Yesterday's Christian Aid report on child labour in India prompted Clare Short to affirm the Government's commitment to stamping out such exploitation. In New Delhi, Kailash Satyarthi dedicated himself to the cause long ago.
For someone who is allocated a 24-hour armed guard from the Indian government because of the almost daily threats to his life, Kailash Satyarthi seems remarkably at ease. A gently-spoken man of 43, he has dedicated his life to the eradication of child slavery, an immense task given that he estimates that 200 million children around the world are being deprived of their freedom, childhood, education and play by unscrupulous employers.

This week's report by Christian Aid has highlighted the plight of children in India, some as young as seven, who are employed in the making of sports goods for export. Boys of 10 were found to be working in tanneries to produce leather for cricket and boxing gloves; girls, including a blind girl of 11, were stitching football and rugby balls for as little as 12p a day.

A third of these goods are exported to Britain. Clare Short, the Secretary of State for International Development, has said that she intends to strengthen British support for the International Labour Organisation's international programme on eliminating child labour and for other, similar programmes. Kailash Satyarthi's South Asian Coalition on Child Servitude (SACCS) is one such programme, dedicated to rescuing child labourers and publicising their plight.

Kailash's concern for deprived children began when he was a child. At the age of five or six he used to see a cobbler and his son working outside his school, polishing the schoolchildren's shoes. Kailash questioned why he and his friends went to school but not the shoe-boy. He asked his teachers, but they never gave him satisfactory answers. So he asked the shoe-boy's father, who was taken aback by the enquiry. He replied that no one had ever questioned him before, and that none of his family had ever been to school. He simply accepted that they were born to work.

Kailash, born into the favoured Brahmin caste, still had trouble understanding why he had privileges. On one occasion he was walking to school in the rain, carrying his umbrella. He noticed and was appalled to see the cobbler beating his son. Kailash caught the crying boy's hand and asked the father why he was beating him. The cobbler told him that their shoes were damaged because his son had covered himself with the plastic sheet intended for the shoes. "Doesn't the boy have the right to protect himself in the rain?" Kailash asked. "What is the cost, shoes or health?" The cobbler began to weep and hugged his son. Kailash gave the boy his umbrella.

As he tells it, this incident imprinted itself on Kailash's mind. During his university days he rejected the discriminatory social structures of the caste system and gave himself the new name of Satyarthi, meaning "truth seeker". After studying to become an engineer, he changed his career course to journalism and became editor of a fortnightly Hindi journal, The Struggle Shall Continue. During the mid-Seventies and early Eighties the magazine campaigned on human rights activities, in the course of which the extent of bonded labour, forced labour and child slavery became clear.

Satyarthi and his colleagues realised that writing articles created awareness but had a limited effect; they yearned to do something more profound and active. SACCS was founded to start high-profile action. The organisation began to accumulate accurate information to persuade Indians of the existence of child slavery.

The work was highly dangerous, and still is. Raids were mounted to rescue children from servitude and slavery. Satyarthi was beaten up more than once, and two members were killed.

Although the raids were highly successful in rescuing children, they were frustrated at seeing ever-increasing numbers of children being duped and kidnapped into slavery. Alternative action was required, so Satyarthi embarked on a media campaign abroad. His message to the buyers of carpets made by children in bondage was that "those who buy such carpets are responsible for thrashing the backs of children".

SACCS has rescued many child slaves, some through direct intervention and raids, others through the courts. It has also established centres that provide comprehensive support and build children's self-confidence.

One such specialised project is Mukti Ashram, a vocational rehabilitation centre on the outskirts of northern Delhi. The word mukti implies liberation - physical, mental and spiritual. Basic literacy, health, hygiene, social and vocational training are provided. For many of the youngsters it is also a first opportunity to experience and enjoy childhood.

The children have disturbing stories to tell. Nageshwar, a 14-year-old boy, attended the ashram for six months. He had been tortured after helping other enslaved children to escape from a factory. He was seized by the owner, who burnt and scarred him with a red-hot iron bar. During his first month at the ashram he was unable to speak. The staff were distressed by the boy's injuries and mental state, but their care and dedication gave him hope. He has now returned to his home in Bihar state.

Part of the children's rehabilitation involves educational training on the dangers of child labour. The children are then encouraged to preach on the perils and risks of servitude when they return to their villages.

Rajan, an ex-pupil of Mukti Ashram, delivered such a speech in his home village. He was then approached by the parents of two boys who had been kidnapped into slavery. Rajan's response was to visit the local police, who scoffed at his suggestions. The brave lad then took matters into his own hands. He spoke to the carpet factory owner, stating that he was hungry, needed work and had experience of working in the carpet industry. He was duly recruited, and worked for 10 days planning an escape with the two boys. He succeeded, and immediately made the long and arduous journey to Delhi by various buses, having borrowed the fare from his family beforehand. The staff at the ashram were delighted by the boys' bravery. The two boys were reunited with their families, and then returned to the ashram for rehabilitation.

Although bonded labour was legally abolished in India in 1976, the practice continues to be widespread. Government tolerance of violators resulted in Satyarthi making the subject a political issue. A parliamentary forum on child servitude ensued, chaired by a former president of India, Gyani Zail Singh. Candidates in recent Indian elections were requested by SACCS to pledge themselves to the eradication of child servitude and the provision of free education to all children.

Satyarthi and his colleagues maintain that child servitude perpetuates India's unemployment problems by keeping children in jobs that could be held by adults. "Those bonded children get no money," he has said. "If they were not used, the manufacturers would be obliged to hire adults, who are easier to organise and unionise and who would demand fair wages and better conditions."

SACCS mobilises national and international non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and public opinion to pressure governments, manufacturers and importers to end child labour. It also serves as the co-ordinating organisation for 250 other NGOs (including Unicef), and trade unions throughout Pakistan, Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Sri Lanka.

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) faces the enormous task of organising governments, employers and trade unions to secure agreements on industry-wide standards that prevent exploitation of children and "ban other employment practices which are incompatible with human rights and labour standards".

Changing attitudes is paramount to the eradication of child slavery, but the struggle for SACCS is hampered by certain governments diverting the issue, ineffective officials and a trading community determined "to distort the magnitude of the problem with misleading propaganda or cosmetic touches". But for Satyarthi, the mission remains clear: "It has been our humble endeavour to sensitise the masses on this anguishing question"n

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