In the ’80s, you gave up your engineering career and began campaigning against child labour and for child rights. You also founded the Bachpan Bachao Andolan at this time. So what impelled you to make such a radical career move and become a social activist?
A. Well, the influence of marginalised children was very close to my heart from my own childhood and my concern grew up gradually. So, that was a kind of an inner call or just that I realised that I am not going to do justice with my passion. And I decided to give up my career. It was not just one single incident, but was a gradual growth of this concern. Like every family, my parents also had some expectations and aspirations from me and when they found that I was good in studies, they wanted me to become an engineer. So I was enrolled in an engineering college and I passed out from there and started teaching in a university.
I trace back the roots of my concern, though, to my own childhood. It was my first day at school. I was five-and-a-half years old. And I saw a cobbler boy sitting outside my school gate. And he was looking at us expectantly, hoping we’ll ask him to polish our shoes, but we all were wearing new shoes. And I could not understand why this child was not a part our classroom like other children. So, I asked my teacher; asked my family and friends — and most of them tried to convince me that it is not an uncommon practice as poor children have to work to help their families and so on. One day, I gathered some courage and directly spoke to the father of the boy. The boy was of my age. The father was shocked at this question and he said, “Babuji maine kabhi socha nahi [Sir, I have never thought about it]. My grandfather, then my father and I, started doing the same thing since childhood; and now my son.” Then he said that “Babuji aapko pata nahin hum kaam karne k liye hi paida hote hain! [Sir, don’t you know we’re born only to work].” So, there was hopelessness and haplessness both. It was difficult for me to understand this. But I was angry that people are saying something else and for this cobbler, he and his son are non-existent in society and are born to work. In later years, I tried to collect money to help poor children and collected old books from schools for them, and it went on. Until one day, I decided to go for it full-time.
Q. How do you identify areas or sectors where exploitative child labour might be rampant?
A. We know that most of these children work in unorganised sectors. 60% of the children work in agricultural sector alone, and the rest of them work in sectors like brick kilns, stone quarries, small-scale industries in urban setups; then as domestic child labour and on streets, working in dhabas, and some are thrown into prostitution. Some are in carpet-making, bangle-making and so on. These are the areas. Normally, parents who complain to us are those whose children are kidnapped or lured away on the basis of some false promises. And the children are not earning anything or sending any money back home. So it’s through parents or relatives that we come to know about such areas.
Q. Do you think education is enough to curb child labour and what kind of change do we need in our education system to be able to solve this problem?
A. Not really. Although education is really important, perhaps the most important is taking preventive measures. If children are enrolled in schools and receive good quality education or free education and are in child- friendly environments, then a large number of them would not enter the job market. So education is key. If every village has good education for children, then there are less chances of child-trafficking. Similarly, children who are withdrawn from child labour ought to be inducted in mainstream education. And those who are grown-ups, they should be given some special training. But there is a vicious circle between child labour, unemployment and illiteracy. Globally, 70 crore children are in full-time jobs. And 21 crore adults are jobless. Most of these adults are the very parents of these children who are child labourers. Children are preferred because they are cheap labourers and parents remain jobless. That is the vicious circle. Parents remain poor and poverty pushes children to work and if the children are working, poverty would increase and they remain poor. So, the third dimension is education. Education is the key to empowerment, social justice and gender equality. But definitely there are other things that are needed. We need strong political will, strong laws and accountability on the part of the officers who are responsible for the enforcement of child labour laws. We need strong corporate social responsibilities and very strong commitment of the corporations that no child will be engaged in their supply chains. Only a combination of these things will help.
Q. But there are children who are enrolled in government schools and work as domestic helps after school gets over. How can our government schools tackle the challenge of curbing child labour?
A. Actually, education should promote empowerment, human values and humanity. It should also produce a more equitable society. There are children who are enrolled in government schools and work in the afternoons, but that is not applicable to expensive private schools as private-school education is qualitatively better, though expensive. So our education system creates a duality, a disparity in society. We have to ensure that our government schools are improved — so that boys and girls and can learn at these institutions and stay interested enough to continue their schooling. We need well-educated teachers who have some sense of accountability towards their students. Similarly, we need to think of how some vocational training can be given to children between the ages of 15 and 18. Some light skills can be included in the curriculum also, so that when the kids turn 18, they can earn a livelihood. Any vocational training which doesn’t hamper their health can be introduced. But this should not start before the completion of their secondary education.
Q. Money troubles often force families to sell their children into servitude. According to you, what steps can be taken to protect children from being exploited in this way?
A. To begin with, social protection programmes should be properly enforced. There are several programmes like MGNREGA; scholarships for children; incentives for children as well as for women and men below the poverty line, lower castes, schedules castes and schedule tribes. So these government schemes should be properly enforced. That will help. And in some cases, economic incentive programmes are not known to parents and children. These incentives should be proffered to those who need them.
Q. In July this year, a controversial law was passed that would allow children to work for family businesses, despite widespread concern by the United Nations and other rights advocates that it will push more children into exploitative labour. What is your take on that?
A. I was part of all these discussions and I opposed it. But I have not given up. I am still in contact with the ministers to accommodate some rules. There are certain areas which could be repaired in these rules, like a list of hazardous occupations and processes. Earlier, the list included 83 hazardous occupations in the previous norm; now it has been reduced to three. The government is considering taking it back. We, too, are working on it and we are hopeful that things our concerns would be addressed.
I have been working with 140 countries in the last 30 years to eradicate the problem of child labour. But now my agenda has gone to its highest level. Now I am able to interact with high officials and I get respect, thanks to this Nobel Prize. The man is the same but this award has made all the difference.
Q. What about the children who are working in the entertainment sector, who are pushed by their parents to appear on reality shows and so on? How do you view this trend?
A. There are laws under the Juvenile Justice Act which make it very difficult for these people to use children as a work force to earn more money through them within the entertainment industry. So these things are now being taken care of but it requires a lot of social awareness as well because parents can also be quite greedy at times. Many are promoting their children to join TV shows and to taste some glamour through them. Everyone wants a glamorous life, and these parents want to be the parents of celebrity children. This often impacts the child’s education and interferes with their free time and can hamper their physical and mental health. If the children are learning and expressing their talent through such forums, then that’s an altogether different issue. But if there if the parents have some motive of earning through their children, at the cost of their mental and physical health, then that is wrong. There is a very thin line here. That is why I said it’s very necessary that the parents themselves should be aware of those things and should know when they’re crossing the line.
Q. What are the major campaigns that you are working on now?
A. Now we are working on two major things. One is a campaign and one is a big initiative. We are going to launch a platform of Nobel laureates and global leaders. The Laureates and Leaders for Children Summit will concentrate on building a strong moral platform for protecting all children from violence, and ensuring a world where all children are free to be children. This Summit will amplify the collective leadership and moral authority of Nobel laureates across different fields, world leaders and champions of children’s rights. [The summit was held in Delhi from 10-11 December.] Then we have another activity: we are launching a campaign called “100 Million for a 100 Million”. It’s a youth campaign where the school-going and college-going young people are able to express themselves, learn about their rights and feel responsible towards the 100 million kids who are tortured: the 100 million children who have no childhood, no education. So these 100 million children with a better life can be the spokespersons and champions for the cause of the 100 million who are left out.
Q. Do you think the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights is doing enough for underprivileged children?
A. I think they are much better than before. There was a kind of dormant situation for many years but now, they are gearing up towards initiatives and activities and I appreciate that. First of all, they have members in the commission. For many years there was no member in the commission; the commission was completely vacant. Even a chairman was not appointed. Now there is a chairperson and the members are allocated responsibility in child labour, education, child abuse. They are now taking care of it. And they are quite dynamic, I met a few of them and found that they are travelling around, they are also associating with the government and other agencies and working closely with the civil society. And they are working hard, including the chairperson.
Q. How has your journey been after receiving the Noble Peace Prize in 2014 for your work on child rights?
A. The journey is now more hectic. I have been working with 140 countries in the last 30 years to eradicate this problem. But now my agenda has gone to its highest level. Now I am able to interact with high officials and people more freely, and I get respect, thanks to this Nobel Prize. The man is the same but this award made all the difference.
Q. Have you ever been subjected to personal threats due to the kind of work you do? And what keeps you going?
A. Several times! I lost two of my colleagues: one was shot and one was beaten to death. My office and my house have been attacked. Once my office was put on fire and I had my left foot broken and my right shoulder broken. I still can’t move my shoulder properly and this happened some years ago. The attacks have prevailed for the last three decades. These people are mafia gangs who are into trafficking children. I have helped free 5000 children so far. This keeps inspiring me. One life is not enough to protect these thousands of children.