A hero finally emerges from the shadow

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Photo: Ram Kumar
Photo: Ram Kumar

It can’t get more ironical. While Indian and Pakistani jawans are trading fire over disputed territory on the border, two people from the same countries have been jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for the year 2014. Both Kailash Satyarthi and Malala Yousafzai were rewarded for their obstinate fight for children’s rights. If Malala fought for the education of girl child then Satyarthi took up cudgels to protect children from physical and mental abuse. The young activist from Pakistan came under international glare for taking on the Taliban, but her Indian counterpart remained ensconced in the realm of obscurity by silently waging a battle to protect the interests of those children who faced the threat of being exploited.

Hailing from Vidisha district of Madhya Pradesh, Satyarthi left his electrical engineering job to champion the cause of children’s rights. He was only 26 then. In 1983, he formed an organisation, ‘Bachpan Bachao Andolan’ (Save the Childhood Movement), in New Delhi to eliminate child labour. Satyarthi faced insurmountable odds in this endeavour. However, his efforts eventually paid off as he helped rescue thousands of children from bondage, trafficking and exploitative labour. Now at 60, he continues his cause as he knows the task is still unfinished.

Teaming up with NGOs and activists, Satyarthi has successfully conducted many raids on factories and warehouses where children were forced to work. He is the one behind ‘Rugmark’, a scheme certifying that no child labour is involved in the production of those carpets and rugs sold overseas. The initiative turned out to be a huge success in raising international awareness about children’s rights. However, this was only the beginning of his tough but glorious journey ahead.

In his schooldays, seeing children of his age working as labourers instead of going to school left an indelible mark on Satyarthi. He understood the fact that the parents of those children could not afford to give their wards a formal education. So he started a football club, and with the membership fees of the club, he managed to pay the school fees of poor children. And it so happened that he and a friend collected donations of 2,000 schoolbooks in a single day, a project that eventually became a book bank in his home town.

His work was not limited to India. Infact, in 1998, Satyarthi became the chairman of a global march against child labour that passed through more than 60 countries. Children freed from forced labour in Asia, Africa and Latin America were part of over 1,000 people who ended the march in Geneva, at a conference of the International Labour Organisation (ILO). A year later, the ILO approved a treaty to protect children from jobs that expose them to danger or exploitation.

Oblivious to everyone, Satyarthi has been spearheading a three-decade long movement for child rights, their education and putting an end to child trafficking and bonded labour. Satyarthi’s New Delhi-based organisation has been at the forefront of the fight against child labour by creating awareness among both domestic and international manufacturers. Last month, based on a complaint filed by his organisation in a Delhi court, the Central government was forced to put in place regulations fore the safeguard of domestic workers who are often physically and sexually abused.

As the news of Satyarthi being awarded the Nobel prize broke out, joyous celebrations ensued at his modest office in a south Delhi neighbourhood. He is happy that the issue of child rights has finally found global attention, but says the fight has to continue till every child is free from the vicious circle of exploitation and bonded labour.

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