Know where a lot of Indians get the little flags they wear proudly, or stick on their car windshields proudly, on our Independence Day? From little urchins who run about selling them at traffic signals. This is true. What’s more, I-Day is August 15, which is smack in the middle of our monsoon. So often enough, those urchins are buck-naked and streaming wet.
It’s an image that I can’t push from my mind today. India is feeling good today: the Nobel Prize for Peace has gone to our own Kailash Satyarthi, jointly with Pakistan’s Malala Yousufzai. Certainly something to make us proud. Yet the irony is that Satyarthi won it for his efforts, with his Bachpan Bachao Andolan (BBA, Save Childhood Coalition), to end the exploitation of children in India. Not something to celebrate, that exploitation. If we pretend it’s happening in some far-off twilight zone where kids are oppressed and neglected, the reality is as in-your-face as the drenched kid who presses her face to a car window, her teeth chattering as she urges more fortunate Indians to buy their personal slice of patriotism.
Since 1980, the BBA has rescued about 80,000 Indian children from construction sites, homes, restaurants and factories of all kinds where they are, simply, cheap labour. That number is about the population of small towns like Phuket in Thailand or Danbury in Connecticut: no small achievement, that.
Yet Satyarthi himself has showed that that number, and all the BBA’s work, really amounts to blowing valiantly into a pretty fierce wind. For it’s generally estimated that about 60 million Indian children are in the labor force doing all kinds of jobs. If 80,000 is the population of Danbury, 60 million is the population of California and Texas combined: no small specter, that.
Satyarthi explains that these 60 million kids work for 200 days in a year, earning about 25 cents a day. He goes on to show how child labor on this scale, leave alone the shame and scandal, “is injurious to the health of the economy”. He doesn’t say it, but these kids really are—and a time of a Nobel Peace Prize is no time to equivocate—slaves.
It’s not hard, even in a 21st-Century India of Range Rover SUVs and Mars missions, to see some of these 60 million Indian kids. You’ll find them delivering tea, working in workshops and sweatshops, being maids to younger kids of privilege, folding themselves through tiny hoops to get you to part with a few coins, and more. You’ll hear of kids being trafficked and forced into prostitution. You’ll be bothered by kids clawing at your bottle of mango Frooti, much as a bold monkey might. If nothing else, you’ll see them simply begging, making that gesture of fingers to lips that says, unmistakably, “I want to eat. Give me some money so I can eat.”
And when you see all this, you know how hard is the battle that Satyarthi is faced with, to save these tens of millions of Indian childhoods. To turn them into productive Indian citizens.
And yet the real battle might be an even harder one: against the attitudes that allow all this to persist in 21st-Century India. “The middle classes,” Satyarthi once told the BBC, want “cheap, docile labour.” That translates into a steady trafficking of kids “from remote parts of India to big cities.” To go with that, though, too many of us in the middle class want beggars to be kept out of sight. Leading up to the 2010 Commonwealth Games and the expected flood of tourists, for example, the Delhi Government worked diligently to “beautify” the city, but especially diligently in one particular way. Satyarthi commented: “The government's mentality is that beggars are garbage and they must be put away to show foreigners what a clean city we have.”
The Nobel is a huge honor. But if it is to mean anything to India, surely it must be in a national resolve to give our children—all our children—the best chance they can get to live reasonable lives. So I hope for an Independence Day in my lifetime when we will see zero shivering little bodies hawking our flags. That vanished sight will be our finest tribute to Kailash Satyarthi and his Nobel Prize.