On October 10, Kailash Satyarthi, founder of the Bachpan Bachao Andolan, was named the joint winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, along with Pakistani teenager Malala Yousafzai. The award is in recognition of his campaign for over three decades against child labour. In an e-mail interview with Vidya Venkat, while travelling in Europe, he discussed his difficult journey in asserting the rights of children and his future plans.
How difficult has your journey to eradicate child labour been these 34 years?
Mahatma Gandhi had predicted the journey of ordinary people like me several decades ago: “First they ignore, then they laugh, then they fight and finally you will win.” I started at a time when child slavery and child labour were non-issues; so there was nothing to learn. It’s difficult to find new roads but even more difficult to make your own road levelling the rocks and mountains. My fight was against the ignorance, the neglect, the mindset, the greed that encouraged lack of respect for children and the vested interests of organised criminal gangs, corrupt officers and politicians. In my early days of work, I lost two of my colleagues. My office was ransacked and gutted several times, the last one being our Delhi office in 2010. My home was attacked. The Nobel Peace Prize, therefore, is a ray of hope for millions of marginalised children trapped in exploitation and slavery across the globe.
What are the sectors in which child labour is still prevalent in India?
Child labour is rampant in the informal sector. One must have the eye to spot it and speak up against it.
You have worked in India and abroad. Many people in India are unfortunately not aware of the extent of work you and the Bachpan Bachao Andolan has done …
My biggest success is giving visibility to forgotten children. Today, thousands of organisations and hundreds of thousands of individuals globally are not only marching on the path I paved but are also taking up the cause of child rights on their own, doing even better than me.
Secondly, I have been partially successful in the paradigm shift from the notion “children are subject of pity” to “every child has rights and dignity.” For example, we free children, educate and rehabilitate them. Bachpan Bachao Andolan has created hundreds of child-friendly villages, where all children are freed from exploitation, abuse, risk of trafficking and child marriages; are enrolled in schools; and are taking part in development-related decision- making by forming Bal Panchayats and Gram Sabhas to work with them. Our Mukti Caravan — an awareness campaign on wheels — has traversed thousands of villages.
Our long marches from Kanyakumari to Kashmir have built socio-political momentum in amending the Constitution and making education a fundamental right. We made the most of the existing legal and judicial mechanisms in India and secured landmark judgments and orders on bonded labour, trafficking, missing children, etc. The Bachpan Bachao Andolan, along with others, has succeeded in getting missing children and human trafficking defined in the statutes.
Our Global March against Child Labour travelled across 103 countries and over 80,000 kilometres and was joined by millions of peoples and scores of heads of States earlier in 1998. It resulted in creating a global civil society against child labour and unanimous adoption of a concrete new international law to eradicate the worst forms of child labour. The Global March against Child Labour is the biggest civil society coalition actively working in over 100 countries.
Another significant intervention was to transform the natural compassion for children to consumers’ action and corporate responsibility. This initiative in the carpet industry led to the first social labelling mechanism Rugmark (now known as Good Weave) that gave better opportunities to children by offering jobs and livelihood to their parents and other adults in their place. It was a pleasant alternative for the industry and gave choice to consumers for responsible buying.
It is said that the Indian government has not been very supportive of your efforts to rescue child labourers. Please share examples of the hurdles you faced from the bureaucracy in the course of your work. Do you have any requests to government officers regarding cooperation in rescuing child labourers. What kind of an attitudinal shift do you want to see?
I have dealt with several governments in the States and at the Centre. The taste has been sweet and sour. I am thankful to sensitive politicians, bureaucrats and officers. However, their support remained unnoticed, but a handful of the corrupt who tried to harm and malign were able to make a bigger noise. Indian bureaucrats are the best brains in the world and I always try to awaken their hearts and souls. We definitely hope for the better in the changed scenario. I applaud the Prime Minister’s vision and courage to embrace the most untouched social challenges that multiplies optimism.
Despite progressive laws such as the Right to Education Act and those against child labour and schemes such as the Sarva Sikhsha Abhiyan, universal primary schooling is still a distant dream in India. How do we change this scene?
We must understand that child labour, illiteracy and poverty form a triangle of curse for children. We must break it collectively as a nation. The State, ordinary people and faith leaders must act hand-in-hand. I would especially call upon the most vibrant and ideal youth of my country to lead. All of us have the responsibility to work together to integrate and converge education, labour protection and social safety net coverage in the best interests of children. Needless to say that more investment on protection and development of children is absolutely necessary. Both the government and corporates have an important role to play in it.
How do you explain the persistence of child labour and lack of universal primary schooling in India? Is the caste system to blame?
Caste system is one of the factors that creates a stereotypical exclusion mould for a particular section of society and keeps it away from the growth story. Owing to the caste system, a big and most important segment credited for prosperity and productivity remains left out and is unable to match the pace of socio-economic progress. The entire education system should be re-hauled and made friendly to all children. I strongly insist on zero tolerance for discrimination in education.
How do you plan to put your Nobel prize money to use?
I humbly dedicate every single penny of the prize money for the freedom and education of trafficked, enslaved and abused children, particularly girls.
The award of the Nobel Prize to a child labour activist is viewed in some circles as a western conspiracy to project India as “backward.” Your take?
I have been repeatedly saying and practising over three decades that India may be a land of a hundred problems but definitely is the mother of a million solutions too. It is up to you whether you want to see the problems or seek solutions. I have unshakeable faith in the Indian judiciary and democracy to address this issue.