October 10, 2014

20 Years Ago: A Brush With a Nobel Peace Prize Winner

As a young journalist, I caught wind of an impressive Hindu Brahman man who was walking from the southern tip of India to New Delhi—5200 kilometers—on behalf of child laborers. Unbeknownst to me, 20 years later that same man would win the Nobel Peace Prize for his outstanding work on behalf of children, an honor he shares with Malala Yousafzai.

To be frank, I had lost track of Kailash Satyarthi until this morning, when I turned on my computer. Upon reading the news, I was overcome with excitement, not because I had shared a few days in the company of a Nobel winner, but because this award acknowledges that fighting for what's right ultimately prevails. At the age of 14, Satyarthi had become alienated from his own community because he organized a dinner for a group of "untouchables." Even from an early age, he refused to believe that anyone deserved lesser status. His actions are living testimony to the fight for dignity.

I dug through my archives to find the photos and text from my encounter with Satyarthi all those years ago. I share them here as evidence of this heroic man's commitment to humanity and justice.

India's Child Labor Crusade

Written in 1994 by Julie Winokur

Kailash Satyarthi has a simple message: "Give children books and toys, not tools." But in India, where there are an estimated 55 million child laborers, his slogan sounds like a call to arms. For Satyarthi, it is. Frustrated by government ineptitude, he has taken matters into his own hands, raiding factories that are known to hold children captive and forcing the government to compensate these children before sending them home. He has also set up an ashram on the outskirts of Delhi to help rehabilitate children during the transition.

"Other organizations spend millions of dollars on informal education, research, and meetings but they can't show one example of a child laborer who has been freed," says Satyarthi. "Charitable activities and academic exercises are not enough."

To date, he estimates that his organization, the South Asian Coalition on Child Servitude (SACCS), and its parent group, the Bonded Liberation Front, have freed more than 20,000 children and 20,000 adults throughout the country. In the process, Satyarthi has been beaten up at least two dozen times and one of his colleagues was killed during a raid several years ago.

Satyarthi took his message on the road this month, in the form of a 5,200 km whistle stop tour across India. The "yatra," or march, started on April 1 in Kanyakumari, the southernmost tip of India, and ended in Delhi last Sunday. Traveling by bus and jeep, a core group of 140 marchers, a third of them children who were freed from bonded labor, stopped in more than a hundred villages and cities along the way.

Dressed in a crisp white kurta pajama, Satyarthi, with his wife, Sumedha, by his side, marched through the gates of the old city at Jaipur, one of the last stops on the tour. Located 300 km west of Delhi, Jaipur is the heart of the gem-cutting industry, which relies heavily on child labor. Behind Satyarthi, several hundred activists paraded through the streets chanting slogans and waving banners, urging parents to keep their children in school.

"There are several myths used to justify child labor," Satyarthi told the crowd, "illiteracy, overpopulation, unemployment and poverty." These problems are not the cause, he urged, but the result of child labor. An uneducated child has no options in the future, he said, so the cycle of poverty is perpetuated. He emphasized that the number of child laborers grows proportionately with the number of unemployed adults, and that there are currently
55 million children working in India and 55 million adults who can't find jobs.

Standing six feet tall, with an athletic build and a full beard, Satyarthi dominated the small make-shift stage. He spoke in a calm, measured voice, and midway through his speech called upon a young boy to join him on stage.

Santosh, now 14, had been abducted from his village when he was five. A stranger approached him and a group of friends, gave them cookies and offered to take them to a movie. After the boys were loaded into his jeep, he drove for several hours before finally letting them out at a carpet factory. Inside, rows of boys were bent over looms, hand-knotting the intricate patterns that are preferred by exporters.

For the next nine years, Santosh was held captive in the factory, working up to 14 hours a day, subsisting on rations of chipatis and salt. His employers slit open his thumb nail and then burned it shut with match stick powder. Two of his friends died during their stay.

The laws banning child labor in India already exist, says Satyarthi, but there's no implementation and no "political will" to change the situation. He refers to India's 1976 prohibition of bonded labor which carries a maximum $300 fine and three year prison sentence for employers, and adds that despite his efforts, not a single employer has been penalized. On paper India also has compulsory education up to the age of 14, but the reality on the ground tells another story.

This week, a parliamentary subcommittee confirmed what the members of SACCS have said for years: the labor ministry is "not serious" about abolishing child labor. In a report issued by the 40-member committee, the labor ministry was accused of insufficient research and lack of a comprehensive plan.

“They're wrong," insists Arvind Rasbut, deputy secretary of child labor. "We are very serious, but we need welfare and poverty reduction programs to have a real impact." He cites a model program in a town called Jaggampat, where 500 children have been removed from local tile factories and returned to school, while their parents are being given subsidized loans to ease the transition.

“Full elimination of child labor is easy on day one," says Rasbut. "But ensuring that a child stays in school and that another child doesn't replace him at the factory requires repeated communication with the parents." NGOs, not the government, are best fitted for this kind of work, he says.

Satyarthi is not prepared to wait for government initiatives to trickle down while children's lives are in danger. During the last week of the march alone, four children were burned to death in a nail polish factory near Jaipur, a boy was burned to death in a bead factory in Delhi, and seven children were liberated from a road construction site in Delhi. Those are only the cases that were reported in national newspapers.

Some of the worst culprits, say both SACCS and the government, are the carpet industry, gem cutting, and factories that manufacture glass bangles, matches, bidi cigarettes, fireworks and silk threads. In these industries, children earn less than two cents per day, if they earn anything at all, says Satyarthi. They labor under deplorable conditions, they are often abused by their employers, and they experience increased health risks as they get older.

“The key to the issue is in the hands of consumers," says Satyarthi, who has actively supported the Harkin-Brown Bill currently under consideration in the U.S. Congress. If made into law, it would require all products manufactured by children to carry a label. After Germany, the United States is the second largest importer of Indian rugs, so the law's implementation couldhave tremendous impact on the industry, say the members of SACCS.

“The bill is a way to put pressure on the Indian government to take their rhetoric more seriously," says Pharis Harvey, executive director of the Washington, DC©based International Labor Rights Fund. He was in India making a tour of factories and found no shortage of children employed in adverse conditions. "We are still trying to determine the extent of child labor and how reasonable it is to hold whole industries hostage before we've completed our study," he adds.

Satyarthi reiterates that the objective of SACCS is not to debilitate South Asian industry. "We are not supporting a total ban on carpets," he says. "We should promote goods made by adults." He only wants to ensure that children don't forsake their childhoods at the expense of their lives.

A Brahmin by birth, Satyarthi foresaked his own caste to devote his life to human rights. At the age of 14, he organized a dinner for a group of harijans, or untouchables, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Gandhi's birth. In India, it is a curse to touch even the shadow of a harijan. Not only did no one show up for the dinner, but his family was forced to ostracize him from his caste in order to save face within the community. From then on, he was banned from the kitchen and he had to eat outside the walls of his home.

Soon after that incident, he changed his name to Satyarthi, which means truth seeker. After earning a degree as an engineer, it became clear to Satyarthi that his true calling was to work against social inequities. He didn't learn about bonded labor until a desperate man turned up in his office begging for help to free his daughter from a brick factory. She was about to be sold into prostitution. The man, who had escaped during the night, hadn't been outside the walls of the factory for 17 years. "I couldn't believe that bonded labor still existed in India," says Satyarthi, "but I knew if the man was telling the truth, we had to take action."

The Bonded Liberation Front was born out of that incident and SACCS was formed several years later to concentrate specifically on children. Today, SACCS includes 150 NGOs in its coalition.