Long struggle for Nobel cause

SATYARTHI'S ORGANISATION FIGHTS TO PROTECT CHILD RIGHTS

Ashraf, 7, little knew about the consequences of drinking some leftover milk at his employer’s house. What followed hit the headlines in September 1996. 

The then Deputy Secretary in the Ministry of Agriculture had convinced Karimullah and his wife that their youngest son would be “taken care of”. Besides giving his sons company, Ashraf would also go to school, the family was told. A month on, Ashraf was rescued with his hands burnt, injuries on his genitals and bleeding from cuts on his eyebrows, chest and legs. Ashraf, 25, is now an engineer working with a private firm in Noida.It is difficult to imagine what Ashraf’s life would have been had the South Asian Coalition on Child Servitude (SACCS), under the chairpersonship of Kailash Satyarthi, not intervened then.

Satyarthi’s continued struggle against child labour, which he started by forming the Bachpan Bachao Andolan (BBA) in the 1980s in Delhi, won him the Nobel Peace Prize 2014. His colleagues, who have been engaged in the movement since the beginning, say their fight will continue till the last child labourer is rescued in the country.   In the 80s, the BBA rescued children who worked as bonded labourers in stone quarries and brick kilns. “The Vasant Kunj area then was the hub of stone quarries where hundreds of children were employed,” says R S Chaurasia, General Secretary of BBA. Chaurasia has been working with BBA since 1982.

Later, the activists realised that children working in dhabas were regularly manhandled by their employers. Their focus shifted to child labour in small eateries, hotels and public institutions. Since 2005, the BBA has rescued 6,425 child labourers from Delhi in 361 raids.

Whenever Satyarthi is in Delhi, he leads the rescue operations, says Rakesh Senger, who has been working with the BBA since 1994. “He always drives the vehicle himself as he doesn’t trust anyone,” he adds, says  says Senger, Programme Director, Victims’ Assistance, Campaigns and Policy. 

There have been several attempts on his life. So, he apparently thinks he can protect himself better if he is himself driving.

It was only after the Ashraf’s incident that the BBA started campaigning in Delhi against “invisible slaves”.

“This incident got us thinking about the horrifying conditions these minor domestic helps are subjected to. Such kids stay hidden within walls of  households and nobody comes to know about them. They are the invisible slaves whom we want to free from the shackles of slavery,” says Senger.

After the rescue operation, Ashraf was taken to the house of then National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) Chairman Justice Ranganath Misra. The NHRC directed the city government to register an FIR against the culprits. “One day, Ashraf was asked to serve milk to the government official’s sons. He was hungry and drank the leftover milk in the glass. Seeing this, the official got furious and started hitting him and branded him with a hot iron rod,” recalls Senger.

After this incident, the BBA boycotted houses which employed children as domestic helps, he adds. “We refused water in households where a child was employed. Till date, no staff of the organisation eats or drinks at any place — be it a dhaba or restaurant — where kids are used as helps,” Senger says.

In 1991, the BBA founded Mukti Ashram in capital's Burari area where rescued children were provided with immediate medical help. In 2006, Mukti Ashram was transformed into a short-stay home where children were given food and shelter. 

According to the BBA, over 8,000 child and bonded labourers have been rehabilitated since the inception of Mukti Ashram. The duration of stay of a child at the ashram ranges from two weeks to 10 weeks. “We try to make children independent at the ashram,” says Senger.

Satyarthi's people remember the tragic case of a 12-year-old boy, Shiv Shankar, found hanging at a house in Chiitaranjan Park on May 24, 1999. “On the fateful day, the employer asked Shiv’s father to take him back home as he was unwell,” says Senger. “When he reached there, he found his son was dead.”

His father decided to file a police complaint but failed. The employer had strong political connections. “Police wanted to cremate the body but SACCS intervened and marched to the local police station.” 

Satyarthi went on a sit-in in front of the Chittaranjan Park Police Station. “After five hours of demonstration, a representative of the National Human Rights Commission and Deputy Commissioner of Police (South) had to come to the spot to ensure a complaint would be registered,” says Senger.

The same year, a 12-year-old domestic help was murdered by her employer after suspected sexual abuse. “Her father was made to sign three blank papers at gunpoint by the culprit and his relatives. Police refused to register an FIR,” he says.

The SACCS decided to stage a protest at the Delhi Police Headquarters on October 1, 1999. “It was then that we gave police the idea of deputing a special officer for child labour cases. Also, we demanded to form a special cell to get details of such cases,” he says.

These incidents gave an impetus to the BBA to expand its activities. They started a ‘Anti-Firecracker Campaign’ to highlight the plight of young children involved in manufacturing of firecrackers in Delhi. The theme was “Deep jala kar Deepawli manayein, Bachpan jala kar nahin” (Celebrate Diwali by lighting diyas, not by exploiting childhood).

“We covered over 250 government and private schools sensitising students and teachers about the harmful chemicals kids working in firecracker manufacturing units are exposed to,” says Om Prakash, member of the NGO.

The efforts of the BBA bore fruits and the Central Civil Service (Conduct) Amendment Rules 1999 came into force. The section 22 A prohibits a government official to employ any child below 14 years.

After this, there was no turning back for the BBA. The SACCS gave birth to Global March Against Child Labour and it has 144 countries as its members.In 2007, the BBA launched a sticker campaign. “We went to all the MPs house and pasted stickers at 

In 2009, the Supreme Court formed the All India Legal Aid Cell on Child Rights under the aegis of National Legal Services Authority (NLSA) at BBA’s central office.

After the MCD elections in 2012, activists of the BBA went to each councillor’s home and asked them to save childhood under the programme “Chune huye bachpan bachaiye” (Elected representatives save childhood).

“The general notion is what will a poor child eat if he doesn’t work. For them, poverty justifies child labour. But they forget that all a child needs is love, care and education for a better future,” says Senger. “If we employ an adult for every child labourer here, the problem of unemployment will not exist in our country.”

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