Nobel Prize

For globalisation of compassion

Print edition : November 14, 2014

Kailash Satyarthi: “Our perspective has become so narrow that we care about our biological children but don’t care about our neighbour’s or the country’s children.” Photo: CHANDAN KHANNA/AFP

Slum children associated with the NGO Bachpan Bachao Andolan celebrate after the announcement of the Nobel Peace Prize for Kailash Satyarthi and Malala Yousafzai, in Bhopal on October 11. Photo: A. M. Faruqui

Kailash Satyarthi, Nobel Peace laureate, talks about his work, his mission and the award.

AS the winners of the Nobel Peace Prize 2014 were announced in Oslo, Norway, many people googled to find out who Kailash Satyarthi was. Satyarthi, a Gandhian who won the prize for his contributions to the global child rights campaign, was himself surprised when a newspaper reporter called him for a comment. He had no idea that the prize was being announced on that day and thought that the journalist was asking him to make an observation on the winner, whoever that was. Only when his people burst into his room and congratulated him did he realise that he had indeed won the prize, along with Pakistan’s Malala Yousafzai. He says he was calm and did not display great excitement, much to their amazement. His name had been in the reckoning for the prize for some years, so the prize was not a complete surprise.

The Nobel Committee deemed it important to award a Hindu and a Muslim, especially an Indian and a Pakistani, in a common struggle for education and against extremism. There are 168 million child labourers (in 2000, the figure was 78 million more) around the world today, according to the committee.

Kailash Satyarthi set up Bachpan Bachao Andolan (BBA) in 1980 after giving up a career in electrical engineering and teaching. The BBA says it had rescued more than 82,800 victims of trafficking, slavery and child labour by 2013. But Satyarthi says that these big numbers do not count; the smile that lights up the face of each rescued child is more precious to him. Two of his colleagues were murdered, and he himself was attacked while undertaking independent rescue operations in remote areas of India. The organisation has often taken a confrontational approach, going into quarries and rescuing children with or without the help of the police.

The award has already begun to bring the issues he works on into the limelight, says Satyarthi. More front-page stories on the issue appeared within hours of his winning the award than had appeared in the past 800 years, he says.

To him, the award is welcome but what drives him is an applied spirituality that begins with and may end with children. He thanks those who have given him an award and gives more thanks to those who have not given him any. His concerns remain pedestrian. When the Foreign Correspondent’s Club in New Delhi made him an honorary member after the prize, he asked if they would give him a few PRESS stickers to stick on his car so that he can sail smoothly through the traffic. “This will help keep the police from stopping me at signals,” he said. Excerpts from an interview he gave Frontline:

On winning the award:

“It’s a great recognition to millions of children who are deprived of their childhood, freedom, future, present, everything. So it is for the first time that their plight, struggle and the issues concerning them are being recognised at the highest level in one way. Some minutes ago, I was interviewed by a Colombian radio channel and he was asking more about India. But I said I also work in Colombia. I work in 144 countries. Child labour is a global problem. I always believe that no problem on the earth is an isolated one. They are so interwoven that we cannot address the problem in isolation. So the solutions cannot also be found in isolation. We have to work collectively. And that is something that is sometimes missing.

“When we look at the issue of child labour, people think it is an economic issue, a matter of poverty, lack of political will or lack of laws or non-implementation of laws or lack of resources, education, and so on. I see it as a combination of all, it’s a social evil. Many of our traditions and mindsets are responsible for the perpetuation of child labour. It is a crime against humanity and against many of the constitutional provisions and law. And we have to deal with it as a crime. It’s a development disaster because many of the victims are those who were pushed into it owing to the loss of livelihood of their parents, and these vulnerabilities are further manipulated by the traffickers. Trafficking is rampant globally and it is the third single largest illicit trade in the world.

“Slavery Day is being observed in many countries but slavery has not yet been abolished. Millions of children are victims of slavery. In the holistic sense, it is violence, and children are the worst victims of all sorts of violence, especially girl children.

“Illiteracy, poverty and child labour are forms of violence that constitute a vicious circle. So this prize will not only give visibility to the issue but a big boost to hundreds of thousands of ordinary workers like me globally. It has already given their morale a high.

“Many thought that the Nobel Peace Prize was meant only for very well-known and well-connected people, but in the hundreds of mails I am getting now people are saying that people who work silently are also recognised at some point. I know there are many people and organisations doing wonderful work, making bigger sacrifices than I and are more knowledgeable than I.

“Even in the BBA there are devoted people working in remote areas of Jharkhand and the north-eastern region, with no electricity or comfort. They have to walk miles in search of trafficked girls, their parents, and so on. I salute them. This prize goes to them all.”

On winning with Malala:

“I know Malala; she is very courageous. We were together recently in the Netherlands along with her family. So this recognition for two South Asians and one from the other side is quite significant. I cannot read much politically, so I am not going to react politically on what Malala has said —that the two Prime Ministers should come together. I told her that I am a very ordinary person, can’t think of inviting the Prime Minister. These are diplomatic and political issues. But what I can and will do is work with people in both the countries. I have been visiting Pakistan for the past 25 years and have travelled to the remotest areas. When we organised the Global March in 1998, we went across 103 countries and Pakistan was one of them. I know the problems, the people and their love. I think sustainable peace between these two countries will come only when people demand peace, start valuing each others’ concerns, dignity, identity and issues.

“Friendship of people is the foundation for any peace. I have been advocating that globalisation of the market and the economy looks fascinating but cannot be sustained without globalisation of compassion. Let us translate compassion into a social and political agenda.”

On Gandhi and compassion:

“Gandhiji was able to translate very basic virtues and values to social and eventually political movements. He was able to translate truth and non-violence into the freedom struggle. That was his beauty and innovation. I learnt this from him and my journey in all these years was how to translate human compassion into social action.

“Our perspective has become so narrow that we care about our biological children but don’t care about our neighbour’s or the country’s children. Compassion and care for children is there, but we do it only for the sake of our own children. We are materialistic for our children and grandchildren. We have to break that. We have to use our compassion for bigger and better causes.”

On meeting Prime Minister Narendra Modi:

“It was a courtesy meeting but it was a very positive, exciting and encouraging meeting. He was very open in the way he talked and listened on the issues and we shared the view that we have to make India a child-friendly, proud, prosperous and clean country.

“We did not talk on specifics, but he is open to talk on specifics in the future and we hope that the present environment in the country will help us to strengthen the fight against child labour. If the Prime Minister of the country is excited about my work, then what else do I need? Let us see how the officers and the bureaucracy react, but I could see that excitement at the top.”

Solutions at the global level:

“I have worked in the stone quarries of Peru, amongst coco bean producers in Ivory Coast, Ghana and the remotest parts of Africa. The biggest problem is the mindsets of people in all these places. There is a need for geopolitical will. Financing is required. Governments globally should make more budgetary allocations and that has been my fight for so many years.

“I am also the founding president of the Global Campaign for Education and we have been advocating that governments must spend more money. Developing countries must fulfil their promises towards children and the developed countries must put more money for the education of children. What we need is an extra $80 billion to educate all the children in the world and that is less than three days of military expenditure. So the world has been able to produce more guns, weapons and bullets than books and toys that are needed for children. So, we have to introspect as to what is needed in the world. Do we need what people call defence because for me it is basically an offence—if you are going to use bullets and bombs, who is going to be defended? We must give good-quality and free education to children globally. I am not talking of just one country here.”

On Swami Agnivesh under whom he started working but later broke away to form the BBA:

“I am thankful to my teachers and co-workers. Swami Agnivesh and I worked together on bonded labour. We started together in 1981 and I have big respect for him. All of us have flaws and difficulties, he may have some or I may have some, but I have big respect for him. For anyone and everyone with whom I have worked in my life, I am thankful to all of them.”

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