Express exclusive: We need one strong moral voice that cuts through the noise, says Satyarthi

Nobel laureate Kailash Satyarthi feels India’s political class has failed the children of his country by passing the recent amendments to the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986.

Published: 07th August 2016 12:40 AM  |   Last Updated: 07th August 2016 03:14 PM   |  A+A-


Nobel laureate Kailash Satyarthi feels India’s political class has failed the children of his country by passing the recent amendments to the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986. He now seeks a global resolve and plans on bringing to India, moral leaders from across the globe to create one universal voice that pushes for a holistic policy agenda on the basis of experience and learning from grassroots.

His organisation Bachpan Bachao Andalon has helped save the lives of more than 83,000 children. He speaks to Pallavi Rebbapragada about the need to acknowledge the universality of the problem of child abuse and slavery and devise ways to tackle these on a global scale.

How are you planning to bring the moral leaders on the world on one platform?

The idea is to create a voice that governments and UN agencies can’t break with their bureaucratic frameworks. A strong moral force that will push for a holistic policy agenda and on the basis of experience and learning from grassroots, and will question and change policies that are adversely affecting children.

This will be an on-going platform, its each consecutive meeting will be held in a new country. Some leaders might lose interest and some more might join, but the evils of slavery and children’s mental and physical exploitation that exist all around the world need a strong collective voice to raise them.

Does universalizing a problem and its solution take the focus off regional complexities?

In a world damaged by fundamentalism and violence, people are searching inwards for identities and want to safeguard their own interests first. The country that led to the formation of the European Union has become the first to leave it. This makes it all the more necessary to universalize human problems and combine the intellectual resources scattered around the world to make them stronger and harder to ignore. Uprooting these evils will lead to greater economic good.

According to a recent World Bank study conducted in 50 countries, every single year of schooling will bring a return of an additional 0.37% GDP growth rate. At the global level, the vicious circle of illiteracy, poverty and unemployment is what needs to be broken. If there are 168 million child workers in the world, there are also 200 million unemployed adults who could well be parents of these children. It is not a dearth of jobs but illiteracy, poverty and lack of stricter laws that give people the moral confidence to hire children as cheap labour.

How has the new law on child labour made your job tougher?

Instead of banning child labour in its entirety, the new law allows children to work in family businesses and reduces the list of banned jobs from 83 to three. So, it is now legal for a child to work in a brick kiln, a blast furnace, or a glass factory if the owner manages to convince authorities that he or she is a relative however distant. This has opened a backdoor for children to enter to the workforce.

After 36 years of working for this cause, I hoped I would work hand-in-hand with the government to implement and enforce the new law that I had differently imagined. But this is not the end of the road, because three decades ago, even before the first child labour law came into being, I was still saving children. Laws are merely tools. What we need are hands to work on those tools. And those are the hands of very ordinary people. The day the law was passed, my team had rescued 12 children. When I spent time with them, I briefly forgot about my struggle and focused on the small things I am doing right.

Aside from the laws, how is a market-oriented economy leading to child labour?

The role of states is narrowing and markets are more decisive socio-economic forces. In India, we are proud of our demographic dividend wherein 41 per cent are below the age of 18. But we only spend four per cent of our budget on this segment. How can we consider them a dividend if we don’t invest in them? In the corporate world, top layers sign MoUs with international brands that no child labour is involved in manufacturing but the lower levels are oblivious and go on extracting work from minors.

If you are exploiting 1000 children and making $4-5 million and then taking out $100,000 to run a school or a hospital, that is not CSR. Simply image building on paper doesn’t solve the problem, just like building a road or fixing a street light doesn’t symbolize sustainable development. For instance, we need to ask what the learning outcome of children in schools is. The most sustainable cure is prevention and that lies in access to quality, inclusive and equitable education. 

How must rural and urban India tackle the problem of child labour?

Today, action is happening on ground and media is vigilant but traffickers are well-versed in technology and since their financial gain is at stake, they are more motivated than anti-trafficking forces. Enforcement agencies need to be well-trained in the diversity of the problem and to act effectively, especially because they are working at the cost of public money which is scarce. In villages, especially Naxal-prone regions in Jharkhand and Bihar, awareness programmes are an effective way to make parents realise that empowerment, development, employment and justice can come only if the children go to school.

We declared many villages ‘zero-tolerance zones’, which means these are free from child labour, child marriage and child abuse, by us. Here, children become their own leaders in Bal Panchayats, and this has become hugely popular. Urban India too cannot afford to turn a blind eye towards young children working in shops or as domestic helpers. We need a new world where the rights of a child move even those people who don’t have anything to do with that child.


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