Feted abroad, Kailash Satyarthi has grim fight at home

Suveen Sinha
Hindustan Times

Kailash Satyarthi moves from triumphant to sheepish in seconds. He is triumphant while talking about his address to Brazil’s Parliament, an address that stopped a dilution of the strong child labour law there. He is sheepish when you ask him if gets a similar response in India. He chuckles, and extends a soft hand.

That’s not to say there has not been any response. Satyarthi set up the Bachpan Bachao Andolan (Hindi for ‘campaign to save children’) when he was 26, leaving his job as an electrical engineer in 1980. Over the years, as other countries gave him a bevy of awards, the child labour mafia in India broke his left leg, right shoulder, and spine. Regardless, he has freed 83,000 children in more than 100 countries. Now he has a big battle on hand as the child labour law in India comes up for amendment, possibly in the current session of Parliament.

The country had no law against child labour till 1986, when a feeble one came in place. Earlier there was the British law, but it was never implemented in independent India. The 1986 law seemed to think there was too much poverty to stop children from earning wages. It was silent on children between 15 and 18 years. Even up to 14, it allowed them to work in all sectors not listed as hazardous.

That law became obsolete when India adopted right to education up to the age 14. Another law, the one on juvenile justice, promised care and protection up to 18. The two together should protect most children from abuse and exploitation and keep them in schools, at least till 14. Except that the proposed new law allows children to work in family enterprises or home-based industries after school hours, without defining what is a family enterprise or home-based industry.

“Of the children we have freed, 20% were in so-called family enterprises, working for sundry uncles. There were children who seemed to have many more mamas than their mothers had brothers. Family enterprise should be restricted to parents,” says Satyarthi.

There is another response he has been getting, mostly since getting the Nobel Peace Prize for 2014. This response is different from the sound of breaking bones — companies are calling Satyarthi over and listening to him. He tells them to clean up their supply chain, which will end child labour employed by their small, often unorganised suppliers.

“CEOs and chairman want to be leaders of society. They don’t know how to give back, so they give money. We tell them to create an ecosystem to protect both the people and the planet, with their profit. So they don’t find themselves all alone in the end, with useless profits,” says Satyarthi. He speaks to them in their language. “It’s an economic issue. If you want good-quality production, it cannot come from vulnerable children who are not educated... Sustainable business is not possible without sustainable society and ecology.”

For instance, reports talk of thousands of children in East Delhi working several hours cutting denim threads. Their fingers are nimble and their time is cheap. They get 40 paise for cutting thread on each piece, and 75 for packing it. Work arrives at their doorstep, brought by unknown, unnamed, strange men. This will end once denim wear companies, big and small, stop buying from suppliers who use children.

“Brands around the world have been exposed. Children were found to be working in their supply chain, with ancillaries, in production chain, or logistics... They need to sensitise their suppliers and hold them accountable,” says Satyarthi. In parts of the United States, such as California, the law asks for transparency and accountability in procurement by companies.

In India, the proposed new law whittles down the number of hazardous industries, where children cannot be employed, from 83 to three. “Now children can weave carpets, do gold embroidery, and work in homes or at tea shops,” says Satyarthi.

Not too long ago, he rescued 3,500 children from Bihar at the Old Delhi Railway Station. They were being taken to Haryana, to be sold as tea shop workers. For this, Satyarthi is looking askance at the Prime Minister, who often talks about his difficult childhood, during which he spent time as a chai wala.

“Now it’s your turn to make sure no child becomes a chai wala,” says Satyarthi.