My neighbour, the Nobel laureate

Nobel glory.
Nobel glory.
Image: AP Photo/Manish Swarup
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Are Nobel Laureates early risers? There isn’t enough research on the subject but judging by how sprightly Kailash Satyarthi, my old neighbour, sounded when I telephoned  him in the early hours of the morning today, one can hazard  a guess. “The interviews went on past 1 AM last night. There were so many people from the media at the office. I got home late. But no, no… I am not feeling tired,” Satyarthi said when I mentioned that I had tried, unsuccessfully, to meet him Friday evening.

Yesterday, the lane in front of his apartment in Alaknanda, a middle-class South Delhi neighbourhood, was deserted. The media scrum was at his office in Kalkaji. Satyarthi laughed uproariously at being told about the stunned expression on the face of the security guards when I told them they had a huge, new responsibility now—a  Nobel laureate to protect.

Satyarthi’s work is known to everyone who follows the discourse around child labour. But he is not exactly a household name in India today.

Widespread challenge

The issues he rakes up are more often than not confined to the inside pages of newspapers, unless there is a particularly ghoulish incident. At a dinner in Delhi’s upscale Greater Kailash neighbourhood yesterday, many were still rubbing their eyes with disbelief when told about Satyarthi’s joint Nobel Peace Prize with Yousafzai.

Not every one knew that Bachpan Bachao Andolan (which loosely translates into the Movement to Save Childhood), which Satyarthi helped establish, has been working since 1980. Some said his work in the field is not as enormous as it is being made out to be. In the coming days, this debate will go on.

But there is one indisputable fact—middle class Indians are reluctant to acknowledge the magnitude of India’s child labour. Estimates about the magnitude of the problem vary. India is home to more than 12.6 million children who are forced to work in order to survive, says Save the Children. Child labourers are part of India’s vast informal work force. That is why they are so difficult to accurately count. And few middle-class Indians willingly concede that many of them are complicit in perpetuating this heinous practice.

Child workers for whose rights people like Satyarthi have been fighting for decades are not only to be found in factories and farms in this country. They are right here, amidst us. Many homes I have visited employ child workers without the slightest trace of remorse. These children often go without enough food, sleep or regular salary. In many instances, they are not allowed holidays. Urban India is also dotted with eateries and tea stalls, which thrive on the services of the “Chotu” and the “Ramu”, typically the little boy who serves food and drinks. Few middle class Indians worry that that these children are being denied an education, now a legal right for every child between the ages of 6 and 14.

Tragic tales

The Kailash Satyarthi I have known for over two decades is a man who will seize every occasion and every casual conversation to drive home the obscenity of ignoring the plight of millions of such children. I remember a powerful story he told me one evening in 2011. This was the time when people were turning up in large numbers for candlelight vigils at Jantar Mantar for Anna Hazare’s Jan Lokpal Bill movement.

Unsurprisingly, there were those who sneered. I marvelled at Bachpan Bachao Andolan’s chutzpah in organizing yet another candlelight vigil that week in memory of Moin, a 10 year-old child labourer who had been beaten to death. The rally, Satyarthi, told me, was to push ordinary people and the government to do a lot more to end the horrific exploitation of children in this country.

As the evening wore on, Satyarthi got more emotional. I stayed on to listen to the stories and join his family for dinner. There were stories about child labourers his colleagues and he had rescued; and about Mukti Ashram, the rehabilitation centre for the “rescued” children in the outskirts of Delhi.

One story  I vividly remember was about a little boy called Ashraf. He had been hired as a domestic help by a senior government official in Delhi when he was barely six. The child was beaten brutally when the official’s wife saw him taking a few sips of milk from a glass meant for one of the children in the family. The battered child was dumped in a street close to where his parents stayed. Satyarthi told me he got to know about the incident when someone in the neighbourhood alerted the BBA. Satyarthi and his BBA colleagues took the boy for medical treatment and then transferred to Mukti Ashram.

What followed is the classic nightmare that is central to the life of every activist in India—a long, protracted  battle for justice. The official was eventually dismissed and it led to creation of service rules that explicitly prohibit government officials from hiring child domestic workers.

That incident happened more than 15 years ago. Satyarthi told me how he helped the traumatised Ashraf with medical treatment and education. I could not get Ashraf out of my mind, and called him the next day. “Yes, I was very lucky that I survived. But my body bears the scars. I was at Mukri Ashram till the age of ten. Then, I studied through the National Open School and then I got a chance to train in computer hardware and here I am, with a job,” said the voice at the other end.

Persistent work, global network

One common thread that links Malala Yousafzai and Kailash Satyarthi is their sheer persistence. Both have their critics. Both also know the value of international support and networks to further their activism. For those of us who have followed his work for over two decades, Satyarthi is not as much of a silent worker as some imagine him to be. He works hard but also makes sure that the word gets out.

I remember an article I wrote about a 15 year-old Razia, a former child labourer, rescued by BBA. Razia was one of the two Indian girls honoured with the UN Special Envoy for Global Education’s Youth Courage Award for Education as part of “Malala Day” celebrations at the world body last year. I was surprised when I received an e-mail  from Satyarthi saying that he had shared my piece with Mr Gordon Brown, the UN Special Envoy for Global Education. Soon after, I got a message from Mr Brown’s office requesting me for permission to share the piece on their website.

Will the Nobel change him?

Clearly, legislation alone will not solve India’s child labour problem, and a lot more needs to be done. The “chotus”  and “ramus” continue to slave away in public glare, despite the law.

“We are still fighting mindsets but there is a new generation of young people who find the idea of children working as domestic help revolting. We have stickers saying ‘This house is child labour free’. If they pressure their elders, if they start boycotting goods made by child workers, and people who hire child workers, it will have an effect”, Satyarthi told me once when I was interviewing him for a report.

If I know my old neighbour, that battle to change mindsets will carry on, no matter what people say. Now that he has got the Nobel, will his manner and habits change?

“I have not changed in all these years… Have I ? What is the point of getting the Nobel Peace Prize if one is going to change. I am at home. Please drop by,” Satyarthi said. Then there was the trademark laughter, which has remained the same through the decades of struggle.

Follow Patralekha on Twitter @patralekha2011. We welcome your comments at

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