Of Flesh Trade, Slavery & Human Trafficking

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India is home to half the world's modern slaves; 18 million people trafficked as slaves - sell skin, sex and children.

Human trafficking normally encompasses what some call the ‘flesh trade’, referring to prostitution. But in India, it can refer to actual flesh.

In March 2017, an investigation by a news website revealed the skin trade between Nepal and India. Nepalese women, ’employed’ by traffickers, sell 20 square inches of skin for Rs. 10,000 ($155). The skin finds its way to the tissue banks, from where they are exported for the plastic surgery business.

Women are sedated when their skin is grafted. Often, they don’t even know what’s happened to them until much later. Nepali women are particularly preferred for their fair skin – passable as Caucasian. For someone in need of a transplant, it’s often a no ‘questions asked’ affair.

Since then, the Nepalese government has promised to look into the matter. But this is just one aspect of illegal human trafficking in India. There’s also bonded labour, where people are compelled to work for their employers by virtue of being in their debt. It can often mean entire families being compelled into work – including the children.

In 2016, over 282,000 bonded labourers were released and rehabilitated across India. It’s only a tenth of the number who still live as modern-day slaves; up to 18 million according to the 2015 Global Slavery Index. In other words, half the world’s slaves work in India.

The 2017 Trafficking in Persons Report (TIPR) by the U.S. Government has ranked India in its “Tier II” category – of a country that doesn’t meet the grade in the fight against slavery. Disturbingly, most of mainland Asia comes under the Tier II category. States like Saudi Arabia, Iran and Myanmar fare even worse. This results in a human trafficking ring with a global supply chain. That’s why meeting the standards required to make an effective fight against trafficking gets important at an institutional level.

As the report states:

The Government of India does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking; however, it is making significant efforts to do so.

Put simply, the conviction and prosecution rate of human traffickers in India was too low compared to the prevalence of trafficking. Most forms of trafficking are banned in India, from bonded labour to child prostitution and illegal organ trade. But even with this wide ambit, there were only 4203 trafficking cases investigated in 2015, according to the report.

The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data suggests a larger number: 6,877 cases were registered in 2015, as part of a year-on-year increase from 3,517 cases in 2011. It’s not that more cases are necessarily happening, but that more are being reported.

But cases alone don’t paint a complete picture. The acquittal rate for those accused of trafficking was 65 percent in 2015 (down from 77 percent in 2014), according to the TIPR.

For long, human trafficking was associated with the sex industry. But this is a problematic view of trafficking – for it encompasses both labour and sexual exploitation. The Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) of 2002 defines it as “a person induced to perform labour or a commercial sex act through force, fraud, or coercion”.

In India, the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act of 1956 and Section 366 and 370 of the Indian Penal Code cover most of the crimes considered as human trafficking in the country. There are also provisions to prevent the illegal trade of organs, under the Organ Transplant Act.

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But trafficking doesn’t only involve victims to the law. Many of those involved may be forced to perform illegal acts – which then get them apprehended by the police. It’s a thin line between rescue and prosecution. There is also the smuggling and trafficking of Jihadists from across the border.

Numerous NGOs and international organizations are at work, tackling trafficking in India. But one policy seems to have ground the industry to a halt completely, if only momentarily – demonetisation. According to activists, the industry was left with no liquidity after India abolished 86 percent of the cash in circulation.

These gains were only momentary. By February 2017, the industry was active again.


It isn’t enough to merely ban trafficking. Often, especially in the case of child labourers, it is their only means of survival and of making ends meet. Many a time, these kids have alcoholic parents, disintegrated or unemployed family members – and are a means towards socioeconomic upliftment.

The reality is that slavery is a self-defeating cycle. A study found that women who were once trafficked were more likely to become traffickers themselves in the future. Three in ten of traffickers worldwide are women, according to a U.N. report.

Their roles were often to gain the trust of new victims. But trust can be a double-edged sword. One technique used to keep the victims within the organisation is ‘traumatic bonding‘, where “… the victim is instilled with deep-rooted fear coupled with gratitude for being allowed to live.

It doesn’t help that forced labour has an economic incentive – generating annual profits of $150 billion for traffickers worldwide, according to the International Labour Organisation. As one study showed, even the best of intentions can have unintended consequences – UN-led interventions into crisis-struck regions are followed by an increase in human trafficking cases.

There more people working as slaves today than ever in history. In India, this slavery is both domestic and international – inter-state trafficking as well as transcontinental. Indians are sent into bonded labour in the Middle East, facing inhuman work environments with little recourse to justice. In India, Nepali women are made to work in brothels, also with little recourse for justice.

Throughout all of this, both domestic and international laws exist that aim to crack down on trafficking. But when extreme poverty is known as a cause of people getting into trafficking, what good does arresting the victims do?

Trafficking exists alongside society’s other ills. The sad reality is that barring an unforeseen level of international cooperation and intelligence sharing, the fight against trafficking will be pegged to the fight against poverty. Neither fight is a simple prospect. Neither fight has an end in sight.


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