On Kailash Satyarthi’s first day at school, he spotted a child his age at work as a cobbler on the doorstep of his classroom. This incident stayed with him, Sathyarthi said in interviews years later, and it pushed him to devote his life to fighting child labour.
On Friday, Satyarthi, 60, shared the Nobel Peace Prize along with teenage Pakistani education campaigner Malala Yousafzai for their individual “struggle against the suppression of children and young people and for the right of all children to education.”
Kailash Satyarthi was born on January 11, 1954. He trained as an electrical engineer before founding the Bachpan Bachao Andolan (BBA) in 1980. The BBA, unlike child rights organisations that preceded it, adopted a policy of “raid and rescue” in which BBA activists and the police stormed factories employing child workers.
Over thirty years of activism, Satyarthi has won numerous awards including the Medal of the Italian Senate in 2007, the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award in 1995, and the Aachener International Peace Award in 1994.
“Kailash deserved this award for his pioneering work in locating the issue of child labour in the context of human rights,” said Shanta Sinha, former Chairperson of the National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights who won the Magsaysay award for her work on child rights.
In a 2011 opinion piece for Mint, Satyarthi located child labour in a broader paradigm of corruption. “Children are employed not just because of parental poverty, illiteracy, ignorance, failure of development and education programmes,” he wrote, “but quite essentially due to the fact that employers benefit immensely from child labour as children come across as the cheapest option, sometimes working even for free...The presence of a large number of child labourers in the country indicates unabated corruption and black money.”
“Satyarthi began his work raiding carpet factories in East Uttar Pradesh,” recalled Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia Director for Human Rights Watch. In the 1990s, Ganguly accompanied the BBA on one such raid, “I was shocked by the dark, poorly ventilated huts in which children were forced to work.”
Satyarthi’s work, she said, was critical in its emphasis on the gap between the drafting and the implementation of child protection laws.
Over the years, the BBA claims to have rescued over 78,500 children from exploitative work conditions and to have played a pivotal role in the Global March against Child Labour, a world-wide coalition of civil society groups and trade unions.
The Global March drew in a variety of former child workers, including Basu Rai, author of “From the Streets of Kathmandu”, who described Sathyarthi as a father figure. “I used to share my stories with him,” Rai said in an interview with the Times of India in 2014, “He gently nudged me to publish my book.”
Sathyarthi was also part of the Nagrik Ekta Manch that has fought for justice for the victims of the Sikh riots of 1984. "Kailash ji was part of the Nagrik Ekta Manch that we formed to help victims of the anti-Sikh riots of 1984,"said lawyer and activist H.S. Phoolka, " We rescued several Sikhs, and also visited relief camps. He is still active, regularly attends our meetings and supports our struggle."
Yet, some have been troubled by the BBA’s television-ready tactics of conducting factory raids in large teams of activists, policemen and the media. “Child protection has moved beyond this paradigm,” said an activist, “BBA has filed numerous cases in court which they haven’t followed up. Instead, they tend to focus on publicity-friendly campaigns.” In the mid-1990s, Sathyarthi famously fell out politician and social crusader Swami Agnivesh, with both sides claiming that the other had capitalised on their fame and sold out.
Of late, Agnivesh said, they have resolved their differences. "It is a cause of great joy that Kailash has won this award," Agnivesh said.
Sathyarthi’s award, child activists hope, will result in a more thoughtful approach to child rights. “We hope this shall be a big boost for child rights and child protection in India,” said Amod Kant, of child rights group Prayas, “For example, this government has pushed through Amendments to the Juvenile Justice Act (JJA) without any discussion with anyone, including Sathyarthi-ji.”
Kant, who has worked with Sathyarthi for over 20 years, said child rights activists, including Sathyarthi, were fiercely opposed to a recent amendment to the JJA, wherein minors charged with serious offences could be tried as adults. “Barely 3000 children commit serious offences each year,” he said, “For that, the government is willing to change the law without any consultation.”
Kant said he went straight to Satyarthi’s house when he heard the news. “I ran up to him and we both cried together.”