If you enslaved every person living in five of the six largest cities in the United States—New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Phoenix—it would about equal the estimated 18 million people enslaved in India today. The so-called “largest democracy in the world,” India is home to 40 percent of the roughly 46 million people enslaved worldwide, by far the most in any country.
The most common form of slavery is debt bondage. In the massive brick industry stretched across India’s northern rim, kiln owners hire samadars to recruit poor workers from rural areas to the south. They offer tempting advances, and promise a minimum wage, food, and shelter upon arrival. Hundreds of thousands of people desperate for a leg up pledge their labor and migrate north each fall. But upon arrival, many are exploited, chained to an illegal financial arrangement, plunged deeper into debt, and forced to return to the kilns year after year.
Striking reportage has exposed flagrant human rights violations at the kilns, including 16-hour work days, extreme heat, and child labor. But absent from the coverage is what happens earlier. This project broadens the story from the site of slavery to the site of enslavement—from the home of a Chattisgarhi family being recruited to a kiln, aboard a 30-hour samadar-escorted train ride north, and finally to a kiln in Punjab, which may well become the family's perennial destination.