Kailash Satyarthi was not the person Indians were banking on to win the next Nobel Prize and make them proud. Although his interventions have rescued thousands of children from forced labour and human trafficking and forced important changes in law to deal with such offences, few had heard of Satyarthi outside the domain he operates in.
So when his name was announced for the Nobel Peace Prize, along with that of Pakistan’s Malala Yousafzai, it sounded unfamiliar to most Indians. Unlike many of his more famous colleagues in the non-governmental sector, he was not a celebrity activist. He has not been feted with awards and honours in India and is not seen or heard in the media very often. In fact, in his long list of laurels, there is not a single prominent Indian award. He was not a widely-recognised public figure.
All this changed during the day for the 60-year-old who has been working for child rights for more than three decades. An electrical engineer by training, Satyarthi was teaching in a college in Bhopal after completing his studies in his hometown of Vidisha in Madhya Pradesh before he decided to shift to New Delhi in 1977. There, he found work with a publisher of Arya Samaj literature, whose daughter he later married, his former mentor and associate Swami Agnivesh recounted.
In 1980, Satyarthi founded his Bachpan Bachao Andolan and began working closely with the Bandhwa Mukti Morcha of Agnivesh, himself a prominent social rights activist, to free up bonded labourers in the brick kilns of Haryana.
Satyarthi worked with Agnivesh for over a decade before going his own way in the early nineties with the Bachpan Bachao Andolan which has had very important successes in establishment of child rights in India, rescuing several children from the carpet industry in places like Mirzapur and Varanasi.
“The Nobel Prize is a tribute to the work he has done over the years. The dedication that he has shown in his work has ensured a respectable life to so many children in different parts of India. It’s a great moment for India and for all those working for child rights,” said Agnivesh.
In recent years, Satyarthi and his Bachpan Bachao Andolan has been very active in strengthening the legal rights of children who are forced to work or trafficked. It was on the intervention of the Bachpan Bachao Andolan that the Delhi High Court directed police to compulsorily register all cases of missing children. The Supreme Court later extended this direction to the whole of India. The police agencies have also installed a child tracking system to monitor the movement of minors hired by placement agencies. The courts have also acted on other requests of Satyarthi’s organisation and ordered all placement agencies to register themselves with law enforcement authorities. The placement agencies have also been asked to maintain a register to keep a record of the salaries that the children get and the commission that the agencies claim from them.
“The kind of directions that Satyarthi’s petitions have obtained from the courts have gone a long way in protecting children from exploitation and forced labour. A few ground-breaking rules have been laid down, all thanks to Satyarthi and his Bachpan Bachao Andolan,” said H S Phoolka, the lawyer who has been collaborating with the Bachpan Bachao Andolan for several years now.
Phoolka said Satyarthi’s work had earned him quite a few enemies as well and there have been numerous attacks on him, the most serious a few years ago from a ‘circus mafia’ that employed children.