The Nobel Prize is an acknowledgement of individual accomplishment.
The award to Kailash Satyarthi and Malala Yousafzai “for their struggle against the suppression of children and young people and for the right of all children to education” is recognition of individual perseverance and courage. They deserve every decibel of the applause and their moment in the sun.
The award is also a testimony to the ignoble failure of the state in India and Pakistan—to provide for and to ensure protection to the most vulnerable section of society. A right, an entitlement that is ‘a given’ in most mature democracies.
Look at the context of the two awardees.
Kailash Satyarthi deservedly is being lauded for his work in exposing and fighting child labour—essentially slavery. What Satyarthi has been campaigning for is an explicit entitlement enshrined in the Constitution. What does the Constitution say? The founding fathers had provided for the prevention of child labour. Article 24 says “no child below the age of 14 years shall be employed to work”. This is also the country which is a signatory to a series of international pledges. Article 45 says the state shall endeavour to provide, within a period of 10 years from the commencement of this Constitution, for free and compulsory education to all children until they complete the age of 14 years.
What has the state done to uphold the rights? The first reaction has been to define the issue as complex—related to illiteracy and poverty. The second reaction, typically, has been to create a plethora of laws and programmes. There are no less than a dozen laws that govern/prohibit child labour. In 1986, throwing in the towel, the government decided it couldn’t prevent child labour per se. So it legislated to regulate it. The Child Labour (Prohibition & Regulation) Act 1986 aims to prevent their employment in hazardous work places. Yet between 1991 and 2001, the number of child labourers went up from 11.28 million to 12.66 million.
What is the state of the child labour in India today? The data on child labour is sketchy and is shocking. The Ministry of Labour reveals that nearly 4.5 million children under the age of 14 are employed. Activists working in the domain believe the number of child workers is much higher—particularly at urban homes, in eateries, and in businesses in the unorganised sector. The system has denied children both education and dignity. Employed in hazardous industries, including shallow mining, construction and by beedi-makers, the children suffer from malnutrition, impaired vision, deformities from sitting long hours in crowded work places, and are easy prey to deadly diseases.
Six decades after India became Republic, explicit rights and provisions continue to be violated with impunity. A society which is outraged at children working at match/firecracker/beedi factories is curiously unaffected by children working at homes as domestic help and in the informal sector. The conventional view is that child labour is an outcome of poverty. But, as Satyarthi says, poverty is an outcome of the next generation being denied their rights for a shot at a better future.
The story of Malala Yousafzai, barely 17, is profoundly poignant. She has been applauded for her uncommon courage in promoting the cause of education for the girl child—first through her blog under the pseudonym Gul Makai and later after the attempt on her life in October 2012 through direct activism. She didn’t plan on being an activist. She just spoke up while all those around her did not. That sets her apart.
What Malala has been fighting for is an explicit right—in the religious text which defines seeking knowledge as a duty and in the Constitution of Pakistan. Article 25-A says the state shall provide free and compulsory education to all children of the age five to 16 years.
Yet the state and society have been mute spectators to the proselytisation of a nation by fundamentalists. What was the trigger for 11-year-old Malala to write her first blog? Militants in north-west Pakistan had demolished and dismantled girls’ schools in the valley. Their view on female education was that there was no room for it in their interpretation of the text. Malala simply reflected on the anxiety and sorrow of her classmates who feared there would be no school soon.
The march of fundamentalism first sponsored by the state has now crippled the state. A society which yielded room under various pretexts—principally that it was foreign affairs—now finds it very much an internal affair. It stayed in denial when other religious minorities were persecuted and kept silent when other Muslim sects were branded. It is now horrified—its women are the new minorities and the dissenting voice is the new infidel.
The battles of Kailash Satyarthi and Malala Yousafzai are as much about getting the state to act as it is about getting the society to react. The quirk of fate is but only the consequence of choices made. The people of India and Pakistan will and must celebrate. They must also ask why the state has persistently failed and why society allowed conditions to reach such a pass.
Individual valour has come in the wake of institutional failure. Irony is dying a thousand deaths.
Shankkar Aiyar is the author of Accidental India: A History of the Nation’s Passage through Crisis and Change