He founded the Bachpan Bachao Andolan in 1980 and has acted to protect the rights of more than 83,000 children from 144 countries. It is largely because of his work and activism that the International Labour Organisation adopted Convention No 182 on the worst forms of child labour, which is now a principal guideline for governments around the world.
In 2014, Kailash Satyarthi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his struggle against the suppression of children and young people and for the right of all children to education. After completing 35 days of his Bharat Yatra which was aimed at creating awareness for child rights and protection from sexual abuse and trafficking, Satyarthi in an interview with JUNAID KATHJU spoke at length about his desire to end child abuse in the country.
Tell us about your experience during the Bharat Yatra.
It was unprecedented. But for me it was emotional, overwhelming and challenging. Right from the beginning I called it my war on child sexual abuse and trafficking. This unbearable epidemic can’t be solved through conventional methods like campaigning, petitioning or educating people; there should be a war against it. And that’s why we were preparing for the last one year for this yatra. We engaged with youth from universities, colleges and schools.
We engaged with Parliament members, chief ministers, Chief Justices of High Courts. But what was more important for me was the engagement of faith leaders. Leaders of all faiths including Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs and Buddhists participated in this yatra. Before the yatra, I had organised three interfaith round tables.
One was in Delhi, which was attended by 27 faith leaders. The other roundtable was convened at Ajmer Sharif and the third one was held in Telangana. It was quite uncommon that all the faith leaders came together on the issue of child abuse. Many of these faith leaders even marched with us in the rallies conducted in their respective states. The religious leaders have huge followers and they can play an important role to curb this menace. And I am happy that they listened to my call.
Do you really believe that India being such a vast country, you will be ever able to end child rights violation?
I am very determined. And the way President of India spoke his heart out on the subject, it motivated me even more. I have never seen any politician speak like that on child abuse. The President urged me to draw up a five-year road map to help build an India that is safe for children. He was profoundly serious about ending this epidemic from the country. But having said that, I know it is not going to be easy.
We want to turn it into a mass movement involving all sections of society. We have pinned high hopes on the judicial system because many chief justices of high courts during the yatra have assured us that they will take up this matter personally, so we will do follow-ups with them. Several chief ministers like Mehbooba Mufti, Captain Amarinder Singh, Shivraj Singh Chauhan and Chandrababu Naidu also made some policy announcements to save children. So we will keep tracking developments in those states to make sure that such policies are getting implemented.
You have been very critical about the implementation of Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act (POCSO).Why so?
Unfortunately, the problem with POCSO is that India is not equipped with judicial institutions and mechanism to protect our children. Last year (2016), 15,000 child abuse cases were registered under POCSO ~ which let me tell you is negligible. India being a conservative society, many don’t muster up the courage to report sexual abuse and in 70 per cent cases the accused is a family member so it makes it harder for them to report.
Anyway out of these 15,000 cases only 4 per cent saw convictions and 6 per cent were acquitted. That means 90 per cent pendency. The year before last (2015), the pendency was 96 per cent. So going by this equation it will take up to 50 years to dispose of the pending cases and that too if no new case is registered henceforth.
What a mockery. It is a cruel joke on the children of India. It is a cruel joke on the laws. So I demanded during the yatra that the government should set up exclusive courts in every district of the country that would deal in a time-bound manner with child abuse cases. And above all there should be a National Children’s Tribunal.
You have also been demanding that a greater share of GDP be spent on children.
We claim that India is a great country with the greatest demographic dividend. But how we respect it is reflected in our budgetary allocation. India spends only 3.5 per cent of GDP on child protection and education. So when we say we are a young India, how much money are you spending on that young India.
The problem is that when it comes to the lowest strata of society, your money doesn’t reach them, because you are not spending money on their education and they are being looted by the private sector. So we are demanding that there should be an exclusive budgetary allocation for the protection of children in the yearly budget. Every ministry should have a specific budgetary allocation for children.
We have the right to education, but we should also have right through education. Our children should talk about their rights in their circulars, it should be part of their education. Our children should be able to protect their body, mind and soul.
Which were the most affected states of child rights violation that you came across during the Yatra?
I think North-east region, Odisha and Bihar are the most affected when it comes to trafficking, both for girls and boys.
During your visit to the Kashmir valley as a part of the Bharat Yatra, many local newspapers criticised you for not taking a position on children affected by pellet guns . Is it true?
I read about it and honestly I was looking for the right time to speak about this. What I said in Kashmir ~ when I was asked this question~ was that I don’t want to politicise my concern for children. The children in the valley need genuine love, but most importantly they need dignity and respect. If we have to interact with them, if we have to treat them well or whatever, dignity is the key.
Because they too have rights. Be it the citizens of the rest of the country or politicians, bureaucrats, they should be treated with dignity and respect. Secondly, I said that if a single child is in danger or is facing any form of violence, it gives me pain. Children should not suffer from violence in any form. I have promised children in Kashmir that I will come again to visit them. So Bharat yatra is just the beginning of my involvement with children in Kashmir. I didn’t want to talk about everything on my first visit. But through your medium I want to appeal to parents and to everyone in Kashmir to please spare children from violence.
Talking about violence and being a Nobel laureate, what are your thoughts on the situation in Burma? Many children have lost their lives while trying to escape from the country which is being run by a Nobel peace prize winner.
The way the Burmese government and my fellow Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi have handled the situation is really painful. It is shameful for the Nobel laureate community. I am the strongest critic of what is happening in Burma. I can’t tolerate it. Everybody should be dealt with respect and dignity. It is the moral responsibility of the international community to protect all people, especially children. Many children have drowned while trying to flee from the country. The government has completely mishandled this case which needs to be addressed on the ground.
What are your future plans?
We are drawing up a five-year plan to end child abuse in the country. Earlier I was thinking of a three-year plan but President of India told me thrice to draw up a road map plan for 5 years. So Prime Minister Narendra Modi is making New India in 2022, but it can’t be done without the safety of children… (Laughs).