“I wanted to eat that red ice cream being sold in front of my factory, but never got those 10 rupees in two months. My mother is waiting for me in my village but in no way, I feel, I can reach her”.

These words coming from a 12 year old boy, Manish can fill even the most arid and stoic of hearts with compassion. But is mere compassion enough? According to a report by the Confederation of Free Trade Unions, there are more than 60 million child labourers in our “I wanted to eat that red ice cream being sold in front of my factory, but never got those 10 rupees in two months. My mother is waiting for me in my village but in no way, I feel, I can reach her”. The Man who Redefined Activism against Child-Labour Progressive Leadership TLR Team The Leadership Review | January 2015 | 27 country of 1.25 billion people. That means every 21st person in India is a child labourer! However, it is not a problem specific only to India. According to International Labour Organization, over 218 million children between the ages of 5-17 are engaged in child labour. So, yes, mere compassion is not enough to make a difference. It will take a herculean effort from all of us to change this; an effort like Kailash Satyarthi’s who rescued Manish and 83,656 others like him in 144 countries.

Who is Satyarthi?

It was October 10, 2014, when the news of Satyarthi jointly receiving the Nobel Peace Prize with Malala Yousafzai first broke out. Hearing this, the first reaction of a very significant number of Indians was “Who is Satyarthi?” In a country enamored only with Bollywood and cricket, this reaction was not surprising.

For starters, he is no greenhorn. Satyarthi has been at the forefront of the global movement to end child slavery and exploitative child labour since 1980. Born in 1954 as Kailash Sharma, Satyarthi hails from the small town of Vidisha, which has been in news mainly for being the constituency of Shivraj Singh Chauhan – the Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh. An electrical engineer by training, Satyarthi gave up his teaching job at an engineering college in Bhopal to take up the war against child labour, full time.

Before founding Bachpan Bachao Andolan (BBA) in 1980, he was also associated with Swami Agnivesh’s movement Bonded Labour Liberation Front (BLLF) as its General Secretary. At BBA, Satyarthi has been able to create self-sustaining institutions like GoodWeave and innovative social intervention models like Bal Mitra Gram.

Although these are impressive feats, but Satyarthi’s most important contribution to the fight against child labour has been a new approach. He and his colleagues at BBA were the first amongst the child-right activists to adopt the direct action approach, which included peacefully raiding the establishments that employ children labourers. Today, many other organizations have adopted this approach but when Satyarthi adopted it first, it was unprecedented, and came with its own perils.

In March 2004, on a complaint by parents of the child labourers exploited at the Great Roman Circus, Satyarthi raided the circus with some colleagues in the Gonda district of Uttar Pradesh. Even though the Sub Divisional Magistrate was accompanying him, he and his colleagues were brutally attacked by goons with iron rods, choppers, and guns. Everyone, but the Magistrate in the raiding party was assaulted mercilessly. That included Satyarthi’s son, a foreign photo-journalist, and Satyarthi himself who was left with a profusely bleeding head and a fractured leg. It was not the first time he bore the brunt of leading a forward offensive against child labour and it was not the last. His activists and officers have been targeted and attacked, the records have been stolen, and his female colleagues have been harassed.

Despite all this, Satyarthi redefined the approach for the elimination of child trafficking and slavery in India, and even world over. In his own words from the Nobel lecture “I am privileged to work with many courageous souls who also refuse to accept. We have never given up against any threat and attack, and we never will.“ This zeal to change the status q u o , makes him a progressive leader.

The Direct Action Approach

The sheer number of children Satyarthi and his colleagues at Bachpan Bachao Andolan (BBA) have rescued cannot be the result of an unorganized haphazard effort. Satyarthi has enjoyed much success because he has been able to create a process and define a clear-cut, well-researched approach to the way the battle against child labour is to be fought by BBA.

Often times the focus of those watching from a distance remains limited to the raids and rescue operation, but that is just a part of the whole. The entire process begins with a proactive research and ends with helping the rescued children get integrated into the society.

Proactive research and Identification

Activists from the BBA do not sit waiting for a complaint from child labourers or their families. They are always on a lookout for establishments that employ child labourers. They proactively look for child trafficking rackets. Once they identify such establishments, they go on to gather all the relevant information that will make their case for rescuing the children stronger. For example, they find out about the number of children employed in the establishment, age of these children, their working conditions, and the nature of their work.


Complaint Once such establishments have been identified with a reasonable level of conviction, a complaint is filed with the Deputy Commissioner or other authorities. They up the ante by accompanying their complaint with complaints from parents, concerned citizens, and in some cases, children themselves.

After the complaint is registered, to finalize the date and details of the rescue operation, BBA activists meet the District Task Force (DTF). These District Task Forces have been constituted in most Indian states to fight against child labour. They normally consist of labour officials, police, and NGO representatives.

Satyarthi and BBA has contributed significantly to strengthen the legal framework to protect children. Not just that, BBA has also supported the Government of India to create Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) for investigating crimes of child trafficking.

Rescue and Prosecution

On the day when the rescue operation is to be launched, all the DTF members raid the identified establishments together. These raids are non-violent, and utmost care is taken to protect the children from any physical or psychological harm.BBA ensures that each rescue operation is followed by the prosecution of traffickers. From 2010-2013, BBA has lodged 201 FIRs, has supported the police in arresting 341 employers and traffickers, and has ensured that 173 workplaces employing children got shut down.

Often the rescued children run a risk of falling back in the trap of slavery or live amidst abject poverty. BBA, through its well-organized efforts, ensures that that doesn’t happen. Once the children are rescued, they are sent to a short-term rehabilitation center called Mukti Ashram. Founded in 1991, Mukti Ashram was initially a shelter for rescued bonded labourers. However since, 2007, it has been focusing on providing immediate support to the rescued children. This includes arranging for their food, clothing, shelter, medical aid, psychological assistance, recreation, and everyday care. In the Mukti Ashram, rescued children live in a safe environment until all legal formalities are taken care of. Afterwards, these children are sent home to their families.

Similarly for long-term rehabilitation, in 1998, Satyarthi founded the Bal Ashram in Rajasthan. It provides rescued children with education and vocational training, and helps them to overcome their past and prepares them with skills and confidence necessary for a bright future.

Continual support

The ground work for continual support begins right after the children are rescued. BBA writes to the District Magistrate (DM), with the list of rescued children along with a cover letter written by the parents of the children. This letter gives out the information such as the rescue date, the place of rescue, and a copy of release certificate is provided. This is the first step to help the rescued children avail the government welfare schemes.

BBA’s local activities also visit the children thrice to ensure their rehabilitation and help if needed. They also ensure that the child has access to relevant schemes, including BPL Card, Annapurna Yojana, Indira AwasYojana, National Health Insurance Policy, Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, and Social Security Pension Scheme.

Simultaneously, BBA also educates the parents about these schemes and makes them aware of how they can enforce their own rights. It further also provides them with counseling, thereby making them aware about the ill effects of child labour and human trafficking.

Global Footmarks

On January 17, 1998, Kailash Satyarthi took his battle against child labour to the world in form of the Global March against Child Labour. Under its banner, he brought together a worldwide coalition of NGOs, teachers’ unions, and trade unions. This march started from Philippines, crossed 103 countries, built massive awareness, enjoyed high level of participation from people, and finally culminated in Geneva on June 01, 1998where the International Labor Organization (ILO) meeting was taking place.

As a result of this march, 150 countries adopted the draft presented during the convention on Worst Forms of Child Labour. This draft also reflected the opinions those who undertook the march. .

Life after the Nobel Peace Prize

Satyarthi, after the routine thanking, has returned to doing what he does best – lobbying for better laws to protect children. He, with his new found status of a Nobel laureate, in a press conference has appealed Indian government to pass The Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Amendment (CLPRA) Bill. This bill, if passed, will prohibit employment of children below 14 years in any occupation.

In the same press conference he also invoked Mahatma Gandhi, to call for a more compassionate world. He said “Gandhiji turned truth, non-violence and peace into a mass movement. My appeal is to turn compassion into a mass movement. Let us globalise compassion.” With Satyarthi and his ilk engineering the drive for global compassion, sooner or later, this dream shall materialize!