The government of India has been advised to launch a campaign to “discredit” research into the country’s modern slavery problem because it has the “potential to substantially harm India’s image and exports”, according to an Indian news report.
The Walk Free Foundation, an anti-slavery organisation established by Australian mining magnate Andrew Forrest, was specifically singled out in a memo reportedly prepared by the Intelligence Bureau (IB), an Indian security agency, and obtained by the Indian Express.
It was produced days after the release of a report last month by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and Forrest’s Walk Free Foundation that estimated the global population of modern slaves at 40.3m in 2016.
India was not specifically mentioned but successive research has estimated the number of modern slaves in the country to be between 14m and 18m people –the most in the world.
Modern slavery refers to people involved in forced labour, people trafficking, debt bondage, child labour and a range of other exploitative practices affecting vulnerable populations.
According to the Indian Express, the Indian security agency wrote to the prime minister’s office and other high-level government departments advising them to “discredit” the September report and to pressure the ILO to disassociate itself from Walk Free.
The foundation was established by Forrest, one of Australia’s richest men, in 2012. It produces an annual estimate of the number of slaves worldwide, lobbies governments to strengthen and enforce labour laws, and invests in frontline social programs.
The intelligence memo claimed that researchers were increasingly “targeting” India as a modern slavery hub, according to the news report.
It said estimates such as those produced by the ILO and Forrest’s foundation had “potential to substantially harm India’s image and exports and impact its efforts to achieve Sustainable Development Goal 8.7” – a target for eradicating forced and child labour, and human trafficking.
The security agency also said the scale of India’s modern slave population was based on “questionable statistics”, citing the fact the ILO-Walk Free survey interviewed 17,000 people in India but only 2,000 in countries such as Russia, Bangladesh and Pakistan, the report said.
Fiona David, the executive director of global research for the Walk Free Foundation, defended the integrity of the figures, saying they were the combined efforts of Walk Free, the International Labour Organisation and the International Organization for Migration.
“Through our combined efforts, we were able to draw in data from more than 54 random sample, nationally representative, surveys (involving more than 70,000 individual respondents across 50 languages) and data from more than 30,000 actual cases of human trafficking,” David said.
“We welcome the Indian government’s continued focus and commitment on this issue, through efforts to strengthen national laws on this issue but also other innovations, such as national programs of training for police, and an increased focus on atrocities committed against scheduled castes.
“We would be delighted to work with the Indian government on national estimation efforts. National responses are key to this issue.”
Past research produced by the ILO and Walk Free has been used to justify funding for anti-slavery initiatives and to introduce legislation such as the UK’s 2015 Modern Slavery Act.
Large Australian companies may also soon be required to publish annual reports detailing how they are combating modern slavery among their staff and supply chains.
The estimates cited in the September report were a marked increase from the ILO’s previous estimates of 21m forced labourers worldwide. The ILO and Walk Free attributed the rise to better reporting and research methodologies and the inclusion of forced marriage as a form of modern slavery.
International and non-government organisations have been warning that India is becoming an increasingly difficult environment to operate.
An IB report was leaked to the Indian media in 2014 alleging that “foreign-funded” organisations, such as Greenpeace, were costing India 2-3% of its Gross Domestic Product growth each year by sponsoring protests against genetically modified food and nuclear and coal power plants.
Civil society groups say that suspicious attitudes towards their work have been used to justify restrictions on foreign funding for international organisations such as the Ford Foundation and Indian NGOs.
One of the largest charities operating in India, the US Christian group Compassion International, shut its Indian operations earlier this year citing the restrictions on foreign funding, which it said was depriving its programs of $3.5m each month.
The ILO and the Indian prime minister’s office have been contacted for comment.
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