Bonded labour is the most common form of slavery in the world and Siddarth Kara's book provides a useful survey, drawn from years of research and interviews with bonded labourers, of bonded labour as it is practiced today across a range of industries in South Asia.
It is in these descriptions and in some of the economic analysis of the bonded labour economy that the book is at its strongest. It is considerably weaker in proposing solutions to bonded labour. Some of his proposals, such as having a transnational police force in South Asia to deal with slavery are, to put it mildly, utopian, particularly given the current political tensions in the region, and problematic from the perspective of rule of law. For example how could the democratic accountability of such a force be assured? The governance structure that Kara proposes, of an oversight board composed of people from the Human Rights Commissions of the participating countries and some NGOs, is far from convincing.
Other of his ideas, such as fast tracking of slavery cases through the courts display a limited understanding of the relationship between continuing slavery practices and poor standards of rule of law: many of the effective solutions to slavery in India for example, are dependent on raising the standards of rule of law across a range of issues, many of which, such as the Indian compulsory education law, are not, ostensibly, about slavery.
So while Kara is good on the economics of bonded labour and its practice in particular industries, he shows much more limited appreciation of the political, institutional and cultural factors necessary in slavery eradication. It is a pity that he did not work with co-authors on this book, to strengthen his talents and idealism with some hard headed appreciation of how political and social change actually occur.
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This is an interesting topic to read because in spite of all kinds of movements against `modern slavery' it still continues to thrive under the globalised economy. This book seems to have received rave reviews by many, almost in a celebrity-style. However, it is disappointing to note that the author never bothers to acknowledge so many reports and research that exist on Bonded Labour in South Asia. By completely ignoring other people's work, the author tries to present as if it THE only research on Bonded Labour and that it is so important. In a sense, it is over publicized through media and academic connections than it really deserves. If it is an academic account, then, it must take fair amount of critical reviews of other researchers' work on Bonded Labour. Furthermore, even though the geographic concept based on South Asia, there is just too much focus on one area, and others get only a few here and their notes and quotations.
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I had been looking forward to Kara's book on bonded labour, and I was not disappointed. He brings an analytical mind to the subject, painting a picture and then dissecting it to form a well-reasoned treatise. He highlights some of the major factors such as poverty, caste, greed etc, and puts at centre stage the lack of choice facing almost all the victims. Kara moves on from mere analysis to proposing a way forward in tackling what must be one of the outrages of the 21st century. A very welcome book, expertly written, and very timely when there is a growing awareness that we need a second wave of abolitionists.