The Big Story: Wool over eyes

For once, the government appears to be concerned with a genuine problem that affects millions of the most impoverished people in India. Except, typically, it views them as a public relations problem, not a source of shame for a country that remains deeply poor. The Indian Express revealed earlier this week that the Intelligence Bureau had prepared a secret note claiming that global documentation on slavery is “increasingly targeting India”, contending that the country is home to the highest number of slaves. The note recommends a campaign to discredit the information, using counter statistics and diplomatic channels.

Slavery here refers to people forced into human trafficking, bonded labour, child labour and other coercive work practices that affect vulnerable populations. Over the years, statistics have suggested that India is home to the world’s largest number of slaves, numbering in the millions. The Intelligence Bureau report, according to the Express, says European corporations are using the International Labour Organisation survey, conduced with the Australia-based Walk Free Foundation, “to fund NGOs to focus on alleged ‘slavery’ in South India’s textile industry (40% of India’s textile exports)”.

It recommends a three-pronged strategy: counter the advocacy with a different number, discredit the International Labour Organisation-Walk Free Foundation estimate with a rejoinder from the Indian Statistical Institute and use diplomacy to force the International Labour Organisation to dissociate itself from the Walk Free Foundation. Sure enough, on Friday, The Hindu reported that the government has written to the International Labour Organisation challenging its recent study on slavery in India.

This effort is of a piece with other moves by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government, which picked battles with Non Governmental Organisations as soon as it came to power in 2014. Then too it used a questionable Intelligence Bureau report that suggested that protests organised by foreign-funded NGOs like Greenpeace were cutting India’s Gross Domestic Product down by a whopping 2%-3%.

Over its three-year tenure, the government has constantly scrutinised NGOs, sometimes through credible means like auditing their finances, but most often by alleging that they are all part of a global conspiracy to discredit India. In this case, it could not go after the United Nations-backed International Labour Organisation, so it has focused on the Walk Free Foundation. The irony here in particular is that this edition of the International Labour Organisation-Walk Free Foundation report, released in September, did not even name India, though the Intelligence Bureau assumes that India has a major chunk of the global estimate of 40 million modern-day slaves.

Since when did India’s Intelligence Bureau become its public relations agency? While it may be credible for the bureau to point out a potential dent to India’s image in upcoming reports and activism, its reported counter campaign is ludicrous. Most crucially, the three-pronged plan appears to miss what might be one rather useful response: actually working to reduce the number of people forced into labour or trafficked in the country. If anything, the Indian government should use opportunities like this to point out all it has done in attempting to eradicate this tragic phenomenon, and encourage organisations that study it to help be part of the process. Instead, if it sticks to the Intelligence Bureau’s response, it only confirms the criticism of those in the Modi government: Event managers, rather than implementers.

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  1. Writing in the Indian Express, Himanshu contests the suggestion that demonetisation improved rural wages, showing instead that the note ban halted the recovery that had begun after the 2016 monsoon.
  2. TP Sreenivasan, in the Hindu, calls for a new architecture to be devised to involve states in foreign affairs, giving as an example Kerala’s recent success in reaching out to the emir of Sharjah.
  3. “I was a fervent supporter of the idea of the goods and services tax,” writes Indira Rajarajam in Mint. “I still am. But the manner in which it has been configured has thrown a satanic spanner into the Indian growth story.”


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Sandhya Menon writes about how hard it was to raise children in a screen-free home, until she settled on a perfect compromise – podcasts.

“As a single mother, I run a tight schedule. School runs are timed to perfection. Snacks, playtime, shower, a little cuddling, dinner, and finally, all of this culminating in bedtime at about 7.30 pm. Even when I wasn’t driving, the podcast allowed me to get around the house and finish work without the dreariness of boredom seeping in. I would fold the laundry, make a snack or clean up shelves all the while listening to voices discuss several interesting facts or break a concept down.

Six months ago, the children and I were on a road trip and I downloaded a few podcasts for the way. I picked three podcasts that seemed promising – a science-themed one called Brains On, a history-based one called The Past and The Curious and one called The Alien Adventures of Finn Caspian. It was perfect, because podcasts engage a child’s imagination just like reading stories to them – children have to listen carefully to every word spoken and create the image in their heads. The road trip was the most peaceful one any one of us has ever had.”