NEW DELHI -- When Savita Debnath was 14, two unknown men came to her impoverished village in eastern India, promising her a job cleaning houses for $40 a month in nearby Kolkata, but when she got there, agents forced her onto a train to New Delhi and sold her to a family. She was abused and forced to work long days cooking, cleaning, caring for two young children and preparing for family parties without pay or being allowed to contact her family.
"I worked from 6 a.m. until midnight or 1 a.m.," said Debnath, now 15. "When a dish burned, she slapped me many times. I'd cry for my mother, but the mistress ignored me."
According to a report released Thursday by the Walk Free Foundation, an Australia-based civic group, nearly half the world's 29.8 million modern-day slaves live in India, including those forced into manual labor, trafficked in brothels, born into servitude or made victims of debt bondage.
Although other countries have a greater proportion of their population in bondage, India's estimated 13.9 million enslaved people is by far the greatest, more than four times that of the next largest country, China, with 2.9 million. Pakistan ranked third with 2.1 million people. The 162-nation survey found that modern-day slavery exists in most countries in some form, including the United States, Canada, Japan and Western Europe nations.
Much of the traffic in enslaved Indian domestic workers is organized by dubious employment agencies that are virtually unregulated despite an order from the Delhi High Court that mandated the government to set operating guidelines.
"The placement agencies get all the money, and the poor girl gets nothing," said Rishi Kant, a social activist with Shakti Vahini, a New Delhi-based civic group that rescued Debnath. "The girls are abused, mentally, sexually, physically. Officials don't care, and sometimes even want maids for their own houses, [which is] partly why they're silent on this."
Nick Grono, Walk Free's chief executive, said in a telephone interview that modern-day slavery in India encompasses a full range, including forced child-marriages, cases of lower-caste communities forced wholesale to work in brick kilns or quarries and people lured by money lenders to assume debts that can last for generations.
Ultimately the government bears the responsibility, in India and elsewhere, Grono said, for failing to enforce laws, empower police or provide social services that help stem abuses. Further complicating the issue, the group said, are poverty, corruption, caste issues and weak enforcement of existing laws.
"Slavery's illegal everywhere," Grono said. "You don't have to run the argument that this is a cultural issue."
In the case of enslaved domestic workers, middle- and upper-class families are often happy to pay as little as $33 a month directly to disreputable agents for 24/7 help, rather than pay the minimum wage of $125 per month for limited shifts and time off. The agents often ensure ties are cut between girls as young as 10 and their families in rural villages, their isolation made worse because the minors often speak no Hindi, fear the police and are penniless, leaving them with little way out of their plight.
"The family are duped, left thinking one day she'll come back with some money," Kant said. "And many employing the girls in Delhi are rich, powerful families, so authorities don't enforce the law."
In another case last month that Kant's group was involved in, a 15-year-old domestic worker was found beaten, her face badly bruised, half-naked, with cuts and gashes on her head and about her body after working for three months for her wealthy Delhi employer. "I was made to drink urine and forced to sleep inside the toilet," the unnamed teenager reportedly told police.
There are signs of progress, said Shalini Grover, an analyst with New Delhi's Institute of Economic Growth, noting a growth in part-time domestic workers who live outside their employer's house, giving them greater economic leverage and control over their lives.
Though India tops Walk Free's list in its absolute number of modern-day slaves, Mauritania ranked highest on a per-capita basis with almost 4% of its 3.8 million people enslaved, followed by Haiti with nearly 2% of its 209,000 population. (One nongovernmental organization estimated that as much as 20% of Mauritania's population may be in bondage, but Walk Free's estimate was more conservative.)
At the other extreme, Iceland was estimated to have just 100 slaves for a population of 320,000. And even though Canada and Western Europe ranked low on the survey, they are still home to thousands of slaves, while the U.S. had an estimated 60,000 and Japan around 80,000.
The rankings are based on a compilation of government statistics, multilateral agency information, NGO studies and Walk Free's own surveys. The organization provided drafts to all 162 countries six months ago, but for the most part, only developed countries responded, with largely positive or neutral responses. Walk Free hopes to continue refining the data in coming years, both to get a more accurate picture and to see if there is progress over time.
Walk Free acknowledged the difficulties in compiling and refining good data for the survey, its first, but said it hopes the index will widen the debate on reducing modern-day slavery.
"Our data is the best out there, but it's a moving feast," Grono said. "You have to be an optimist in this industry, otherwise you'd slit your throat."