnerable to what the Walk Free Foundation refers to as modern-day slavery. However, to think along such lines assumes that certain forms of labour are qualitatively different from ‘normal’ work in a capitalist economy due to the unfreedom under which they are performed. This flawed logic, which underpins the modern-day slavery argument itself, further assumes that certain groups are more prone than others to engage in such labour due to forms of discrimination based on such criteria as ethnicity, gender, and caste. The problem with this logic is that it lets capitalism off the hook. This is also true in terms of casting Adivasis as modern-day slaves. Why is this so?

The sources of poverty and vulnerability

We must begin with poverty if we are to understand why Adivasis so often work under conditions that Walk Free refers to as slavery. Adivasis are overwhelmingly poor, a fact acknowledged in the Global Slavery Index, and it is this poverty that compels Adivasis to turn to labour migration. This is often the first step to working under varying degrees of unfreedom. Let us ask then ask a very basic question: where does that poverty come from?

Speaking broadly there are two causes that stand out: the twin losses of livelihood and land. Firstly, Adivasi poverty stems from the erosion of their agricultural livelihoods. Historically, the core of tribal livelihoods is subsistence cultivation, which is now rarely capable of sustaining a household for a full year. While some aspects of this situation are specific to Adivasi livelihoods, this state of affairs is symptomatic of a larger crisis of small and marginal agriculturalists in the context of neoliberal reform in India. This crisis is most acutely manifest in the quarter of a million farmers who committed suicide in India between 1995 and 2011, due to severe economic distress.

In addition, many Adivasis who have turned to labour migration have been dispossessed of their land due to the construction of the large dams, industrial plants, and mines that are intended to bolster India’s emergence as an economic superpower. Let’s recall the figures for a moment: Adivasis constitute eight percent of India’s population. However, even conservative estimates suggest they also constitute 40 to 50 percent of the 20 to 30 million people who have been dispossessed by large-scale infrastructure and development projects since independence in 1947. Given that policies for resettlement and rehabilitation have been woefully inadequate, the vast majority of those who have been dispossessed have no other choice than labour migration—and whatever work can be found within migration circuits—in order to survive. In other words, the poverty that compels Adivasis to resort to forms of labour that are profoundly unfree is produced by the fundamental workings of Indian capitalism.

In describing the kinds of labour which constitute modern-day slavery for India’s Adivasis, among others, the 2013 Global Slavery Index says the following: “Internally trafficked men, women and children make up significant shares of the workforce in construction, textiles, brick making, mines, fish and prawn processing and hospitality.” If we disregard for a moment the use of the deeply problematic term “trafficking” in relation to labour migration in India, this statement does point to an important fact—namely that when poor people in India migrate for work, their destination is most commonly the so-called ‘informal economy’. This is an area that accounts for 94 percent of the Indian workforce. It is a realm in which the vast majority of workers face low wages, long working hours, an abysmal lack of social protection, and working conditions which entail varying degrees of unfreedom. Crucially, it is deeply entwined with India’s formal economy by providing labour, goods and services at fire sale prices.

Put more directly: the poverty that compels Adivasis and others to work under abysmal conditions helps fuels a growth process that—as David Cameron put it during an Indo-British business event in Mumbai in 2013—will make India the world’s third largest economy by 2030. This means that when we discover Adivasis working under conditions of unfreedom, we are not seeing modern-day slaves. We are instead being confronted with modern-day workers and modern-day Indian capitalism. This in turn has ramifications for how we think about political solutions to this problem.

When the Walk Free Foundation talks about measures to curb the kind of working conditions that they define as modern-day slavery, they generally refer to legislation against child labour, sex work, trafficking and bonded labour. The basic model here involves punitive measures against illegal forms of work. However, no amount of punishment will reverse the crisis in India’s countryside or drive up wages and improve working conditions for Adivasis who toil in the informal sector—goals which would make a genuine contribution towards eradicating the forms of labour that are mistakenly labeled modern-day slavery. However, to do so would entail making common cause with poor and marginal farmers for an alternative agricultural policy that would protect them from the vagaries of market forces and reverse ongoing ecological degradation. Moreover, it would entail joining hands with activists who are struggling against the attempts of the current government to dilute progressive legislation on land rights, resettlement and rehabilitation. And it would entail collaborating with innovative unions that champion the welfare rights of workers in India’s informal sector. The fact that the policy prescriptions offered by Walk Free don’t even touch on such measures is only a testimony to the organisation’s utter irrelevance to modern-day workers in modern-day India.

About the author

Alf Gunvald Nilsen is Associate Professor at the Department of Sociology, University of Bergen. His research focuses on social movements in the global South. He is the author of Dispossession and Resistance in India (2012) and co-editor of Social Movements in the Global South (2011) and Marxism and Social Movements (2013)


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