India Needs to Make Children a Priority: Nobel Laureate

Kshitij Nagar
New Delhi
160624-IN-satyarthi-620.jpg Indian child-rights activist and Nobel laureate Kailash Satyarthi speaks in his office in New Delhi, April 26, 2016.
Kshitij Nagar/BenarNews

For 36 years, Kailash Satyarthi has campaigned to abolish child labor in his home country of India.

The 62-year-old Nobel laureate is hopeful that he will live long enough to see child labor – which is outlawed in India but widely practiced – completely abolished in the world’s most populous democracy, but the lack of political will nationwide remains a chief obstacle, he told BenarNews in an interview.

“Children who are the future are not the political priority in our country,” says Satyarthi, who heads Bachpan Bachao Andolan (Save the Childhood movement), an NGO that champions children’s rights and claims to have rescued upward of 85,000 minors from trafficking, slavery and child labor since 1980.

Less than 4 percent of the nation’s annual budget is allocated for safeguarding and educating India’s children – which represent 41 percent of the population – as well as keeping them healthy, he says.

According to a new report by global anti-slavery watchdog Walk Free Foundation, more than 18 million people continue to live under “conditions of modern-day slavery” in India.

On May 29, two days before the study was published, some 330 bonded laborers were rescued from a brick kiln in Thiruvalluvar, a district in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Among them were 106 children under the age of 16.

Meanwhile, Bachpan Bachao Andolan was conducting an operation to rescue kids often spotted working on the streets of Delhi – at roadside tea shops, eateries and garages.

The group rescued 56 children from Delhi and Punjab state.

Last year, Satyarthi’s group helped the Indian government draft the Juvenile Justice Bill, which has since been enacted into a law widely regarded as a comprehensive one that empowers minors.

The law, which was implemented in January, states that all people under 18 years old are considered minors and cannot be employed. The previously implemented Child Labor Act had outlawed the employment of children under the age of 14.

Satyarthi’s dedication to children’s rights over the decades led to his being named a co-winner of the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize.

He shared the award with Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani teenager and activist who, at age 15, was nearly killed by the Taliban, who shot her because of her activism in speaking up for the rights of girls in her country to have an education.

The Nobel Committee awarded Satyarthi and Yousafzai the peace prize “for their struggle against the suppression of children and young people and for the right of all children to education.”

In the interview, Satyarthi elaborated on what he sees as impediments to ending child labor fight and how he plans to take his campaign worldwide.

BN: How many children are currently in bonded labor in India, according to your organization’s estimate?

Kailash Satyarthi: According to the government, about 4.5 million children are working in full-time jobs. These are children below the age of 14.

To put it in perspective from my experience, as a guesstimate, I would say that there are at least tens of millions of children working as laborers in this country.

BN: What is the biggest obstacle in your dream of ridding India of child labor?

KS: I would say that the lack of political will, [combined] with social apathy is the biggest reason. By lack of political will I mean that we don't have a good law or, the law is not properly enforced; not just the Child Labor Act or the Bonded Labor Act or the Juvenile Justice Act, but any other laws that protect children.

Even the constitutional guarantee to Right to Education is not properly enforced.

Apart from that, the government does not allocate adequate funding and resources.

In India, where 41 percent of the population is under the age of 18, only 3.6 percent of the annual budget is allocated for their protection, education and healthcare. That speaks volumes in itself, that children who are the future are not the political priority in our country.

Secondly, in terms of social apathy, I would say that we don't respect childhood. We do not respect it with dignity or with the idea that each child has the dignity of being a human being.

If a child belongs to a poor background or to a lower caste, then it is understood that these children can be easily exploited.

BN: What role does caste play in child labor in India?

KS: A very big role. My organization has rescued over 85,000 children from bonded labor and many of them were victims or trafficking.

I can hardly recall that we have ever freed a child belonging to an upper Hindu caste. Most of the children belong to the lowest strata or minority groups, such as Dalits, Adivasis (aboriginals) or Muslims.

BN: How have things changed since winning the Nobel Peace Prize?

KS: Immediately after the announcement of the prize, I said that this is the biggest recognition to all the deprived and neglected children of the world.

I attributed it to them. Secondly, I said that this is a comma in my life, and not a full stop.

My biggest priority before the award was to fight for child-related goals on the Future Development Agenda [the U.N.’s Sustainable Developmental Goals)]. After receiving the prize, we comprehensively started thinking, working and meeting on this matter. I met with the U.N.’s Secretary General and discussed the matter twice, as well as with other U.N. agencies ….

BN: Are you taking the campaign abroad?

KS: I realized very early that this problem extended to parts of Nepal and Pakistan and many such areas, so we started working on it at a South East Asian level and were able to work with the governments of SAARC [South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation] countries.

We learned then that this fight is global.

Under my new foundation, we are looking at it from a perspective of policy, people and practice – the 3 Ps.

Policy means we try to fill all the gaps in policies in countries the world over. With people, we are hoping to mobilize young people. I call it 100 million for 100 million – where 100 million privileged youngsters should become the guardians of 100 million underprivileged children.

As far as practice is concerned, we want to bring together all the successes and failures of all NGOs across the world, both known and acknowledged, so that we can collectively learn to scale up replicability and multiplication of programs across the world.

BN: How do you see the developed and the developing world joining hands to fight child labor?

KS: The developed world has a lot to do when it comes to fulfilling all it had proposed and pledged to do.

For example, in the total overseas development aid worldwide, less that 4 percent is allocated to children’s development and assistance.

BN: You have often said that in your lifetime, you wanted to see the end of child labor. What is the biggest challenge in achieving that goal?

KS: The biggest challenge is prioritizing children in the political domain, and that perhaps I am able to do it soon. But definitely in my lifetime I will see the end of it.

I am hopeful, as 36 years or so ago, when we started out, nobody thought that it would become such a big issue. And 36 years is only a short time in the history of humankind.

I would like to underline that this has happened not due to me, but due to a strong and diligent collective effort.

Just 15 years ago, the number of child laborers in the world was 260 million. That figure has now come down to about 170 million.

So hope is still alive.


Add your comment by filling out the form below in plain text. Comments are approved by a moderator and can be edited in accordance with RFAs Terms of Use. Comments will not appear in real time. RFA is not responsible for the content of the postings. Please, be respectful of others' point of view and stick to the facts.