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No end to child slavery fight for Nobel Peace laureate

Kailash Satyarthi’s journey as an activist began when he was just six ― when he saw a child of the same age polishing shoes alongside his cobbler father outside his school.

“I was going to school with a lot of excitement and I saw this child working. I was very disturbed. I spoke to my teacher and headmaster and they said that the child had no option but to work.

“So one day I spoke to the father of the boy and he replied that his child had been born to work. That went deep in my heart and made me angry,” Satyarthi, now 60, told the Sunday Times.

It disturbed him so much that there were children too poor to go to school that he decided he would do something about it.

So at the age of 12, he collected used books from pupils who moved to a higher class and distributed the texts among those who could not afford to buy them.

In another scheme, at about the same time, he started a football club and used the membership money to fund the education of a few poor students.

He went on to found, at the age of 26 in 1980, the Bachpan Bachao Andolan or “save childhood campaign,” that led more than three decades later to the Nobel Peace Prize this month.

The work to save children from crushing labor was fraught with risks and he has been beaten up, held at gunpoint and threatened with acid attacks.

But the severity of the situation kept him going.

Though there are laws in India prohibiting children from working in hazardous workplaces, they are employed to make bricks, carpets and bangles, and in farm work, like picking cotton.

According to Unicef, the United Nations Children’s Fund, there are 28 million children aged 6 to 14 who are working in India. But an Indian government survey in 2009 puts the number at 5 million.

The rapid growth of the middle class has also seen an increased demand for domestic workers, many of whom are children.

Child labor laws allow children under 14 to do light work, like making handicrafts, provided they also go to school. An amendment banning all work for children under 14 has been pending for over two years in Parliament.
Indian children’s rights activist Kailash Satyarthi gestures as he addresses the media at his office in New Delhi on Friday. (AP-Yonhap)
Indian children’s rights activist Kailash Satyarthi gestures as he addresses the media at his office in New Delhi on Friday. (AP-Yonhap)

Satyarthi’s winning of the Nobel Prize has raised some uncomfortable questions about child labor even as it excites national pride, with the news receiving wall-to-wall coverage in the Indian media. Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted that “the entire nation is proud of his momentous achievement.”

But the Indian Express newspaper asked in an editorial if the Nobel prize, shared with Pakistani child activist Malala Yousafzai, 17, “would nudge and inspire India and Pakistan to stand up for their children.”

Satyarthi himself notes that the problem of child labor has grown worse over the years.

“The issue of child labor and slavery has kept acquiring new facades and new dimensions. Earlier, we used to liberate children working in conventional workplaces, like stone quarries. We still free children from there, but we, not just in India but in all developing countries, are now part of a global market and production chain,” he said.

“The largest number of children are working in agriculture, where a number of international players are involved in cash crops. Many industries that use child labor are operated by a number of international brands. We have seen the new form of child slavery in the supply chain since. This award will be helpful to bring the issue ... to the global stage,” he added.

Born into a modest middle-class family in Vidisha in the state of Madhya Pradesh, Satyarthi fulfilled his police constable father’s dream by becoming an engineer before going on to be a teacher.

But in 1980, with a 1-year-old child in tow, he quit his teaching job to work full-time to rescue children from hard labor.

It came as little surprise to his wife Sumedha, 59.

“Even when he was studying, he was always involved in social schemes,” she said.

BBA investigates cases, conducts raids in collaboration with the authorities to rescue children, and rehabilitates them.

It runs rehabilitation homes where the children are clothed, fed and educated.

In the early years, two activists from BBA were killed during rescue efforts.

“We have an unusual saying in our organization that if you haven’t been beaten in a rescue operation, then you haven’t been trained properly,” said Satyarthi’s son Bhuwan Ribhu, 35, a lawyer who is also involved in BBA.

Over the last three decades, more than 80,000 children have been rescued.

Last Friday, celebrations broke out in his tiny office on a congested street in south Delhi, with friends, colleagues and family gathered there to hear the news of his win.

Among those who wanted to be part of the moment was Manan Ansari, 18, who was rescued at aged 10 from a mine in Jharkhand state and is studying life sciences at Delhi University.

“Just think: I was rescued by a Nobel Peace Prize winner and have been interacting with him on a regular basis. For me, it’s a historic moment,” he said.

By Nirmala Ganapathy

(The Straits Times)