Chhoti si Asha

A small dream for India’s children

By Rhea Kumar


[dropcap]I[/dropcap]n 1980, Wasal Khan, a brick kiln worker from Sirhind, a city in India’s northwestern state of Punjab, came to the capital city of New Delhi, driven by desperation and fear. His family members had been serving as bonded laborers in a brick kiln for 20 years in order to repay a debt owed to the kiln owner, who now threatened to sell Khan’s adolescent daughter to a brothel. Exploited by his employer and ignored by the authorities, he chanced across the newsletter of an organization working for the socially marginalized and somehow managed to locate their office.

Khan found an unexpected source of help in an electrical engineer-turned journalist and human rights activist, Kailash Satyarthi, and his team of like-minded activists at Bachpan Bachao Andolan (BBA), or Save the Children Mission. Soon after, Satyarthi the engineer and his team of like-minded activists rescued 34 brick kiln workers and the Khan’s 15-year old daughter, Sabo. This episode laid the foundations of the India’s largest grassroots movement against child labor and trafficking.

Today, Satyarthi is a world renowned voice against the exploitation of children, making headlines in 2014 when he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize along with Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai. Aside from BBA, Satyarthi has pioneered several of India’s leading movements against child labor, including the Global March against Child Labor and the South Asian Coalition on Child Servitude, a network of 750 civil society organizations. Most recently, Satyarthi submitted a petition to the United Nations requesting the abolition of child labor to be included as a development agenda in the post-2015 global Sustainable Development Goals. Some 550,000 people across the world have already signed the petition.

BBA’s New Delhi office had clearly greeted the news of the Nobel Peace Prize with celebration. As I waited at the reception to meet with BBA activists in January 2015, several journalists and fellow activists came and left, offering their congratulations or wanting to meet with Satyarthi and the BBA’s employees. A blackboard behind the front desk reported the number of child laborers BBA had rescued to date: 83,758 as of January 8, 2015. A picture of a smiling young girl on the wall aptly summarized BBA’s key mission: from exploitation to education.

But the journey from exploitation to education has been long and arduous, and it is far from over. BBA’s efforts have led to several significant policy changes, including India’s signing of the International Labor Organization (ILO)’s Convention 182 on the “Worst Forms of Child Labor” and the passage of the 2012 Law for Abolition of Child Labor. But as Dhananjay Tingal, the executive director of BBA, pointed out to me, poor implementation of these policies prevents child labor from being eradicated completely, both in India and in other parts of the world. “The government guarantees compensation to trafficked children or child laborers and their families under various schemes and policies, and all of these are very strong,” Tingal said. “However, the families need [to receive] release certificates to avail [themselves] of these benefits and are unable to get these from the public authorities.”

Child labor activists are hopeful that BBA’s Nobel Peace Prize will lead to a renewed discussion and initiative among all sections of Indian society to ultimately end child labor. “It is extremely overwhelming—the BBA receives dozens of calls every day from common people, asking us what they can do about child labor,” a female activist working in victim assistance, who wished to remain anonymous, told me. “While everyone cannot dedicate their lives to ending child labor, at the very least they could boycott those places and goods that employ child labor.”

All images courtesy of Creative Commons.
All images courtesy of Creative Commons.

Her statement carries weight. As I sipped a cup of piping hot masala chai, the characteristic Indian tea, I could see BBA activists busy at work on the lower level of the office. I thought of the number of times I have seen young children working at roadside tea stalls across India, seemingly content and happy with their lives. Several industries such as carpet-making, fire-cracker manufacturing, marble inlay work, filigree metal work, and many others are particularly notorious for using child labor as the children’s small thin hands are better suited for the fine motor skills required by these processes. Since children generally accept lower wages than adult laborers, it is also cost-effective for many firms to employ child laborers. The employed children are often unaware that they are victims of physical and mental abuse, denied access to opportunities that other children take for granted. Even today, India has about 60 million child laborers waiting to be rescued.

Civil society organizations are doing all they can to stop child labor, but they cannot do it alone. Effective implementation of their programs and policy suggestions requires a concerted effort by all stakeholders in society: the police, local authorities, the source communities of child and bonded labor, as well as common citizens.

In India and other nearby developing countries, child labor was not considered a pertinent issue until thirty years ago. Even today, the constant refrain heard from a large part of India’s population is that children have no option but to work to financially support their impoverished families. Unfortunately, such people fail to recognize that the effects of child labor encompass all of society. A study conducted by Sathyarthi and BBA titled “Capital Corruption” estimates that the amount of illegal money generated by Indian firms employing child laborers could be as high as $20,000 million every year. The income earned by child laborers thus represents a huge leakage from the nation’s economy, also impacting adult employment and income generation.

Societal attitudes towards child labor have ensured its perpetuation. The affected children have been conditioned into believing their work is a perfectly normal obligation to their families and employers. BBA rescues a large number of such children every day and takes some of them to its rehabilitation centers in Delhi and Rajasthan, as well as to rescue homes run by other organizations. But the response from these children is often negative. Some beg to be sent back. As the same female activist put it, “Many of them view their employer as their guru, their master, and what he says or does is sacrosanct. It takes intensive counseling to help them realize the exploitation they have been subject to.”

Child labor also has strong links to child trafficking. As a study conducted by BBA on missing children in India shows, large swathes of children—up to 60,000 a year—“disappear” from rural areas to become bonded or trafficked labor. The “traffickers” are usually known and trusted people in the village who have lent money to the families of trafficked children. Often, they lure the families into sending their children to work in the city to repay this debt. The traffickers rarely meet their promises. “The parents send their children to work, trusting the lender’s words that the children will return within a year’s time,” explained the female activist. “Meanwhile, in the cities where these migrant laborers work, their employers tell them that they have sent their salaries back home through money orders. The money never reaches these families, and parents have no way of locating their children,” she added.

Child labor is a complex issue involving multiple stakeholders, and any strategy to address it will have to be multi-pronged, simultaneously targeting civil society, the affected communities and children and the traffickers themselves. BBA has used a number of innovative strategies to increase awareness and involve civilians in programs to end child labor, including the Rugmark program and the Bal Mitra Gram, or Child Friendly Village, scheme. Initiated by Satyarthi, the Rugmark program involved labeling child-labor free carpets with a mark of certification and culminated in the formation of an international movement called GoodWeave.

Bal Mitra Gram, or BMG is a more recent initiative, under which BBA activists identify school dropouts and potential child laborers and counsel their families intensively to ensure that these children return to regular schooling. Thereafter, the activists facilitate the election of a Bal Panchayat, or student body, giving children a platform to discuss their rights and problems. A project officer, who also wished to remain anonymous, working on the scheme enthusiastically, told me how such student bodies have brought about positive changes in their villages, strengthening law and order around the school compounds, rebuilding roads in the school area and providing necessary supplies for the schools’ midday meal programs. Thus not only does BMG enable children to go back to school, but it also empowers them to demand a better learning environment. The model has been introduced in several states across India, as well as replicated in some African countries. The Bal Panchayats generate ripple effects and allow the model to spread: once people see the benefits of education over labor, they begin enrolling their children in schools.

In the past decade, two formal policy changes have further provided an impetus to India’s battle against child labor. The Right to Education Act, enacted by the Indian parliament in 2009, guarantees free and compulsory education to every Indian child aged between 6 and 14 years. One of its clauses allows children to be admitted in school at any time of the year, whereas earlier they could only start school at the beginning of the year. According to BBA activists, the clause has simplified the re-enrollment of children into schools.

Bhavana Kumar, who served as a consultant on child labor and education for the National Commission on Child Rights, feels that a reformed and more accessible educational system is no doubt critical to eradicating child labor. “Child labor and better education cannot be seen in isolation; there needs to be better co-ordination among the labor, child welfare and education ministries to attack this problem,” she said.

The second policy change happened in 2013 when India’s Supreme Court directed police officials to properly record and rescue missing trafficked children. Yet a conversation with BBA’s victim assistance division reveals that the police force is still unprepared to be the first point of contact of rescued children.  The experience of civil society organizations with the police has shown that the police force has often been dismissive of child labor as an issue, saying that it has happened with parental consent.

“According to standard procedures and laws, the BBA needs police presence and co-operation to conduct its raids on factories employing child labor,” the female activist added. “There have been many times when our workers arrive at the factory site in the morning, and the police don’t show up until the afternoon.  By this time, the employers are able to get news of an upcoming raid and have already escaped.”

The police training and sensitivity programs that BBA has engaged in have resulted in a commitment from the Delhi police to rescue 500 child laborers every month. The state of Rajasthan is already independently carrying out raids and rescue operations, determined to become a “child labor free” state. “Not only do the laws have to be enforced better, the punishment and penalties against those who flout these laws, be it middlemen or police authorities, need to be much stricter,” Kumar asserted.

BBA and the government have made several breakthroughs necessary to end child labor. Yet for the journey from exploitation to education to be fully complete, everyone needs to be on board. “BBA is primarily a rights-based [organization] rather than a service delivery organization,” Tingal, BBA’s executive director, emphasized. “We provide limited services to victims through our rehabilitation centers, but most of our work focuses on creating an environment where children are secure and enjoy their rights without our intervention.”  Another team member envisaged BBA’s role as that of a facilitator, one “who provides the necessary push or impetus to government authorities, particularly the police, to rescue people from child labor. But it is primarily the government’s responsibility to protect the rights of the nation’s children.”

Many people continue to live the experiences of  Wasal Khan, the brick kiln worker whose daughter was rescued from a life of forced prostitution by Kailash Satyarthi and Bachpan Bachao Andolan. But increasingly, the work of such human rights activists has inspired other individuals to play their own part in the movement. Take Razia Sultan, an inhabitant of Meerut, a city in Uttar Pradesh, who worked as a child laborer in football stitching. When her village was transformed into a Bal Mitra Gram, she helped bring 75 children in the village to school through her work with the Bal Panchayat. She also initiated a campaign against schools that charged tuition fees. She was rewarded for her efforts in 2013 as the first recipient of the Malala Peace Prize. BBA has achieved much over thirty years, but perhaps its most commendable success is this: giving India’s child laborers the power to dream and have these dreams realized.


Rhea Kumar ’18 is a prospective Economics major in Branford College. She can be reached at