31/07/2015 7:03 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST

Can India Lead The Global Fight Against Child Labour?

The setting -- the base of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C -- was perfect to launch the Meet Up For Childhood Freedom. As the symbol of the anti-slavery movement watched over, a man in a white kurta pyjamamade an impassioned plea to fight child labour across the world. He was Kailash Satyarthi, who in 2014 was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work against child labour.

A year later, Satyarthi wants to take the crusade further. In his own words, he wants "to adopt silent, non-violent means to bring the issue of child rights to a higher level". He has started the Kailash Satyarthi Children's Foundation to work towards setting up a policy institute and a think tank based in India that will offer solutions on children's education, health and protection, both nationally and internationally. "India is becoming a global economic power. It should also be a moral leader for the world and lead the fight against child labour," he says.

"One million youth to be the voice"

The Foundation aims to involve youth, moral leaders, civic-business community and even Nobel laureates. "We want to get 100 million young people to become voices for the other 100 million children who are deprived and enslaved," he says. For him, the young offer hope with their idealism.

"India's bid to lead the global fight against child servitude does seem ambitious. The country's own record has shown some progress, but still is a grim picture."

The task seems uphill, but smooth rides have never been his way. In 1980, when he quit his job as an electrical engineer to set up Bachpan Bachao Andolan, his campaign against child slavery, there was little awareness and severe resistance. In his effort to rescue over 84,000 children till date, he has been physically assaulted, injured, his office ransacked, but every time his resolve gains greater strength.

Still much work needs to be done, he admits. According to the International Labour Organisation, the number of children engaged in labour at present has declined to 168 million from 246 million in 2000. Among these children, 85 million are engaged in hazardous work. "The fight is harder since this number is difficult to reach, and these children are entrapped in abject poverty, extreme conditions and conflict, mostly in regions like Sub Saharan Africa, the Middle East and Asia-Pacific," he adds.

The scene in India

India's bid to lead the global fight against child servitude does seem ambitious. The country's own record has shown some progress, but still is a grim picture. As per Census data, the number of working children between five to 14 years have come down from 12. 6 million in 2001 to 4.3 million in 2011 . UNICEF, however, estimates the figures to be much higher -- around 28 million. Making the matter worse are the lack of education, especially for girls, and a surge in child trafficking, says Satyarthi. Besides, Indian labour laws are weak and the budget allocation for child rights insufficient.

More recently, the Modi- government introduced amendments to the Child Labour Prohibition and Regulation Act (1986), making it legal for children below 14 years to work in family enterprises. The government argues it will encourage entrepreneurship skills and help families where children's wages are essential to survive. However, child rights activists disagree on the grounds that move will legalise many forms of exploitation, increase school drop-out rates and impact the Right to Education Act, which makes elementary education a fundamental right.

The amendments by the Modi government do have a silver lining. As per the earlier law, children under 14 years could not be employed in hazardous industries; the amendments have extended this age to 18 years. Also, child labour has been made a cognisable offence and punishments for offenders are more stringent now. Satyarthi says there are still grey areas that need to be defined.

The Child Labour Act lists 18 hazardous occupation and 65 processes. This list, he says, should not be squeezed or compromised. "The government also needs to clearly define 'family'. Does it mean parents, guardians or extended family? The grey areas will increase the risk of exploitation", he adds.

"As [Kailash Satyarthi] continues his unflagging efforts, will his own country and its people hear him first? Will India lead this march or just limp forward? Will there be an awakening?"

Besides, India's fight at home needs more investment in education. The government spends 3.9% of its GDP on education. Amongst the country's rural population, which is over 68%, the employment paradigm is shifting towards the quest for education. "Earlier the lower income groups preferred to employ their children for increased income. Now, there is a fast setting realisation that education is employment and education is empowerment," he emphasises.

Beyond the Nobel

Kailash Satyarthi's Nobel Peace Prize in 2014 highlighted the grave challenges of child rights in India and globally. It also brought into focus the silent work done to confront it. In his Nobel acceptance speech, Satyarthi had promised to join hands with his fellow laureates to continue the fight against child servitude. Keeping up with the promise, he recently led a group of 14 Nobel laureates to submit a paper to the UN Secretary General, demanding more budgetary allocation for child rights, equitable education for children and the end of violence impacting young lives.

In his speech, he had also called for the need to democratise knowledge and globalise compassion. He urged everyone to march from ignorance to awakening, from darkness to light, from morality to divinity. As he continues his unflagging efforts, will his own country and its people hear him first? Will India lead this march or just limp forward? Will there be an awakening?