The new India is much celebrated these days: the India of it stars and moon-shots, Mumbai-based multinationals and nuclear power stations, Bollywood blockbusters and mass mobile-telephony. Yet the old India lingers, in ways both glorious and hideous. Pete Pattisson, a photographer who spent much of his childhood in the country, has returned to it frequently in the past couple of years. “You hear a lot about ‘shining India’ and all that,” he says, “but I have been struck by how feudal, how medieval it still is.”
Pattisson’s visits have been devoted to documenting the persistence of a dreadful pre-modern phenomenon: slavery. It is rarely recognised as such, even by many slaves. But Pattisson has an unarguable, no-nonsense definition of slavery. People are slaves when they are not free to leave their place of work. By that standard, millions of Indians—by the estimate of one American NGO, perhaps 20m—are slaves.
Take the workers in this brick kiln, in Punjab in northern India, one of the country’s most prosperous states. In the stifling heat of May, they have no option but to work at night, starting at 2am, breaking in the middle of the day, and carrying on late into the evening. Many are migrants from poorer parts of India, such as the east of the most populous state, Uttar Pradesh.
The lucky ones are seasonal workers, who will go home for some of the year to work in the fields. The unlucky ones are “bonded”—they have taken a loan from their employers to pay for basic needs and must work to pay it off. Some never will, and will pass the debt on to their children.
Pattisson has seen slavery round the world. Its basic outlines are the same everywhere, drawn in the crude cruelties of poverty and violence. Poor people have to borrow money from predatory employers to stay alive; they then suffer intimidation, beatings and rape if they make trouble or try to escape. “Violence or the threat of violence underpins it everywhere,” he says. “Poverty forces them into slavery; violence keeps them there.”
In India an extra dimension is added by the social divisions of the Hindu caste system. Most bonded labourers are dalits, the outcastes formerly known as “untouchable”. Custom lends social sanction to illegal discrimination—both caste prejudice and bonded labour are outlawed. But in many villages across India, dalits are still born into slavery, and are routinely scorned and abused by their high-caste neighbours.
India’s daily injustices are daunting. But they are being confronted. Pattisson works closely with Volunteers for Social Justice (VSJ), a group devoted to freeing people from bondage. It has brought the release of some 30,000 since it was founded in 1985. The slave-owners are hardly ever brought to justice, in a society where the police are too often on the side of the criminal rather than the victim, and the legal system is choked with a backlog of tens of millions of pending cases. But VSJ fights on. These photographs form part of a travelling exhibition to go to villages and country fairs to teach people their rights. So they are not just moving testimony to a social evil; they aspire to be part of the cure. ~ SIMON LONG