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Kailash Satyarthi hand-in-hand with smiling children and supporters

Satyarthi co-traveller with every rescued child 

Sukanya Sharma

Published: Feb. 29, 2024
Updated: Mar. 29, 2024

EVEN today, across India, children from impoverished families are subjected to unspeakable horrors. Because of poverty they work with their parents — toiling in fields, hot brick kilns, roadside eateries, mines, hazardous factories and in homes. A happy childhood, school and three meals a day are just a dream for them and their parents.

For many decades after Independence, the menace of child labour was completely overlooked by middle class activists and the political class. Kailash Satyarthi was one of the few lone voices speaking up for children, going so far as to rescue them with his small team. Bachpan Bachao Andolan, the campaign he started, was a radical departure from lobbying and peaceful protests, the usual tools employed by NGOs. He risked his life to rescue children from the clutches of rapacious employers.  Outside his modest office in Delhi, there would be a lone armed bodyguard to protect him.

In 2014, Satyarthi was honoured with the Nobel Peace Prize for his persistent advocacy of child rights. His recent book, Why Didn’t You Come Sooner?, has a dozen poignant profiles of children he rescued. The title is a quote from what Devli, an eight-year-old girl he rescued from a stone quarry, asked him.

It is due to Satyarthi’s tireless crusade that education has become a fundamental right in the Constitution. In 2017 he undertook a Bharat Yatra to fight against child abuse. It led to a stringent law against child sexual abuse.

Civil Society spoke to Satyarthi about his book and some of the challenges he faced during his remarkable journey of not only rescuing children but also becoming a ‘co-traveller’, a friend they could rely on.


Q: You have been instrumental in rescuing around 150,000 children since 1981. What led you to choose these 12 stories for your book?

I have spearheaded rescue operations that liberated thousands of children, but such endeavours wouldn’t have been possible without the support of my organization and colleagues. Over the years, my modest role has been to bring attention to the most invisible and voiceless children.

These 12 children hold a special significance as their stories not only deeply impacted me and our organization but also led to significant societal, national, and international policy transformations. The narratives vividly illustrate how various industries — such as stone quarrying, mica mining, brick kilns, carpet weaving, circuses, and agriculture — enslave children, subjecting them to trafficking, exploitation, physical and sexual abuse, forced marriages or domestic labour. This book and the stories of these children serve to awaken the innate compassion within every reader, fostering a deeper understanding of the plight of vulnerable children and the urgent need for collective action.


Q: What was your biggest challenge while writing these stories?

It has taken me about 12 years to write this book. The biggest challenge lay in being a true co-traveller with each child, ensuring that their lived experiences, marked by unspeakable trauma, were authentically captured without detracting from their individual stories. It was crucial to honour their journey of growth and healing while maintaining the integrity of their narratives as this book tells the story of their shared struggle for justice and dignity.


Q: Do you face fewer obstacles in carrying out rescue missions than you did earlier? Is the administration more responsive?

When I began this journey, child labour was largely absent from public and political discourse, with many countries failing to acknowledge it as a crime. It was often perceived as an economic necessity for impoverished families and was not recognized as a human rights crisis. In our first ever effort to rescue Sabo, a group of my friends and I commandeered a truck, arriving at the stone quarries. There, we faced the harrowing ordeal of a physical assault.

It was a lawyer friend who suggested pursuing a habeas corpus petition as our last resort. Ultimately, our unwavering commitment led to the liberation of Sabo and 36 others who had suffered generations of slavery.

This monumental achievement marked the first instance of individual-led emancipation from the bonds of slavery. Today, our cause has driven the enactment of laws that mandate police involvement in rescue missions, a triumph achieved through the tireless efforts of our organization.

Since I was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2014, there has been a significant shift in awareness and rescue efforts. For instance, memorandums of understanding with entities like the Railway Protection Force (RPF) have been established. Given that the Indian Railways serves as the nation’s primary transporter, it represents a major route for human traffickers. The strategic placement of RPF personnel at railway stations and aboard trains enables them to intercept trafficking attempts before victims reach their destinations and exploitation begins. With its extensive reach and strategic positioning, the force plays a crucial role in supplementing the nation’s efforts to combat human trafficking.


Q: The children are wary of strangers and are withdrawn when you bring them to the ashram. How do you help them feel at home?

We never adhered to conventional wisdom nor approached our work with a charity mindset. Our firm belief is that rehabilitation should be grounded in principles of rights rather than charity. Our rehabilitation centres have always been active hubs of compassion. The interactions between management, teachers, staff, and children are characterized by warmth and camaraderie. Upholding the dignity and trust of each child has been fundamental to fostering integration within the ashram.


Q: You say in the introduction, “I cannot say for sure what thousands of children have learnt from me but what I have gained from them is invaluable.” What are the lessons you have learnt?

Children are always teaching us valuable lessons even when they are not teaching us. Their resilience, energy and adaptability have always motivated me to do more and do better. Spending time with children is akin to recharging your batteries because they have so much joy and love to share. When I interact with them, they quickly discover and befriend the child within me, granting me the precious ability to keep that inner child alive and joyful.

When people maintain authenticity, simplicity, and straightforwardness in life, it’s often because they’ve preserved the invaluable essence of childlike wonder and simplicity. Outside my office hangs a signboard saying: “Walk through this door with your inner child.”


Q: Has there been a change in the way people perceive child labour now as opposed to when you first began rescuing children?

When we began, there was little awareness about child labour being a human rights crime. We relentlessly championed the cause of children at various levels, including the UN, and our efforts resulted in the inclusion of specific language in UN SDG Goal 8: Sub Goal 8.7.

It is most shocking that globally the number of child labourers has increased from 152 million to 160 million during the first four years of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). With the world facing multiple crises, the SDG Agenda for Goal 8.7 is headed towards failure. Each of these crises overlaps and has complex interactions, impacting the SDG goals and leading to a spin-off effect on food, health, education, environment, peace and security. 

Our promise to leave no one behind is in jeopardy. While there have been strong lobbies advocating the right to work for children, no country in the world can now deny the government’s role in addressing child labour and eradicating it. This issue has become an integral part of due diligence and CSR.

Laws have been enacted, except in the sub-Saharan African region, resulting in a substantial reduction in child labour thanks to the SDGs, which have integrated it into the development agenda alongside human rights. Besides, international research has demonstrated that child labour perpetuates adult unemployment, intergenerational poverty, and health hazards.


Q: Have rescue missions decreased over the years or are you getting more information of children trapped in factories, brick kilns and other places, post-Covid?

Covid-19 resulted in the closing down of schools, and the loss of livelihood of caregivers, leaving several families including children in a highly vulnerable state, making them more prone to traffickers’ lure and being re-trafficked.

While there has been improved information sharing and increased awareness about such issues, the underlying factors driving children into child labour — such as unemployment, poverty, social and gender discrimination, and regional disparities have also intensified. Moreover, pull factors like employers’ greed have escalated, necessitating ongoing rescue missions.


Q: There is also domestic child labour. Does the child labour law need to be changed to prevent children from working as domestic workers? 

Domestic child labour can be likened to invisible slavery, as children engaged in such labour often work in harsh conditions, unseen by their communities. India’s domestic child labour laws are comprehensive and stringent. The true challenge lies in the hidden nature of the practice, which can persist unnoticed for extended periods.

As a community, safeguarding children should be a collective responsibility, with RWAs in neighbourhoods being held accountable. Regulations must be implemented for placement agencies that traffic children from areas like Jharkhand, Odisha, Bihar and the Northeast.  


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