The last thing Nobel Peace Laureate Mr Kailash Satyarthi will ever do is to compromise on the safety and security of the children. In his recent letter to Prime Minister Modi, he has urged Mr Modi to grant three-month impunity to those employers who voluntarily release child labourers from their premises. This seems to be a last-ditch effort to save the lives of millions of those child labourers who are held captive in asphyxiating workshops, factories, homes, farms, stone quarries, brick kilns, etc. amidst corona pandemic.
In Mr Satyarthi’s documentary, The Price of Free, I have seen the way child labourers are made to work from morning until midnight in small crammed up factories without enough food, water, ventilation and hygiene. Considering the onslaught of COVID-19, the bonded child labourers are very susceptible to contracting infection—because these children are not even considered humans let alone ensuring any precautions like social distancing for them.
In the present lockdown, ever since the economy has come to a grinding halt, the worst affected have been the third tier, fourth tier workshops (in the unorganized sector) where child labourers are actually found. The employers have fled, leaving the child labourers to fend for themselves. Children stuffed in small dingy shanties do not have any means of sustenance. Either hunger or coronavirus might kill these child labourers sooner than later. Under this do-or-die situation facing the child labourers, Mr Satyarthi wrote this letter to the Prime Minister to intervene before it is too late.
Jamlo Makdam, the 12-year-old girl from Chhattisgarh who had been trafficked to work as a child labourer in the chilli fields of Telangana, died walking on foot for over 150 kms back home. It is a chilling reminder of the ordeals of the most marginalized, vulnerable and exploited children of our country. It is the collective failure of the government, the corporate and the society at large who could not ensure the life and safety of the 12-year-old girl.
Where were the stringent laws against child labour and trafficking when Jamlo was being exploited? Why was the Right to Education Act not implemented in the first place to keep Jamlo safe at school? Where was the Juvenile Justice Act that was created for children in need of care and protection? In which file were the ethical codes of conduct/responsible buying norms of the company sourcing raw material from those chilli fields gathering dust?
Besides this, the way the most marginalized children are dying out of exploitation also shows how our international commitments towards Universal Declaration of Human Rights and United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child are being flouted, trivialized and disrespected. Coming back to the emergency of enslaved child labourers who are battling hunger, bondage and coronavirus all at the same time, they must be released immediately!
So that the other entrapped child labourers do not meet the same fate, Mr Satyarthi, in sheer exasperation, must have written to the Prime Minister for bringing out a special notification to give a three months’ waiver to the employers that they will not be punished if they voluntarily release the child labourers trapped in their premises.
Equate this situation to income tax defaulters. The government many a time gives a finite window to those who evade tax to voluntarily declare their income, pay the pending tax and be spared from prosecution or punitive action. This strategy has worked in the past, and it may work in case of voluntarily releasing the child labourers as well.
The life of children is of paramount importance here. Prosecution of an employer can never take precedence when it comes to the life and death of a child. These are extraordinary times, which call for extraordinary response, Mr Satyarthi proposed to the Prime Minister in his letter. Even in this letter, he has urged the government to ensure food, shelter and medical treatment for the released child labourers during the lockdown and safe repatriation as soon as the lockdown is lifted.
Looking at the long term scenario with his wisdom and foresightedness, he has also requested Prime Minister Modi to constitute an inter-ministerial task force to devise and implement a concrete action plan for curbing child trafficking when this crime will see a sharp spike in the post-COVID-19 period.
I have read a lot about Mr Satyarthi and seen several of his interviews. Despite numerous attacks on him and his colleagues and even in the face of his home and office being gutted several times, he never resorted to any form of violence. Three of his colleagues gave the supreme sacrifice in the line of duty.
After being brutally attacked by the Circus Mafias in June 2004, when he staged a hunger protest in front of the Legislative Assembly of Uttar Pradesh, he kept appealing to his activists to maintain calm. Hatred or violence was never what he wanted to return to society. His emphatic and peaceful protest led to the judiciary and law enforcement machinery swing into action, finally leading to the rescue of the Nepalese girls who were enslaved in the circus.
Mr Satyarthi is the loudest voice globally to fight for the rights of the children. It is only due to his efforts that several bold national and international laws protecting our children could see the light of the day. All the laws have deterring punishments for the offenders. His movement has been relentlessly fighting for over 40 years to restore justice for the rescued survivors of child labour, bonded labour, trafficking, child sexual exploitation and other crimes against children. He and his activists have been moving the courts of law to ensure compensation for the rescued children and strictest punishment for the offenders so that these crimes could be curbed!
While the voice of the civil society may be divided whether Mr Satyarthi did right in proposing a three months’ waiver to the employers of child labourers, I have absolutely no doubt that he did this for the safety of millions of child labourers who are trapped in hell holes amidst this pandemic. All battles can be fought later. Right now, we have to do everything to save the lives of the enslaved child labourers because “Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara” (You won’t get the life back).
Note: The author is a child rights activist.