NOBEL AND BEYOND
What happens after you scoop the ultimate accolade for finishing the great work of your life? For Kailash Satyarthi, it’s the beginning of a new innings
He was Googling for a cheap ticket to Germany when the call came. It was the afternoon of October 10, 2014. “Kailashji… Nobel,” his friend sounded incoherent on the phone. Intrigued, he put the phone down and Googled ‘Nobel’. After a few seconds, it started blinking: his name.
Two years later, what does winning the Nobel mean to him? Clad in a crisp white kurta-pyjama, Kailash Satyarthi, 62, sits behind a huge desk, blending with the autumnal austerity around him: a room with bare white walls, furniture in every shade of brown, and lots of light. Through the huge windows, you see the blue sky beyond and the tops of trees that skirt Friends Colony in New Delhi. You can also see the easy smile across his grey-bearded face: “For me, it’s just a comma, not a full-stop.”
THEREBY HANGS A TALE
For many, a Nobel is often the crowning recognition of a lifetime’s work. For Satyarthi, India’s fifth Nobel and second Nobel peace prize winner, it has been, expectedly, a life-changing event—catapulting the relatively littleknown child rights activist, and his organisation, the Bachpan Bachao Andolan, to international recognition, putting him in great demand for lectures, talks and seminars at prestigious global fora. “Suddenly, you become a VIP, wanted everywhere,” Satyarthi says. But it has also been two years of relentless, back-breaking work, he says, of knocking on a million doors, closed to most—in search of a new dream.
“It has been the biggest recognition for the rights of the most marginalised and deprived children,” he says. “Never before has there been a Nobel for this cause. It gave a deeper sense of commitment to what I do.” And that has led him to launch a new platform, Laureates and Leaders, and a new movement, ‘100 Million for 100 Million’, or calling upon 100 million young people to learn about their own rights and the lives of children living in unimaginable situations. On December 10 and 11, sharing the dais at Rashtrapati Bhavan with Tibetan spiritual leader Dalai Lama and a host of Nobel laureates and world leaders, President Pranab Mukherjee flagged it off with the message: “This global endeavour for mobilising 100 million youth and children is the beginning of a change that was long overdue. It is only appropriate that the campaign begins from India, which has the largest population of youth in the world.”
WORK IS WORSHIP
Satyarthi has never followed formulaic compulsions: of career, livelihood, the next big project or opportunity. An electrical engineer by training, he stumbled into a territory—the world of child labour—that excited him enough for it to become his calling: be it the magazine he started, Sangharsh Jaari Rahega (The Struggle will Continue), in the 1970s to document the lives of vulnerable people, or the nonprofit he founded, Bachpan Bachao Andolan (Save Childhood Movement) in 1980 or his first unsuccessful raid on a brick-making plant to rescue children working as bonded labour in 1990. There has also been his campaign with the United Nations since 2000, to include freedom from child labour as a sustainable development goal in the Millennial Charter. “I have been saying for the past 15 years that a child needs to be free to enjoy the fruits of development,” he says.
The Nobel suddenly made his dream real. “I got into intense activity from October 2014,” he recalls. “I went around the world, using the power of the Nobel, and all doors opened.” He presented his case to the UN, the World Bank, the International Labour Organisation, met presidents and prime ministers, from Barack Obama to Francois Hollande. “It took
me a year,” he says. “In September 2015, for the first time there were two Indians addressing the audience at the UN General Assembly. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and me.” Today, the UN has incorporated all his concerns—eradication of child labour, slavery, trafficking and forced labour, protection from violence, inclusive, equitable and quality education for all children—as a sustainable development millennial goal.
LEAGUE OF LAUREATES
Then came act two. A different league, a different commitment, a different stepping stone. Every time he was invited to various platforms with other Nobel laureates from various fields, it allowed him to push his agenda. “Many of these scientists live in a different world of knowledge, emerging from their labs after 8-10 years, so to say. And they were hardly aware of the various ways the world exploits children as slave labour, the plight of refugee children, victims of violence, conflicts and natural disaster,” he explains. “I tried to connect with them.” As he narrated his stories, he found them in tears, with many asking, ‘Mr Satyarthi, how can we help?’.
On one such poignant evening in Stockholm, Sweden, Satyarthi remembers picking up a candle lying in a corner, asking his hosts for a matchstick and lighting it. “I recited the ancient Vedic shloka, Asato ma sadgamaya. From ignorance, lead me to truth… from the darkness of suffering, lead us to the light of compassion.” It was a ‘pledge’ of some sort by the laureates, to build a dynamic platform of global leadership that would fight for the freedom of children.
THE TIME IS NOW
There is a lesson in everything. And the crucial lesson Satyarthi learnt in his nearly four decades of work with children is that “today they face things earlier generations never faced before”, be it trafficking or terror. “As the world takes giant leaps, in wealth or technology, children suffer the most in times of transition,” he points out. “I believe that is because there is a serious moral deficit all around us, from business to governments to NGOs to temples and mosques.” Who will speak for the children, he asks?
What else? Even 20 years ago, he points out, welfare was the state’s singular responsibility. Corporates functioned mostly with profit in mind. And NGOs were primarily in charity. But with changing times, three strong stakeholders have emerged—the state, corporates and civil society—all questioning structural issues, all trying to find solutions. “They must all come together, build mutual trust and work towards righting the glaring wrongs suffered by the most vulnerable in society—children.”
An unassuming man pursuing audacious dreams? But he has faced all the highs and lows of a charmed life: threats, assaults, a broken spine and limbs and has lost friends and colleagues in the course of his work. “But I’ve also met, hugged, shared meals and stories with millions of children across 140 countries. How many can say that?” True. Believe in your dreams. That’s Satyarthi, always.