Even while we celebrate Kailash Satyarthi, we must remember that he won because he stood up for children and their rights when the rest of us looked away.
Kailash Satyarthi’s Bachpan Bachao Andolan estimates that his actions have helped rescue over 80,000 children in the three decades that he has functioned as a child rights activist. Despite this towering achievement and the social ramifications of his actions, Indians, by and large, were unaware of his work and in denial of the problem.
The unexpected recognition from the Norwegian Nobel Committee which conferred him with the iconic Nobel Peace Prize has brought him instant fame. Beyond personal fame, what the Nobel has done is to pitchfork both Satyarthi, and his pet cause, child slavery, into the Indian national consciousness.
Satyarthi’s task is cut out now to utilise this newfound stature and raise the tempo of his “andolan”. It will become difficult for the political class, bureaucracy and civil society to ignore his struggle any longer. Children, especially the poor, are a voiceless constituency in a country where poverty and indebtedness conspire to push them into the workforce at an age when they should be in school. Far worse, is the police machinery’s apathy in tackling the problem of missing children. National Crime Records Bureau statistics indicate that one lakh children go missing every year of which 45 per cent remain untraced. In contrast, 10,000 children go missing in China and 3,000 in Pakistan.
For long, a certain fiction has played out. Class and feudal biases continue to put complainants from poor, illiterate backgrounds at a disadvantage before the criminal justice delivery system. Their docility has perpetuated misplaced notions that the rule of law runs supreme despite unreported crimes proliferating. Not surprisingly, children’s laws — The Juvenile Justice Act, Protection of Children from Sexual Offences(POCSO) Act, the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, National and State Commissions for Protection of Child Rights, the Integrated Child Protection Scheme (ICPS), and the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act — have had little effect. Ironically, the Child Labour Act allows the employment of children in non-hazardous activities until the age of 14, and is at cross-purposes with the Right to Education Act. Though a 2006 notification prohibited employment of children as domestic helps, very few cases have been lodged. Until 2007, violation of the Child Labour Act was not a cognisable offence, but making it cognisable has not made police personnel any more vigilant to this problem.
The National Tracking System for Missing and Vulnerable Children runs a website trackthemissingchild.gov.in. As an online tool, it has limited functionality; has details of few missing children uploaded on it; and its Facebook and Twitter accounts have not posted on missing children since July 31. A more effective tool, a central repository with DNA profiling to trace missing children, is yet to be instituted. A recent drive by Ghaziabad police that helped recover 107 missing children found many of the children at government shelters that made no effort to trace their homes. Also recovered were children whose parents had not complained about their missing wards. The fear of the police and perceptions about their apathy are defeating laws and emboldening criminals. The POCSO Act has provisions to appoint support persons like counsellors at police stations as the point of contact for parents of missing children and the child victims of sexual abuse and kidnapping.
Appointing such social workers at police stations is long overdue. With the State abdicating its responsibilities to children, it fell to activists like Satyarthi to fill the void. Sadly, the children going missing are too many and activists working for them, too few. The State, the judiciary and civil society must take note.