In a landmark conviction in India, a man guilty of holding six people in slavery has been sentenced to one year in prison and assessed a fine of 900 rupees. Despite the fact that Indian anti-slavery laws provide for sentences of up to three years in jail for slaveholders, perpetrators of the crime rarely face trial, due to an overburdened court system that has been slow to respond to victims of slavery. When perpetrators are tried, they have generally received token sentences of just a few hours. This major systemic weakness has been a significant obstacle in IJM's work to increase perpetrator accountability for slave owners. The one-year sentence for slavery issued in this case is a major victory as the tide of opposition to slavery grows in India.
The milestone sentence culminates a legal process that began four years ago, when an IJM investigation resulted in police intervention on behalf of six young men held as slaves in the perpetrator’s business, a snack stand.
The men had become enslaved as adolescents and remained in the perpetrator’s control as they grew older, married and had children. They were forced to live on-site at the snack stand with their families in small huts in extremely dilapidated conditions. The perpetrator subjected the men to constant physical and verbal abuse, restricting their families’ access to water, assaulting them and subjecting them to working conditions so severe, one laborer reportedly died as a result.
The stand functioned as a small candy factory, and in order to produce the merchandise, the victims were forced to work 14 to 16 hours a day over dangerous, hot cauldrons of oil; several of the laborers suffered severe burns from the boiling oil, including one whose injuries were so serious they resulted in permanent disfigurement of his legs.
Each of the victims had been entrapped through an illegal cash advance, a specific violation of India’s tough laws against bonded labor. The stall owner had offered each of the men loans as small as U.S. $30 during family crises – one victim had accepted a loan when his family needed funds due to his father’s illness, another, because his family could not afford food. The stand owner used these loans to compel the men's labor for years, telling them that they were forbidden to leave his compound until they presented him with the initially borrowed sum plus interest, knowing that on the minuscule “salary” he provided for food, this was impossible. He even told IJM undercover operatives that if the men were somehow able to come up with the sum, he still would not allow them to leave.
Since their release from slavery, the men and their families have been supported by IJM's aftercare staff and have received rehabilitation assistance funds from the government. Each has succeeded in supporting his family and pursuing a stable livelihood. They remain in contact with IJM's aftercare staff, who report that the men are overjoyed at the news that justice has been served in their case and their perpetrator has been held accountable for his years of abuse.
A sentence like this also sends a strong message to would-be perpetrators that the possibility of jail time means holding slaves is simply not worth the risk. Not only has justice been served for the six victims in this case, but the structural change that results from convictions for perpetrators will protect those vulnerable to slavery in the future. Case by case, IJM will continue to work to bring an end to slavery in India.