Kailash Satyarthi - “We need to globalise compassion” - Hindustan Times
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Kailash Satyarthi - “We need to globalise compassion”

ByChittajit Mitra
May 29, 2024 09:04 PM IST

On the prevalence of slavery, how domestic child labour continues to flourish in India, what rescued children have taught him, and the steps the country needs to take regarding child rights

We have travelled a long way since India won its independence in 1947 but there are some systemic challenges that we still need to eradicate. India is home to one of the largest populations of children in the world but not enough is being done to safeguard their rights and to create an environment where they can lead better lives. Kailash Satyarthi’s journey started when he realized that children in India needed not just saving from human trafficking and bonded labour but also rehabilitation. He formed the Bachpan Bachao Andolan (BBA) in 1980 and had freed about 83,000 children from slavery until 2014. That same year, he was conferred with the Nobel Peace Prize for his inspiring work. His latest book “Why Didn’t You Come Sooner?” includes 12 moving stories of the children he rescued from different situations.

Nobel laureate Kailash Satyarthi (KSCF)
Nobel laureate Kailash Satyarthi (KSCF)

These stories go beyond the usual narratives and range from being trapped and abused in a circus to being enslaved at a government officer’s residence. Each of these stories force us to look at not just specific industries where forced child labour is rampant but also around us. Bachpan Bachao Andolan translates to “Save Childhood Movement” and the end to each of the harrowing stories in this book gives hope while also asking us to do better as a society. Here, Kailash Satyarthi talks about his experience of working on the ground and what he expects the world to do about issues to do with the exploitation of children:

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What inspired you to pen down the stories of children you rescued from slavery?

It took approximately 12 years to pen down this book. Yet, the stories within it have lingered in my mind, patiently waiting to be told for all these years. This book serves as a chronicle, documenting the lives of a few children whose suffering acted as a catalyst, breaking the chains that bound millions to slavery. The resilience and bravery exhibited by these children contribute a new chapter to the ongoing narrative of civilization’s progression towards freedom. Having closely experienced these children’s stories alongside them, their voices and faces have become an enduring part of my own narrative. Every narrative within this book will strengthen your belief in the triumph of light over darkness, hope over despair, justice over exploitation, compassion over cruelty, and humanity over all else. However, the journey to this triumph has been arduous. These stories, woven through pain, doubt, fear, and danger over many years, reflect not only their struggles but also my own aspirations, dreams, and convictions as their fellow traveller. As these children have grown before my eyes, I have witnessed their inner transformations as a companion on their journey. While I cannot state what thousands of children have learned from me, the invaluable gift I have received from them is undeniable. They immediately found and befriended the child within me and bestowed on me the gift of keeping that child alive and happy.

When I embarked on this journey, child labour was not a prominent topic in public and political discourse, with many countries failing to recognize it as a crime. It was often viewed as an economic necessity for impoverished families. In our determined effort to rescue Sabo, a group of my friends and I commandeered a truck, arriving at the stone quarries. There, we faced a harrowing ordeal of physical assault. It was a lawyer friend who suggested pursuing a Habeas Corpus petition as our last resort. Ultimately, our untiring commitment led to the liberation of Sabo and 36 others who had suffered through 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.

Over the years, my most humble role has been to shed light on the most invisible and unheard children, making them visible and heard. I hope I have been able to do justice to the lives and stories of my young friends in this book. This book is a testament to the courage of the human spirit and the power of compassion.

Most Indians are oblivious of the fact that slavery still exists in our country. What has been your experience on the ground?

35 years ago when I started working for this cause, child servitude was not an issue. As we know, any act that deprives a person of alternatives is force; and, any work or service that is exacted from a person under such force is forced labour or slavery.

Where a person works for a consideration that is less than the minimum wage, the court should raise a presumption that it is because of an advance and is therefore, forced labour. The word ‘force’ must therefore be construed to include not only physical or legal force but force arising from the compulsion of economic circumstances which leaves no choice of alternatives to a  person in want and compels him to provide labour or service even though the remuneration received for it is less than the minimum wage.

Let me tell you about Kalu. Born in 1988 to a Musahar family, one of Bihar’s most impoverished castes, Kalu faced the harsh reality of child labour. He was trafficked at the tender age of five or six years old and taken to a village in Allahabad where he and other children were sold to a carpet factory owner. Their daily grind included sitting in pits, weaving carpets on a machine called kaath. Kalu toiled in these conditions for four years, enduring 16-hour workdays with minimal sustenance – watery daal, poor-quality rice, and a rare roti. Holidays and playtime were non-existent. His slave master, instead of rubbing ointment on his wounds, would cauterize them by stuffing them with phosphorus scraped off from matchsticks and lighting it on fire. Kalu carried the fire from those wounds inside him after he was freed, till he was able to look the President of the United States in the eye and ask him, “There are more than 250 million children across the world who are still exploited as child labourers… Please tell me, what are you doing for them?”

As the 21st century is also called the Asian century, what steps should India take regarding child rights to stand true to the claim?

To stand true to our claim we need to follow the 4C Model:

First: Children – Governments must prioritize child-related SDGs in national legislation and planning. They must invest fully in education, health and child protection. 

Second: Collaboration – This is a new opportunity for civil society, faith organizations, governments and businesses, to build genuine and innovative partnerships to make child slavery history.

Third: Compassion in Action – If we globalize compassion, we can foster more compassionate politics, compassionate business practices, compassionate professions, lead more compassionate lives, and contribute to creating a more compassionate world.

Fourth and most importantly: Change –  We need to change the way we view our children; change our perspective about children. Most notably, a fundamental shift is required. We must alter our perspective on children and transform the way we discuss them. This involves re-evaluating policies, budget allocations, societal behaviors, and attitudes towards children. Through these changes, we can strive to build a world that prioritizes and supports the well-being of children, creating an environment that is truly child-friendly.

Urging compassion in action for all the children in the turbulent Israel-Hamas war, in a rare initiative. 104 Nobel Laureates came together to sign a statement to remind the world that the children in Israel and Gaza are “our children” and need protection and immediate humanitarian aid. Children are the cause and the unifying factor in promoting our efforts

A boy working at an eatery in New Delhi. (Raj K Raj/Hindustan Times)
A boy working at an eatery in New Delhi. (Raj K Raj/Hindustan Times)

As mentioned in your stories, even the so-called educated elites have also been found to practice slavery in their own homes. How do you see this dichotomy when we are made to believe that education would ultimately get rid of such evils from our society?

Domestic child labour is often a form of invisible slavery where, behind closed doors, children undergo unspeakable abuse and indignity while toiling for up to 17 hours a day. It is the contemporary manifestation of a feudal mindset, which allows educated professionals and influential people to enslave children from poor, helpless families for their comfort.

Serving a senior IAS officer day and night, six-year-old Ashraf was beaten up with an iron rod and his hand burnt over the gas burner for taking a sip of some leftover milk. This happened back in 1995. A bribe of thousands of rupees offered to them failed to blunt Ashraf’s will to fight or rob his mother, Phool Jahan, of her dignity. It was their grit and sacrifice that planted the seed for India’s law against domestic child labour.

In India and several other countries, the tradition of hiring house help has been prevalent for centuries. Not only is it prevalent, it is an acceptable norm. Until a few decades ago, women brought little girls with themselves as maids to their new homes as part of their dowry. After Ashraf’s incident came to light, we publicly called attention to the fact that renowned government officials, ministers, parliamentarians, legislators and even judges engaged girls as child labourers in their homes.

In 2008, we at Bachpan Bachao Andolan, along with many other organizations working against child labour achieved a momentous and historical win. The Indian government finally made an amendment in the child labour law. Under the new law, no one could employ a child under the age of 14 as a domestic labourer. Anyone flouting this law could be jailed for three months to a year and would be required to pay a fine of 20,000. We had a grand celebration, joined by Ashraf and his family. This was, in fact, Phool Jahan and Ashraf’s triumph. It was their perseverance, will power, bravery and honesty that had culminated in the victory.

We have to inculcate compassion in our society to promote a sense of responsibility and connectedness towards our children. Compassion for children should be promoted across all levels by teachers, religious leaders, politicians to create a child-friendly neighbourhood, child-friendly society and eventually, a child-friendly world.

You have time and again given a call for globalising compassion. What is your message to the younger generation about building a country which is equal, free and devoid of hatred?

Innately, every individual is endowed with an abundant ocean of compassion. Compassion is a biological and neurological reality. Instead of confining it to our immediate circle of family and friends, it’s high time we expand our sphere of compassion to encompass a universal sense of collective responsibility, working towards the attainment of global peace.

As we extend our care and attention to people beyond our kin, a sense of interconnectedness flourishes, bringing about emotional and social security. Compassion, in its truest essence, is the ability to feel the suffering of others as if it were our own, driven by a profound desire to take action and alleviate that suffering. Compassion is not merely a spiritual teaching, value, or virtue; it is a tangible feeling, a motivating force, and a course of action undertaken to resolve the challenges of people and the planet as if they were our own. 

We need to globalize compassion. Globalization should not be just about information, markets and production, but of compassion as well. No segment of society can match the power, enthusiasm, idealism and courage of the youth.

I would like to end with a story. A huge fire broke out in the forest. All the animals were running away, including the lion, the king of the forest.

Suddenly, he saw a tiny bird rushing straight towards the fire. He asked the bird, “What are you doing?” To the lion’s surprise, the bird replied, “I am going to extinguish the fire.” The lion laughed and said, “How can you do it keeping just one drop of water in your beak?” But the bird was adamant, and said, “I am doing my bit.”

We must be bold, we must be ambitious, and we must have the will to do our bit. And no one better than young people to lead the way.

Chittajit Mitra (he/him) is a queer writer, translator and editor from Allahabad. He is co-founder of RAQS, an organization working on gender, sexuality and mental health.

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