“How can a country whose children’s backs are broken by burden be so calm?”

Kailash Satyarthi

Kailash Satyarthi (Image courtesy: www.nobelprize.org)

One of the minor rewards of having been around in journalism long enough—33 years and counting—is to be able to say "Been there, done that." As Kailash Satyarthi jointly receives the Nobel Peace Prize and honors the prize in the process, I am transported back to February, 1993, when I walked with him for a short duration of his 1000-mile march against child labor as part of a reporting assignment for India Abroad of New York.  The stretch I chose to walk passed through Firozabad, world-renowned for it glass industry which, as it turned out, thrived on the heartless exploitation of child labor. Satyarthi along with Swami Agnivesh were the two most high profile champions against child servitude across India.

I remember Satyarthi as someone unshakably committed to his cause to the exclusion of any material comfort. A recurring question in his life then and perhaps before and ever since is what he told me: “How can a country whose children’s backs are broken by burden be so calm?”

One has reported any number of stories over the past three decades but this one remains one of my most special memories for the sheer magnitude of the problem and the will of a couple of individuals to change that. To mark Satyarthi’s Nobel Peace Prize along with Malala Yousafzai, I would like reproduce some of the passages from the main piece which was a part of a seven-piece Top of the Week in India Abroad in the February 19, 1993 issue. 

Reflected glory is rather dim but why not bask in it before it fades for me in the next ten minutes or so?


By Mayank Chhaya

FIROZABAD, Uttar Pradesh:

For 10-year-old Shankar, childhood the last three years has meant spending his days in front of a furnace burning at 700 degrees. His toys have been a red-hot iron rod dripping molten glass. His nights have been sleepless, with unbearable fatigue.

Shankar is among 50,000 children working in Firozabad’s world-renowned glass industry. Like more than 50 million children in India, he is condemned to skip childhood and work in some of the most abject industrial conditions.

But emerging now is the first determined voluntary people’s movement to abolish child servitude, which exists in defiance of all social and legal norms. A 1000-mile march that started Jan. 29 from Bihar, the most underdeveloped state, to New Delhi has signaled the beginning of what the organizers promise will be a nationwide movement against child labor.

Leading the march was an electrical engineer turned social activist, Kailash Satyrathi, and a politician turned social crusader, Swami Agnivesh, whose work in releasing thousands of bonded laborers has been internationally acclaimed. Both say the march is just the beginning of an exercise in awakening the national conscience.

“How can a country whose children’s backs are broken by burden be calm?” asks Satyarthi.

I was particularly struck by how well Satyarthi communicated along the route of the march by employing anecdotes and humor to make a serious sociocultural point. He knew that his audience, burdened as it already was, should not be expected to be subjected to the dense sociopolitical or constitutional constructs. Check this passage out:

Satyarthi spoke (to me) while leading the march through a quaint marketplace at Sirsaganj near here. His approach, while addressing scores of meetings along the route, was informal, highly communicative and replete with cinematic language.

At Sirsaganj, for instance, he employed a highly contrasting imagery often used by the Hindi film makers of Bombay. He told his audience of a wealthy woman driving in a car costing “three million rupees” with her “little puppy.”

“She would take a kiss from puppy even while knitting wool,” he recounted. “I asked the driver why she had to knit a sweater in Bombay where there is no winter, and he said it was for the puppy.”

As his listeners laughed over the irony, Satyarthi continued:

“The madame’s children go to a school whose monthly fee is 10,000 rupees, and look at you. You don’t even get to wear shoes or eat properly.”

The message had already gone home about how child labor is a curse that the parents of the 50 million had to live down.

My piece addressed several other themes and spoke to many others. I also reported a little side story about how devout Hindu and Muslim industrialists who supported the movement for a Ram temple or a mosque at Ayodhya had no compunctions about exploiting children. Satyarthi spoke of two boys Shankar (not the one in my main story) and Suleman, who were freed from bondage in the carpet industry during the march. “They (Hindu activists) are claiming that ‘every child is a child of Lord Ram. Similarly, they pretend to be devout Muslims and see what they do to children,” Satyarthi said.

It is heartening for me to know that Satyarthy is being honored for life’s work and not necessarily because he got the Nobel Peace Prize. I am sure the prize money will help in some ways to keep up his campaign because child labor remains as rampant now as it was then. People like Satyarthi are true inheritors of Gandhi because they get down and dirty without regard for reward. I am sure flaws will be pointed out by some in his campaign but that is neither here nor there. It is satisfying that a fortune made on the invention of dynamite is helping blast away deeply entrenched social ills such as child servitude.


About chutiumsulfate

South Asians can infer from my name what I am. View all posts by chutiumsulfate

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