The first things you notice about Kailash Sathyarthi are an apparent equanimity and a very strident self-assurance. Life has changed in many ways since [the awarding of] the Nobel Peace Prize, but then, in some ways it has remained the same, says the firebrand activist in a freewheeling chat with The Hindu’s editorial team, and later, in a one-on-one interview.
“I live in the same house, a two-bedroom DDA flat that I have been living in for the last 25-30 years, my clothing … everything is the same. The thing that has changed is that my hectic travel has grown multiple times, and the level at which I have meetings and interactions,” he says.
The Nobel Prize has indeed opened doors for him, facilitating meetings with heads of state, governments and top leaders of U.N. agencies and decision makers. “I am able to take the issues directly to people who can make a difference — politicians, thought leaders, academicians, even leaders of faith.” For instance, he’s thrilled that he has been able to push his agenda of including targets on child labour, violence against children and slavery in the Sustainable Development Goals.
At all times, he has used whatever power, influence and persuasion he could muster to speak up for children. One of his initial and hugely successful campaigns was the Rugmark, or Goodweave carpet campaign, where he convinced the world to resolve to buy only child labour-free carpets. “We had to educate consumers, and we spoke to manufacturers too, besides issuing child labour-free certificates for the products. In 1995-1996, the number of children in labour in South Asia [India Nepal, Pakistan and Afghanistan] was one million; it has dipped to hardly 2,00,000 now. And neither the quantity of carpets produced nor their exports went down. Similar strategies were launched in the fireworks industry in Sivakasi, chocolate bean industry in Ghana and the Ivory Coast and the sporting goods industry in Pakistan and India,” he says.
Though Mr. Sathyarthi is unstinting in his praise, he is also candid in his criticism. While appreciating Prime Minister Narendra Modi for his ‘unparalleled’ "Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao" campaign, he is quick to point out that it will require a lot more effort. “We have to see how we can take it up with strong policy, implementation, budgetary allocation, and holding the government accountable.”
This ability to question and demand the best for children is what has Mr. Satyarthi up in arms against the recently passed Child Labour (Amendment) Law. “It has raised the age of ‘children’ to 18 years, but has allowed children to work in family enterprises after school, and reduced the number of hazardous industries from 83 to merely three,” he points out. The definition of family is likely to be problematic and children are likely to be employed in jobs under the guise of ‘family enterprise’, he says.
Mr. Sathyarthi is clear that the Right to Education Act is key and has had a great impact on reducing child labour. But there are several lacunae that need to be set right. That is what he has set his sights on, as always. “I’m pleased to say that at heart I’m still an activist. I began fighting on the ground and I will continue to do so all my life… I will continue to be choosy — I want to prioritise my time and energy for children, and push the agenda for their rights.”
On Friday, Mr. Sathyarthi will participate in Excellence in Education 2016, organised by The Hindu, in association with Blue Star, in Chennai.