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Why the world’s largest democracy has the most modern-day slaves

Reuters/Jayanta Dey
India’s women are particularly vulnerable.
By Shelly Walia
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

India has the highest number of enslaved people in the world.

More than 14 million out of India’s population of over 1.2 billion people are living in modern slavery, according to the second edition of the Global Slavery Index. Produced by an Australian human rights body, Walk Free Foundation, the survey defines modern slaves as those without individual liberty, by being subjugated to forced labor, trafficking and sexual exploitation.

An estimated 35.8 million people worldwide, or 0.5% of the world’s population, live as modern-day slaves.

In terms of the highest number of slaves as a percentage of a nation’s population, India is ranked fifth, with 1.14% of the country’s population trapped as slaves. The worst affected are people belonging to lower castes or tribes, religious minorities and migrant workers.

Of 167 countries surveyed, the worst 10 countries are home to 71% of the world’s slaves.

Government response

The Global Slavery Index gives India a “CCC” score in its analysis of the government’s action to end modern slavery. According to this scale, AAA rating is the highest possible, while D is the lowest.

A CCC rating implies that the government provides limited victim support services and a criminal justice framework that criminalizes some forms of modern slavery. It also reflects the fact that the government has a national action plan, with policies that provide some protections for those especially vulnerable. Services are largely provided by NGOs with international funding, with limited government funding or in-kind support.

The following chart shows India’s response to five outcomes, where 100% signifies strongest response.

Among the governments taking the least action, North Korea stood first, followed by Iran and Syria. Netherlands, on the other hand, topped the list of governments doing the most to end modern slavery, followed by Sweden and the US.


Among India’s most vulnerable are women and girls, who face a high risk of sexual assault, domestic violence and discrimination. Dalits, too, have minimal social protection and are susceptible to severe forms of exploitation and slavery. Moreover, around 90% of India’s laborers, who work in the informal economy, lack a monitored work environment.

Broadly, there are five factors that make populations susceptible to slavery. These are: government policies, the availability of human rights protections, economic and social development levels, the level of state stability, and the extent of women’s rights and levels of discrimination. Higher the score, the more vulnerable a country’s population is to slavery.

Overall, Indians are 56.7% vulnerable—mostly due to inadequate government policies, rather than inherent social discrimination.

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