From being virtually unknown at home to now being internationally lauded for his efforts to curb child labour, WCRC Leaders Asia’s Akanksha Singh caught up with 2014 Nobel Peace Prize awardee Kailash Satyarthi just a day before Oslo made the announcement
Born in Vidisha near Bhopal, the capital of the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, Kailash Satyarthi studied electrical engineering but gave up his career as a teacher in an engineering college. Satyarthi ventured into social service and started a movement to protect child rights in India. Through his NGO, Bachpan Bachao Andolan, which he started in 1980, Satyarthi has impacted the life of around 83,000 children over the last 25 years.
The Child Labour Act is one of the most debated acts. How much effective has it been in considerably lessening child labour in India?
The Child Labour (prohibition and regulation) Act was constituted way back in 1986 and, since then, there have been amendments to bring in considerable changes like total prohibition in employing anybody under the age of 18. The step was taken to facilitate education through the Right to Education Act, 2009 which makes education for children between six and 14 years of age compulsory.
But on the other hand, the Child Labour Act has also laid down certain conditions under which children are allowed to work. It defines children between 14 and 18 years of age as ‘adolescents’ who can be employed in non-hazardous industries. It has further restricted the number of working hours and conditions in which children are allowed to work.
So the governmental approach on the issue has remained fragmented. It is a curse law, half-baked and half-cooked. Child labour should be made more cognizable and a zero-tolerance approach towards the violators should be adopted. The government should bring in a new child labour policy like it did by repealing the 1986 Act of Juvenile Justice System and made a more progressive Juvenile Justice Act, 2000. There are several child welfare laws but only a proactive civil society can ensure the implementation of these laws in the best interest of the children.
You once said in an interview that it is superficial to assume poverty as the greatest cause of child labour? What are the main reasons behind child labour?
Child labour is not a consequence of poverty. Instead, poverty and child labour together form a vicious circle of despair and inequality which is hard to break. Education is inaccessible to poor children and by education, I mean quality education. They get involved in unskilled labour practices which in turn hinder their employability in future. It is not possible to eradicate child labour without first addressing poverty. Similarly, poverty cannot be eradicated till the evil of child labour continues in our neighbourhood.
According to me, indifference and lack of concern are the biggest drivers of child labour in India. Apart from that, push factors like poverty, illiteracy, inequality, natural calamities, internal colonisation and pull factors like greed, weak laws, lack of enforcement, cheap labour and lack of accessability to the court of law are equally responsible for the rampant prevalence of child labour in India.
Almost at every nook and corner, at every small, medium, big organisation there is a child employed. Why are children employed so abundantly over adults?
There is a reason as to why children are preferred over adults for unskilled jobs. There is more than one reason to it. Being the cheapest source of labour, they keep on working under the most inhuman conditions. A child would agree to work at a wage as low as Rs 15 (less than one dollar) a day, whereas an adult could possibly demand nearly eight times as much.
Children are harmless and, unlike adults, they lack the competence to form unions and protest against their employer. It is easy to persuade a child to work incessantly for long unending hours at little or no pay at all. They are often compelled to stay at the worksite.
I have rescued children from claustrophobic workshops. I have come across cases where children were employed in hazardous industries, working without any supervision or necessary safety measures. These incidents often leave them crippled. They are then mercilessly thrown out by their employers as they then become a liability.
Since children are also employed in production work, how do you sensitise consumers on what they should choose to buy and what they should choose not to buy?
Today’s consumers are more aware than ever. They carefully make their choices, they go for the best deal and they know their rights as a consumer. Therefore, there is enough scope of growing consumer awareness towards goods produced by child labourers. They should not hesitate boycotting these products. But what is imperative is how to notify consumers about such a product if it is readily available. Some two or three decades back, in the manufacturing belts of Banaras, Bhadoi and Mirzapur of Uttar Pradesh, around 3,000 children were employed as bonded labourers. They were brought in from as far as Nepal as well as Bihar and other adjoining states. Subsequent to this disclosure, Bachpan Bachao Andolan organised a global consumer awareness campaign and created a ‘rugmark’ (now known as goodweave). It became an indicator for the ‘child labour-free’ product. These children were later rescued and as a result of the intervention made through rugmark, the number of child labourers in South Asia went down by 70 per cent.
In urban areas, employing a child as a domestic help is often seen as a gesture of charity. Employers often argue that by giving them a decent livelihood, they are giving them an opportunity to have a better life.
What if someday I confine you in this very room where we are sitting right now? Provide you with food, shelter, clothing and ask you to work for me but on a condition that you will have no voice of yours? You have to eat whatever I provide. You have to work the way I want and whenever I want. And most importantly, you will have no choice over anything. You can’t choose to go out and meet as many people as you want. You can’t choose to study. You can’t choose to play. You will have no choice whatsoever. Does it sound like a better life for you? No argument can justify employing children. Our law also suggests the same and domestic labour has been classified in hazardous sector. Even if a person is giving all the amenities, a child cannot choose to live freely. A child will always be obliged to work. It pains to see a child labouring hard just to survive when he actually should be soaring high in the air.
According to you, education can bring much-needed positive change in our society. Then why is it that the highest number of offenders come from the educated section of the society?
Credit to innovation and technology, poor people are now realising the value of education. They see people around them communicating through advanced level of technologies and so they themselves want to be a part of it. But a fraction of them are still ignorant of what education can do to make their lives better.
Educated people, on the other hand, are not using their knowledge and education to bring positive change to the society. Ignorance can be addressed through awareness but crimes have to be addressed only through punishment.
How do you pool information before conducting raids and launching rescue operations? What are the risks involved?
We often conduct raid and rescue operations in response to the distress call made by children or their parents. We also pool information from our sources who report any wrongdoing at a particular place. While gearing up for the operation, we secure every sensitive information related to the action. There are certain protocols involved. Therefore, it becomes necessary to inform the police and take them along during these raids. In order to retain the confidentiality of the matter, we do not reveal any details about the place before reaching there. In some cases, information about imminent raids was leaked out to the violators and they successfully managed to hide child labourers.
Otherwise, we ensure securing immediate freedom for the children and subsequently they are sent to rehabilitation or juvenile correction centres. For the children who have just been rescued, this is a chance to be free again, to reconcile with their kins and get back to where they belong.
Apart from highlighting a serious social problem, raid and rescue operat ions also lead to the sensitisation and mobilisation of the society. It brings various government institutions in close collaboration with the NGOs, thus resulting in heightened awareness of the state enforcement machinery about the issues of child rights, child labour and bonded labour.
Bolivia recently legalised child labour for children below 14 years of age. Do you think legalisation can pave the way for eradication of child labour in India too?
As I said, no argument can justify child labour. What is happening in Bolivia is very unfortunate. Bolivia has failed to give any choice to their children. Instead, it took away whatever little choice they had. Children are the most precious assets; they are the voice of the future. Their innocence should not be exploited for someone else’s wealth and power. We carried out a campaign in Bolivia but it was very unfortunate that the authorities themselves were pro-child labour. As reported across various media, Bolivian children organised themselves into a union and demanded for legalisation of child labour.
Take the case of rural India where small and adolescent girls are often led to believe that they should worship their husbands. They are conditioned since their childhood in believing so. The result is what we are witnessing today in the form of domestic violence which often goes unreported. They continue to worship their husbands even after they are driven away or beaten up for some reason or the other. Similarly, Bolivian children were led to believe that earning a livelihood was very important if they wanted to survive. It was a forced choice, an imposed choice. Bolivia failed to give any choice to its younger population.
In a country like India, can religion become a part of the solution to end the war on child labour?
India is a secular country and every individual has the right to follow the religion of his or her choice. But contrary to the concept of secularism, we have imposed religion on people. The moment a child is born, he or she is tagged with a religious identity and it is at that moment humanity loses out.
We have a mix of religions but what we don’t have is a unified belief. Every religion equates a child to God. There are scriptures which talk about giving full dignity to a child but the reality is way too different. People feel no shame in raping a girl child or brainwashing another child to take up guns. Most of the social evils are, in fact, carried out in the name of religion. Holy men and clerics across all faiths should be urged to condemn child abuse in any form.
Since it is not advisable to legalise child labour in India, is there any other way out?
Take the instance of Brazil where the government formulated a welfare scheme to counter poverty and its consequences including child labour. ‘Bolsa Ecsola’ or more widely known as ‘Bolsa Familia’, this scheme ensured the flow of cash and its utilisation to access basic social rights like education, health, social security etc. Additionally, it assisted families’ development with positive incentives to send and keep their children in school. The scheme made sure that proper healthcare services are provided to the beneficiaries in order to mitigate any future chance of the recurrence of poverty.
Moreover, I would like people to do whatever they can to put an end to this menace. They should not wait for others to act; it will worsen the situation. We all should do whatever it takes to eliminate child labour.