60 million Indian children

Dilip D’Souza at the Daily Beast tells us about Kailash Satyarthi and what he does and why it needs doing.

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.

60 million is almost the population of Italy. It’s more than the population of all but 23 countries in the world – it’s more than Burma, Spain, Kenya, Argentina, Poland, Canada, Peru…It’s a massive number of children.

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.

The really hard fight is with the attitudes that allow this.

“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.”

Everybody wants cheap docile labor, but we can’t have it in sentient form. That cheap docile labor needs to be in school.


  1. PatrickG says

    That cheap docile labor needs to be in school.

    Where, in the US a la Gingrich, they can be learning “life lessons” by cleaning toilets in exchange for education.

    (P.S. The Daily Beast link is borked, by the way, should go here.

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