In 2014, child rights activist Kailash Satyarthi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, along with Pakistani teenager and activist for the education of girls, Malala Yousafzai. Sixty-two-year-old Satyarthi, who founded Bachpan Bachao Andolan, has been involved in the rescue and rehabilitation of child workers since 1981, at a time when India did not have a law against child labour, when the rights of children were unacknowledged by even the United Nations, when education was not the fundamental right of every child in the country.

The only law that Satyarthi could turn to then to free child workers—even as he campaigned actively for the enactment of a specific law to deal with the issue of child labour and child trafficking—was the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, a law ironically brought into being by Indira Gandhi in 1976, in the midst of the Emergency.

On 26 July, Parliament approved the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Amendment Act, 2016, which has outlawed the employment of children under 14 in all sectors except family enterprises and enhanced the punishment for those employing children. Satyarthi is disappointed, angry, at the half-measures in this law, arguing that allowing children to work in family enterprises would, in fact, lead to further exploitation and be detrimental to their education. “I was hoping that after 30 years, this phase of my work (for a watertight law against child labour in India) would be over," he says.

This, however, has not dampened his will. In an interview at the office of the Children’s Foundation of India, which he opened recently to facilitate research and policy planning in this field, he argues that child labour is not just a human rights issue but a development one, detrimental to our economy.

The discourse on the rights of children is a continuous one in our world, so it is difficult not to be taken aback by the realization of just how recently the world even acknowledged that children, like any other human being, had to be given legal rights.

Edited excerpts from the interview:

To start from the beginning, how did you become a child rights activist?

Well, the first spark came when I was five-and-a-half-years old, on the first day of my schooling. I was born and grew up in Vidisha, a town near Bhopal. I went to a municipal primary school. When I was entering school, I saw a boy, a cobbler, sitting just outside the school gate along with his father. I might have seen children working before (but) did not notice this as something different or something wrong. But that day, (there) was a sharp contrast. My friends and I were going to school with a lot of dreams, excitement, with new clothes, new books, new bags, new shoes. And the child was only looking at our shoes—whether we were going to give him shoe-shining or shoe-repair work. That emptiness followed me into my classroom. So I asked my teacher—that was the first question I asked society, in a way, through my teacher—why this boy was not in school with the rest of us.

The teacher was surprised, (and replied that) it’s very common, poor children have to work, help their family. The same rhetoric that we hear now from many people and even from some of the government agencies.

One day I (gathered) courage and asked his father, Sir, why don’t you send your son to school? He too, was surprised: “Babuji, maine to kabhi yeh socha nahi (I never thought of this). My father, my grandfather and I, we started working from our childhood. And now it’s my son’s turn." Then he looked at me with some sort of helplessness and said, “Babuji aap jaante nahin ki hum to kaam karne ke liye hi paida hote hain (Sir, aren’t you aware that we are born to work?)." It was shocking, made me angry, in fact: Why are some children born to work at the cost of their education, their health, their future?

Later in my student life, when I was 11, I realized that many of my friends were going to leave school because their parents could not afford the syllabus books and fees; and education was not free at that time. So we started collecting old books and some money from our pocket money to help those children.

But there was no single organization, individual or NGO, no study, or research even, about this issue. Child labour was a non-issue. India did not even have any law on child labour.

I passed out as an electrical engineer and I did my job for almost two years. But I was not happy. I was struggling within and wanted to follow my heart and my passion. But without any path, I had no idea how. Everybody used to say that this is poverty, but I (saw it as) something beyond poverty: It was denial of human dignity, freedom, human rights. It was unacceptable. But even the international community had not yet recognized the rights of children. The “child rights" notion came into being only in 1990, when the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child was adopted by the general assembly. So between 1980-1990, that was the hardest part: to convince (people) that these children also have rights; (it wasn’t simply an issue of) poverty or socioeconomic situations, and so on.

That’s around the time you formally got into this field.

Yes, 1981, almost a decade before the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child was adopted. I was talking to people, trying to convince them that this is bad. And some people were convinced, but they were looking at it as a charity issue. I never believed in that conventional wisdom of charity. You can help x number of children through that, but you’re not going to address the structural problems responsible for the perpetuation of this crime of child labour. So I realized that sensitization and awareness-building could be a good starting point. I started with a magazine, a fortnightly in Hindi called Sangharsh Jaari Rahega.

One day I was sitting in my office when a desperate father knocked on my door. His daughter was about to be sold to a brothel. His name was Wasal Khan and he was weeping, requesting me to save his 15-year-old daughter. I was shocked to learn that he and his bride and a few more families had been lured away from their native village in Aligarh to work at a brick kiln in Punjab. During those 17 years, all the children who were born and grew up there had not seen the outside world because they were living inside this fenced brick-kiln area. No way to go out, no money, no freedom.

One day, the girl’s mother noticed that a group of people had come to negotiate the price (of the girl) for a brothel in Delhi. It was a shock for the parents; they didn’t know what to do. So the father jumped into a truck in the middle of the night, reached Chandigarh and (started) knocking on doors and requesting people to help. Coincidentally, a subscriber of my magazine told him to come to me.

I started thinking that if she was my sister or daughter, I would turn the whole world upside down to save her. So I told Wasal that I’m not going to write your story, I am willing to go and rescue your daughter. We were beaten up; Wasal Khan was caught by them and beaten up. I decided to find some other way. I met some lawyer friends and (on their suggestion), within a few days we rescued 36 children, men and women, through court intervention. And then we made a new path for ourselves.

The Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Amendment Act, 2016, has come after 30 long years, despite widespread awareness of gaps in the law.

It’s quite shocking, and sometimes disgusting, to see—we are all proud, I’m proud at least, of being an Indian, (belonging to) a land of great values. We have the legacy of Buddha and Gandhi, the legacy of compassion and love and justice; all these are taught to us right from our birth. But we still have the stigma of having the largest number of child labourers in the world. And the worst forms of child labour, including slavery, trafficking, prostitution, the use of children for pornographic purposes, forced beggary right in the capital of the largest democracy in the world.

I recall the rhetoric that was used in 1986 when the child labour law was enacted. I had to organize demonstrations and hunger strikes in front of Parliament in 1983-85 for a domestic law on child labour. So whatever law was enacted then was a very poor, weak law, but we had to agree to it. I knew the law would not be amended soon, though we kept on fighting—for 30 years. If you go to any of the prime ministers’ houses, you will find my letters, dozens of letters with strong arguments. I have met every single prime minister personally on this, sometimes alone, sometimes with a group of Parliament members.

That time, the argument was that we cannot ban all forms of child labour because of the socioeconomic conditions of the family. Socioeconomic conditions was the argument used 30 years ago and exactly the same argument has been used now by our leaders and minister. India (today) is the same India (as) 30 years ago? We have not changed at all and the socioeconomic conditions of this country are the same? Are we refuting that India has grown with eightfold GDP, from $336 billion ( 22.5 trillion) to $2.4 trillion? In comparison to the population, which has only grown by less than half?

It looks like we’re confirming that the GDP has not trickled down to the poorest strata of society. And now, in the next one or two decades, we are also confirming that nothing will change.

Secondly, now it has been established that we are living in a knowledge economy. We cannot think of getting rid of poverty, solving the problem of gender injustices or social injustices of any kind without education—and education of good quality. So now we are compromising on quality education as well. How can we make a successful Make in India programme or Digital India programme without quality education? There are dozens of scientific studies conducted by the ILO (International Labour Organisation) and UN agencies which prove that if you combine child labour and education, then you are compromising on both—the quality of eduction as well as skill development.

An ILO-World Bank study proves that if you invest $1 on child labour eradication, then the returns would be seven times in the next 20 years. You invest $1 on educated children and the returns would be 50 times more. But we are all ignoring it and using the old rhetoric.

But child rights cannot be looked at in isolation. They have to be seen in unison with the rights of the parents, the family.

I always say, and have been saying for more than three decades, exactly the same thing. Child labour can never be solved in isolation or compartments or segments. Children are a part of society, of family, of economy. But we have to understand the whole vicious circle which compels these children to become child labourers or child slaves and prostitutes.

Globally speaking, 168 million children are child labourers—those are ILO statistics. And 200 million are out of school; 60 million children have never been to school, others have dropped out.Then we have 210 million adults jobless in the world. There were studies in India some years ago, but the latest are from Brazil, Nigeria, Mexico, the Philippines, which reveal that child labourers are none but the children of those parents who don’t get jobs for more than 100 days a year. Some of these studies also prove that the growth of child labour and adult unemployment has grown parallelly. If able-bodied adults remain jobless, and children are kept as child labourers—and children are preferred since they are the cheaper source of labour—the flow of economic growth is then being hampered by employing children.

In any industry, glass bangles, carpet or zari, no employer can show on paper that he employs children. So he fakes records. He (also) cannot claim that he’s not paying minimum prescribed wages. Some years ago in Parliament, we managed to ask some questions through some friendly MPs. Three years ago, not too far back, the average income or expenditure on a child labourer by an employer was 20 a day—it could have now gone up to 25. In many places where children are working as bonded labourers, they are not paid at all; the only expenditure is on food. At the same place, if an adult is employed, the floor wage is 120—that was about three-four years ago—and that is not the minimum wage. If the children were not employed at this place, then the adult would have to be paid minimum wages, which is something like 7,000-8,000 in Delhi. In the case of skilled work, it should be much more. But the local employer can say (that) if I’m able to find a child (to work) for 20-30, why should I pay you 200? Work instead for 100-120.

Where does this money go? It becomes black money. We had come out with a scientific study that proved that millions of dollars are generated as black money in the country by way of employing children. It’s a big source of black money, adult unemployment and corruption. It is not an economically viable solution to employ child labour for any healthy economy. You have to have strong, young people and an educated, skilled workforce.

That makes perfect sense. So why do you think there’s a lack of will in implementing this?

I’ve been meeting a range of politicians, not just from the ruling party but from all parties, including the leftists. And most of them still have that old mindset. They do not want to analyse the economic and political aspects of child labour or the consequences of it on the economy. Children are not voters, they are not going to affect their politics at all.

Some still feel it is a matter of Indian family values, of sanskars, of children helping family members. Nobody objects to children learning from their parents, (as long as) it does not hamper their health, education and leisure time. That should not be compromised.

But they (parliamentarians) have blurred the line between family and family enterprises. So family enterprises is a huge hole (into which) the children are dumped, and they can never come out of it. It is such a dark hole under the garb of family enterprises. The extended family is endless in the Indian village. The whole village is the child’s mama, chacha or tau. So who is going to do the DNA test (and prove) who is a real blood relation?

Under the garb of family, now the children could be employed in any occupation, from slaughterhouses to beedi-making. That is the big problem. I spoke to the (labour) minister several times and wrote to the PM that we have to define family—only the parents of these children, or their direct relations, like siblings. When you say family enterprise, then it becomes all kinds of occupations, industries, shops, workshops.

And what was the response of the PM and the minister?

The response is the law now.

You played an active role in bringing about the Right to Education too.

At least you know it. Otherwise people’s memories are short. Earlier, education was a part of state policy. So it was not a fundamental right. But someone like me had a crazy idea that why can’t we demand that education become a fundamental right. One reason was that when we freed children and they were repatriated back to their homes, it was impossible to enrol them in schools. Teachers would say he’s already 12-13 years, how can he sit with a seven-year-old?

That provoked me to launch a nationwide campaign demanding a constitutional amendment to make education a fundamental right. We organized a march from Kanyakumari to Kashmir to Delhi, a zigzag, six-month march where we covered the whole country by foot. We went to the smallest, remotest villages to sensitize and educate people. Once you organize something this big, politicians cannot keep themselves out of it. So altogether, 168 MPs participated, and we immediately launched a parliamentary forum for the right to education. That became a cross-party pressure group within Parliament, and it worked. It took five-six years to translate it into law. Again, RTE was not properly enforced and the government knows that it requires much more rigorous effort.

How has winning the Nobel Peace Prize influenced your work?

I’ve been spearheading a campaign, joining hands with many organizations, to demand that the UN sustainable development goals should include eradication of child labour, abolishing slavery, trafficking and the protection of children from all kinds of violence. These demands were the same at the time the Millennium Development Goals were launched in 2000. No government was willing to bring child labour in the development sector. They said it’s a human rights issue, and the human rights portfolio will deal with it. But I had been pushing the agenda that the world is heading towards a market economy and a globalized economy, where the state will not be the only actor to ensure development and human rights. Eventually the corporate sector and civil society will have to play an important role. I was saying that you cannot accomplish most of the goals without eradication of child labour. If almost 200 million children are trapped in mining, brick kilns, etc, how are you going to accomplish education for all? How are you going to solve employment and poverty if so many children are employed in place of adult workers? These were my fundamental arguments.

As soon as the Nobel prize was announced, the one thing that came to my mind was, now I’m not going to leave it, this gives me an edge. So when the UN secretary general congratulated me, I immediately said, sir, I want to have a meeting with you. So too with US President Barack Obama and whoever was congratulating me for the Nobel prize. So I met all the world leaders, every single UN agency head, including Ban Ki-moon. We had an informal chat and dinner, I brought all these arguments together about my campaign for the inclusion of elimination of child labour in sustainable development goals (SDGs). That means the whole global perspective as well as policy needs a tremendous paradigm shift to bring the human rights connection into the development discourse. Future development planning couldn’t be done without bringing child labour, or violence against children, into it because it should have a strong development imperative in it. It worked. So finally all my demands have been incorporated in these sustainable development goals.

That has been an achievement that will have a long-term impact on the development policies and programmes globally. But also the lives of hundreds of millions of children in the world. I was enthused that if someone very ordinary, a humble, common man can bring about this massive paradigm shift in bringing these two sectors closer—child rights with development sector—in India, I would be able to convince my people, my government, my parliamentarians, to have a strong, clear law without excuses of socioeconomic conditions.

Unfortunately it did not happen.

You are embarking on two new campaigns: ‘100 million for 100 million’ and ‘The Laureates and Leaders Initiative for Children’...

We have not yet launched them, we’re trying to build alliances and the support base. The whole idea is, more than one million young people are denied their childhood, their freedom, globally. I work across 140 countries, and I’ve been saying that not only physical and sexual violence is violence, but slavery is one of the most heinous forms of violence. Denial of education, health, nutritious food is also violence. I wanted to bring all of this under the umbrella of violence against children.

On the other hand, I know the power of young people. I’ve been going to universities, to schools for decades. I know their power, enthusiasm, energy. But more importantly, the component of idealism among young people, and the hunger to prove themselves, do and deliver something in society. And that is sometimes undermined, unacknowledged. We wonder why young people are becoming intolerant, more violent, frustrated, disillusioned with their environment and systems around them. I feel a child who is angry (has a potential that needs to be) tapped. There’s an element of idealism. That anger comes because we are not able to harness the power of (a) young person or use it in a constructive manner, not able to give it purpose in life. So the idea is to bring together these constituencies: 100 million denied their rights and 100 million young people hungry to do something for society. That is going to become human history’s biggest-ever campaign.

Then we are trying to work with Nobel laureates and moral leaders, not just presidents and prime ministers. I’m trying to touch upon the humanitarian or compassion in them and build a moral voice. We have to build a society which should not just strive towards economic gains and GDP and economic growth, and production and materialism and consumerism, the vicious circle we’ve got into. An element of the moral should not be lost in this big growth machine or the growth train. Everybody wants to get on to the growth train, but where it is leading to eventually, is, that we have to compromise with very fundamental things, where we love freely, respect each other, listen to each other, respect the diversity of opinions and religions and cultures. These things are lost and that’s why we see the growth of fundamentalists. So we have to address the problem from the bottom and therefore build a strong moral voice. So the moral voice will come from the children and, hopefully, some Nobel laureates.

When India was sone ke chidiya, it was also jagat guru, a moral leader. How long will we do the rhetoric of corporate social responsibility (CSR) or philanthropy or old-style charity? We should look much ahead and create a culture of business with compassionate intelligence. While aiming at profit, why not bring an additional element of compassion which can generate a different energy in the whole chain, so management and workers feel satisfied and you are not abusing culture or ecology.

A last question: What drives you?

I don’t have a clear answer, but I feel that the power of freedom, which people may call liberty or emancipation or moksha. Eventually, everybody has to be free from social, political and economic things, greed and desire (to attain) freedom—freedom is a divine gift, we are all born free. The taste of freedom is so powerful. If you start realizing that by doing simple things—I’m not doing complicated things—I’m seeing the faces of those children who never thought they could be free from their employers, slave masters. So the smile of freedom for me is a glimpse of god. The tears roll down the cheeks of those mothers who lost all hope that they can ever be able to hug their sons, and when it happens with my little humble effort, those tears are so powerful.

I believe in the power of childhood as well. For me, childhood does not mean an age group. My definition of childhood is simplicity, quest for learning, forgiveness, which we lose when we grow, we become more artificial, we don’t forgive people, we become stubborn. If the element of childhood is within us, it gives you energy. So freedom and childhood are the two key elements which I try to keep inside me, preserved.

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