Trafficking, insurgency and globalisation in India

By any reckoning, Siddharth Kara’s Sex Trafficking: Inside the Business of Modern Slavery is a deeply disturbing book. Most of us accept that the world’s oldest profession is here to stay but these revelations of the staffing methods of Mumbai’s industrial brothels defy belief and humanity.

The atrocity this week in Chhattisgarh, where 76 Indian police officers were slaughtered in an ambush by Naxalite insurgents, was also deeply disturbing.

The connections between these chronic fault lines in India’s urban and rural environments are part surprising, part predictable and maybe contentious.

The surprise, to an outsider, is the Nepal connection. It’s well known that the Naxalites are described as “Maoist”, as their ideals (and perhaps weapons) are sourced from the movement responsible for a decade of conflict in Nepal.

Less widely known is that a significant proportion of the 30,000 Nepalese sex workers in Mumbai have been trafficked from a single district not far from Katmandu. Kara follows up his research in Mumbai by visiting Sindhupalchok, discovering that the district was firmly under Maoist control before the eventual political settlement in Nepal.

A more predictable connection is the substandard performance of the Indian police. In Mumbai they have consistently failed to enforce the Immoral Trafficking and Prevention Act. Bribes paid by brothel-keepers count for more than the rights of teenage girls that have been purchased with as much dignity as imported poultry.

In Chhattisgarh and the neighbouring states of the Red corridor, the police are considered to have been compliant in the sustained exclusion of low caste dalits and adivasis from economic development.

For those seeking more sweeping explanations, the cross-border transfer of ideas and people that fuels the troubles in Mumbai and Chhattisgarh inevitably conjure the G word – globalisation. Can globalisation be blamed for human trafficking and rural insurgency?

Siddharth Kara is in no doubt that globalisation has “helped make present day slaves easy to procure, easy to transport and easy to exploit.” He blames the era of IMF-inspired economic globalisation for the extreme poverty that fuels sex trafficking.

Many minority rights campaigners in India would take a similar view of the Naxalite rebellion. Globalisation has enabled disproportionate influence of corporations to displace millions of poor households for mining, hydro and other industrial projects.

I’m less convinced. Kara’s visit to Sindhupalchok prompted a reflection that “no discovery shocked me more” than how the extremes of gender discrimination place female children in the front line of extreme poverty. And injustice within the Red corridor may be rooted in India’s continuing struggle to shake off the bonds of the caste system.

In beating its ruthless path to wider inequality, globalisation preys on these deep cultural fractures, aggravating their consequences. But it does not create them. We would be wise to concentrate on managing the faults of globalisation rather than fruitless dreams of putting the lid on it.


this article was first published by OneWorld UK