I will see the end of child slavery in my lifetime: Kailash Satyarthi

We were expecting that India, a fast growing economy, will invest in its children, says Nobel Prize winner

Photo: Faheem Hussain/Mint
Photo: Faheem Hussain/Mint

Nobel Peace prize winner Kailash Satyarthi’s fight against child labour has resonated with people around the world and he now commands an audience of policymakers. There are still 4.35 million working children in the age group of 5-14 in India, according to Census 2011. Satyarthi says he will see this issue to its conclusion in his lifetime. Edited excerpts from an interview:

How have the dynamics of child labour and trafficking changed in the last few years?

The good thing about the change is a large section of poor is now starting to value education more than before. And it is not just because of the government’s efforts. It is also because of the growing influence of technology, knowledge and communication, television, which has contributed to poor people sending their children to school. And that is a good sign.

The flip side is as the middle class grew in India, the nuclear families began looking for cheap and docile labour.

So a large number of illegal placement agencies are mushrooming everywhere, which supplies children as domestic help.

The traditional hubs were Bihar, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Odisha, where children were trafficked to work as domestic help or even in prostitution and begging. Now, the northeast has emerged as a big supply hub of child traffickers.

We have also been waiting for quite some time for the amended law on child labour to be passed. This law will prohibit all forms of child labour till the age of 14. We were expecting that India, a fast growing economy will invest in its children. Fortyone percent of India is below the age of 18, but we spend just 4% of the annual budget on them and that includes education, health and protection combined. This is a serious issue.

What is the role of companies in the fight against child labour?

Those days are gone when the government or state alone was responsible for welfare, protection and development. In 15 years, globally, we have witnessed that no development and human right debate is possible without civil society and corporate involvement.

The corporate has now emerged as a big power player, which was not the case earlier.

All corporations that depend on a local supply chain should be vigilant, proactive and more professional in dealing with supply chain matters. If children are working in any level or tier of a supply chain, it should be seen as a serious issue.

Businesses earn profit through intelligence but we need to figure out how this intelligence can be combined with compassion.

How has your experience been with corporations?

Companies are more progressive now but there are still many who are dragging their feet. They end up investing money only for crisis management rather than solving it.

Have the corporate social responsibility (CSR) rules made any difference to the Bachpan Bachao Andolan (BBA)?

So far BBA has not been supported by any CSR activity. It is still an emerging phenomena and in the first year, they will go with something simplistic. So the focus has been on flagship programs like Swacch Bharat. We need to see how to prioritize children in the CSR debate. The consciousness about child labour and trafficking is not adequate in society and corporate sector and that needs a lot of change.

What is the most efficient way to deal with child labour—through legislation or social awareness?

They should not be separate, they should be complementary. I would say the most important thing is to invest in children. The government at state and central level must invest in education and ensure the enforcement of all laws that involve children. So it is through legislation, combined with political will and substantiated with adequate funding.

Has the Nobel prize brought more focus to child labour?

Yes, definitely. The most significant evidence is at the global level. The issue of child labour, trafficking is now included in the United Nations’ latest Sustainable Development Goals, which was not the case with the earlier version of the UN’s millennium development goals (MDG).

In those days, I was the lone voice in the MDG debate saying we could not achieve these goals without the abolition of child labour.

My argument was that we should see children’s issues as part of the development paradigm and not just as a human rights issue.

That means governments are supposed to make their development planning keeping in mind these issues.

Finally, in September this year, the UN general assembly has accommodated all my demands and adopted the new set of goals. This means the world now can’t talk about development without abolition of child labour and exploitation.

In your 35 years, what would you say is your biggest success?

I was able to make child labour and exploitation of children a part of the global agenda and make it an issue. When I began, it was a non-issue. The whole notion of child rights was not yet invented.

There was no single organization that was working for it. But what has happened in the last 30 years will serve the communities for generations to come. I’m happy now that there are so many more people who have joined this cause.

In the same vein, what is your biggest regret?

After the Nobel prize, I was hoping that we could have done much more to put an end to child labour as it has been given for the first time to this cause, and it has come to the Indian soil. It becomes the moral responsibility of every Indian to do something about it.

But we have not achieved much in the one year considering that.

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