For Philip Langford, life was blessed.
He married a beautiful girl from Lookout Mountain. They had four healthy children. He supported them as a young partner in one of Chattanooga’s most prestigious law firms.
In 2006, Mr. Langford made a career move with his family’s support that changed it all. He traded a secure future in civil litigation at Miller & Martin to work on the front lines against sex trafficking and modern-day slavery in India.
And just in case anyone was going to doubt the seriousness of the move, Mr. Langford took his entire family with him — his wife Lacy, in fact, would end up giving birth to their fifth child about a year ago in the teeming southern Indian city of Bangalore.
“Philip is a very careful, disciplined, passionate person. All our clients loved him,” said Shelby Grubbs, Mr. Langford’s former mentor and colleague who encouraged his decision to become a lawyer for International Justice Mission, a human rights organization that provides legal recourse for victims of violent oppression all over the world.
“I think he needed to take this opportunity to do something really larger, and arguably far more important than what we do here,” Mr. Grubbs said.
To outsiders like Mr. Langford, India is an immediate assault on the senses with its thick odors and unstoppable buzz of life. The sheer number of people — cities considered “small” in India usually have more than a million people — can make it seem impenetrable.
But as India’s privileged population continues to gain prominence on the world stage, a parallel world of poverty and assaults on some of its most vulnerable citizens remains. The sex trafficking of minor girls is common in Mumbai and Kolkata, and much of India’s infrastructure is built on the backs of workers beholden to owners of brick kilns and stone quarries who pay them almost nothing and won’t let them leave, according to IJM.
Mr. Langford didn’t know anything about Indian life, good or bad, before signing on with IJM to help prosecute such crimes in tandem with the Indian justice system. He only knew that he had a calling to serve in a big way.
“For about two years prior to our going to India, I think I had just been having some stirrings in my heart for what life ought to look like, and certainly what life ought to look like with regard to the things I said I believed about God,” Mr. Langford said recently by phone from his home in Bangalore. “We all want to do something that matters.”
For Mr. Langford, that has meant leading a team of other Indian lawyers, investigators and case workers as they seek out and prosecute the most compelling instances of forced labor in Bangalore and Chennai, another large southern Indian city. To date they have prosecuted 40 cases, Mr. Langford said, with many other forced prostitution cases currently under prosecution in Mumbai and Kolkata.
Modern-day slavery in India usually begins when an extremely poor person, or even an entire family, encounters an extreme hardship such as a health emergency that requires fast money, Mr. Langford explained. The owner of a kiln or quarry will typically give those people 5,000 to 10,000 Indian Rupees ($100 to $200), at which point they must “work off” the debt. There are no contracts, however, and the relationship often turns into one of coercion and violence that can last for years, Mr. Langford said. The workers usually have no idea that what is happening to them is illegal, he added.
While there are strong Indian laws against sex trafficking and forced labor, Mr. Langford explained, the political will to enforce them is weak because of an inefficient legal system already burdened with countless cases. In the context of forced labor especially, Mr. Langford added, “there tends to be the perception in India that it’s not necessarily criminal in nature” because of a culture deeply rooted in the caste system.
“If there’s not a lot of push, these cases will just languish and go nowhere for years and years and years,” Mr. Langford said of the need to help fix broken justice systems in developing countries.
The work is tough, but Mr. Langford said he has never been happier. He and his family will move to Washington next summer, he said, where he has agreed to take on a new challenge as the director IJM’s operations in Africa.
“There’s been very very little on my part looking back,” Mr. Langford said of his decision to embark on the life-changing experience. “I’ve been deeply moved by the idea that I can be an advocate for huge numbers of vulnerable people.”