Hero or persona non grata?

Nobel Peace Prize joint winner Kailash Satyarthi is a hero today, but only a few years ago he was persona non grata for the Government of India

October 17, 2014 01:25 am | Updated June 28, 2016 06:19 pm IST

HEROIC DEEDS: “Kailash Satyarthi has risked his life and limb to confront capricious employers who deprive children of their life chances.” Picture shows him at his office in New Delhi. Photo: V. Sudershan

HEROIC DEEDS: “Kailash Satyarthi has risked his life and limb to confront capricious employers who deprive children of their life chances.” Picture shows him at his office in New Delhi. Photo: V. Sudershan

Kailash Satyarthi has devoted over 30 years to battling the odds in order to >liberate millions of children in India and outside from bondage. Yet he is little known outside of his small circle in his own country. He has gone largely unnoticed and unrecognised by our media. Now, after winning the Nobel Peace Prize [alongwith Pakistan’s Malala Yousafzai] , he is likely to be hailed as a hero for his work in India. The causes that he has worked for will receive huge media attention, albeit for a short time, and he will become a celebrity. This will not be the first time India recognises one of its own after he/she receives international fame. Yet it is because of the very nature of the causes that he has espoused and advocated that he finds himself on the margins, receiving little empathy and support from India’s ruling class.

Not long ago, the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) considered him persona non grata even though he was the first chair of the newly formed alliance for promoting Education for All (EFA), namely the Global Campaign for Education (GCE). In that capacity, we at UNESCO regularly invited him to high-level meetings on EFA to represent civil society. We valued his contributions, which consistently brought to light the educational neglect of working children and called upon developing countries and the international community to fulfil the pledges and promises made at the World Education Forum at Dakar in April 2000.

Hence we were aghast when the leader of the Indian delegation to the Working Group on EFA, a Secretary-level officer in the MHRD, made an informal request to exclude him from future meetings convened by UNESCO on EFA for reasons which were not specified. Despite our politely declining the request on the grounds that Mr. Satyarthi was invited in his capacity as chair of the GCE and that his nationality was merely coincidental, the Indian side persisted and had its way.

Denying child labour  One can understand the sensitivity of the establishment to issues related to child labour and bondage in contemporary India, and the unflagging attention brought to them by the dedicated work of persons like Mr. Satyarthi and others, often in ways that are perceived to be confrontational and uncomfortable by the powers that be. However, it is more difficult to fathom the reasons behind the persistent denial and defensiveness of bureaucrats on issues related to child labour in India, including by official delegations to the United Nations, in the face of overwhelming evidence of its widespread prevalence in different parts of the country. One does not have to stay for more than a day in any Indian city to see the number of unprotected children working on the streets, on the pavements, and helping out at dhabas, auto repair shops, godowns, etc., and even working as domestic help during school hours. In fact this is such a common sight that it hardly troubles our conscience anymore. It is another matter that it constitutes a serious violation of their fundamental right to education.

According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), India is one of the countries with the largest proportion of working schoolchildren in the age cohort of 6-14 years who are still out of school. This is despite a noticeable drop in the number of out-of-school children over the last decade, an effort assisted in part by government-led and ILO and civil society-supported programmes on provision of education to child labour in the worse affected districts.

It is difficult to fathom the reasons behind the persistent denial and defensiveness of bureaucrats on child labour in India

 Back in 1991, the renowned American political scientist Myron Wiener shook the establishment in India by arguing in his book The Child and the State in India that the problem of child labour had not been addressed squarely due to the caste-oriented and elitist orientation of Indian officialdom. Unlike most other developing countries which had made considerable progress in universalising primary education, officials in India had been reluctant to enact and enforce provisions for free and compulsory education. They sought to make the case that in India, child labour was important to sustain traditional occupations such as carpet weaving and crafts that involved transfer of skills to younger generations.

 Not doing enough They believed that the prevalence of widespread and deep poverty made it incumbent on children to work as extra hands that provided additional income for survival of the poorest households. On the contrary, I have heard Mr. Satyarthi argue persuasively that this is a myth perpetuated by vested interests benefitting from employing child labour at low wages. He has marshalled facts and figures to show that the extent of unemployment of able-bodied adults in India is directly related to the number of children employed below the statutorily permissible age of 16 years. Despite the amendment of the Constitution in 2002 to make elementary education free and compulsory and the consequent enactment of the Right to Education in 2009, it would be hard to deny that the employment, abuse and exploitation of children on a large scale prevents their schooling and impedes their growth. Not enough has been done to raise awareness to counter mindsets that allow such a situation to continue or to bring the perpetrators and their patrons to book.

 Individuals like Mr. Satyarthi continue to risk their life and limb to confront capricious employers who deprive innocent and vulnerable children of their life chances and their dignity. They also free them from long years of bondage and servitude and seek to educate them. Listening to him over the years at UNESCO has been an inspiration, especially when he speaks of heartrending stories of children from different parts of the world, saved from misery and destitution by the work of courageous individuals and organisations like Bachpan Bachao Andolan.

 In these circumstances it should be no surprise that he will not win any popularity contest back home, particularly among those who indulge in such unethical and illegal practices, and those in officialdom who either collude with the perpetrators or are indifferent to the plight of the affected children. In the euphoria and the pride that will inevitably accompany the conferment of the Nobel Peace Prize on him, we would do well to internalise the true meaning and significance of Mr. Satyarthi’s work and emulate his actions as a nation. His message is that of hope, persistence and optimism against seemingly insurmountable odds to save, protect and reinvent the blighted lives of children around the world.

 (Abhimanyu Singh is Director and Representative, UNESCO, East Asia. From 2001-2006 he was Director of the Division of International Coordination and Monitoring for Education for All at UNESCO Headquarters, Paris. The views expressed are his and not those of any organisation including UNESCO or the Government of India.)  

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