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Pete Pattisson | Spring 2009

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

Shyari, 60, binds her hands in cloth to protect them from the bricks she shifts for 12 hours a day

When he was 13, Madam Rai came to Punjab to look for work, with six friends. The others all died in farming accidents—breathing lethal fertiliser fumes, or being bitten by snakes. Rai survived, but was disabled trying to fix an electric fuse for his landlord

A missing daughter—reportedly abducted by an upper-caste neighbour, whom the police will not approach

Murdered, says his son, by their landlord. He had borrowed money for medicine for the son. Unable to repay, he was attacked with a spade 

Murdered, his father suspects, for a liaison with an upper-caste girl

Another dead son, murdered by a gang of upper-caste youths with whom he had dared to have an argument. The police have not even investigated.

Bindu, a dalit from the Deha, an especially despised nomadic caste, sits with her grandmother in what is left of their home. She had incurred the wrath of the local upper castes by refusing an offer from the son of the town leader of 50 rupees (about $1) for sex. So their house was torched and their belongings thrown into the river

Bant Singh is a brave man with a fine singing voice that used to earn him a living. When his daughter was raped he refused a bribe to let the matter drop, and saw the rapists convicted. Then he stood up to local upper-caste bullies and lost both arms and one leg. “They can destroy my limbs,” he says. “But they can’t destroy my voice.” When his phone rings, his son holds it for him.

A brick-maker on the one hand; on the other, a mother

Jasmer Singh is one of four landlords accused of employing bonded labourers, and of menacing some who had refused either to work or to repay their debts. All nonsense, he says. His workers are like his children

These people were among 42 workers released from bondage in a brick kiln by the High Court. The court noted that the kiln’s owner had not paid them any wages, and his “musclemen” had beaten the detainees when they tried to leave. They had been in “illegal custody”. One victory in a long campaign

Migrant workers from Uttar Pradesh work late at a brick kiln in Punjab. Sometimes the kiln shuts for lack of demand, so the workers earn nothing and have to borrow more from their employers. There is even an informal market where workers can be “sold” to other kiln-owners, just like slaves