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An exclusive with Kailash Satyarthi on his journey from being a teacher to a social change agent!

Kailash Satyarthi is internationally acclaimed child rights activist. He has been at the vanguard of the global fight to end violence against children for close to four decades now.

Bachpan Bachao Andolan (BBA), the brainchild of Kailash Satyarthi was formed in 1980 to create a child-friendly India where all children are free from exploitation and abuse and enjoy their rights to the fullest. Through his sustained policy advocacy efforts in India, he played a pivotal role in mobilising support ensuring the passage of the Child Labour Act in the year 1986. Under the aegis of Kailash Satyarthi, BBA has rescued over 87,000 children from the scourge of bondage, trafficking and exploitative labour over the last four decades.

In 1998 he led the 80,000 km long Global March Against Child Labour across 103 countries with a demand for an International Law on Worst Forms of Child Labour. Kailash Satyarthi is also the architect and leader of Global Campaign for Education (GCE), a civil society movement working to end the global education crisis and ensuring that states deliver the right of everyone to free and quality education. He successfully spearheaded countrywide movement to make education a Constitutional Provision which subsequently paved way for the Right to Education Act in 2009 in India.

Kailash Satyarthi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014 for his struggle against the suppression of children and young people and for the right of all children to education.

In 2017, raising a clarion call against child sexual abuse, Satyarthi led the 12,000 Km Bharat Yatra (from Kashmir to Kanyakumari) taking along the child abuse survivors; civil society organisations; politicians across party lines; bureaucrats; celebrities and faith leaders to put the national spotlight on this pressing issue.

To achieve his vision of a world free of violence against children – where all children are free, safe, healthy and enrolled for quality education, he founded Kailash Satyarthi Children’s Foundation. The Foundation’s raison is to advocate for creation and implementation of child-friendly policies ensuring holistic development and empowerment of children across the globe.


1. Dear sir, can we start by asking you how your journey began - from being a teacher to a social change agent?

The issue of marginalised children has been very close to my heart right from my childhood and this concern started growing gradually. As a child, I was unable to comprehend as to why any other child should not be in school like me. My curious mind was forever looking for answers that I was not able to find.

It was my first day ever at school when I saw a cobbler boy (of my age) sitting outside my school gate. He was looking at us expectantly, hoping we’ll ask him to polish our shoes, but we all were wearing new shoes. I could not understand why this child was not be in the classroom like other children. So, I asked my teachers; my family and friends and most of them tried to convince me that it is not an uncommon practice as poor children have to work to help their families, and so on. But my doubts remained un-answered.

One day, I gathered some courage and directly spoke to the father of the boy. The father was shocked at this question and he said, “Babuji, maine kabhi socha nahi [Sir, I have never thought about it]. My grandfather, my father and I spent our lives doing the same thing since childhood and now, my son.” Then he said, “Babuji, aapko pata nahin hum kaam karne ke liye hi paida huye hain! [Sir, don’t you know we’re born only to work?].” It was difficult for me to understand all what he was saying.

I was not able to understand as to why should the cobbler’s son be any different from other children like me? Nobody around me was able to explain it to me for putting my inquisitive mind at rest.

The transformative moment came six years later. In my hometown of Vidisha (Madhya Pradesh) on the last day of school everyone used to discard their textbooks. This actually made no sense to me. Wouldn’t the children in the class below us benefit from our textbooks the same way we did — not to forget the cobbler boy and other children who are unable to attend school?

My friend and I rented a vegetable cart and walked around the neighbourhood convincing everyone to put their books in the cart rather than throwing them away. I had no idea how people would react, and so I was very anxious. But as the word of our experiment spread through the village, our cart was soon overloaded with books. I was overwhelmed with emotions as we collected the books for those who needed them the most. Later that night, tears of joy ran down my cheeks as we sat counting the books we collected. That was when I first realised that change is always possible whether big or small. It was the moment when a new Kailash was born in me.

Engineering and Medicine were the only so-called career options as per the societal norms when I grew up. My parents also wanted me to become an engineer. I completed my degree in electrical engineering at Samrat Ashok Technological Institute, Vidisha and thereafter I earned a post-graduate degree with specialisation in high-voltage transformer designing. I joined my alma-mater as a lecturer teaching transformer design to students.

But in a year’s time, I realised that the calling of my heart was to work for a country; a world that is safe and promising for everybody. Following my heart’s calling, I along with my wife left my hometown Vidisha in 1980 to live in Delhi.

I started writing a journal Sangharsh Jaari Rahega (‘The Struggle shall continue’). Through this fortnightly journal, my friends and I used to cover issues related to current affairs and policies. Our rather austere and very small office was in the backyard of the balcony of a rather old and dilapidated building. That was the beginning of my work as a social change agent.

2. What is your advice to teachers on how they can prevent drop-out rates in schools, to avoid child labour?

Teachers are idols for most of the children, at least in their initial years of schooling. Therefore teachers should not only learn and respect child rights but must also live those values. Teachers are the ones who educate and empower. The importance of education and the difference that it brings to the personality of a child cannot be emphasized enough. I have always maintained and it has been proven beyond reasonable doubt globally that education is the perfect antidote for child labour. Teachers undoubtedly have a big role to play here.

If children are enrolled in schools and receive quality education in a child-friendly environment, then the possibility of their getting into the vicious circle of illiteracy, poverty and child labour becomes very rare.

A teacher should rise beyond the feeling of a mere service provider and should make all efforts to imbibe values and ethos in the children as though they are her or his own children. Without embracing compassion, it is impossible to impart meaningful education. Needless to mention that scientifically designed curriculum and pedagogy is imperative to ensure learning outcomes.

Out of school, children are always at an unprecedented risk of exploitation. An engaged child who enjoys interaction at school is less likely to drop out of the school, particularly in a scenario where education has been made a fundamental right in India by the way of a constitutional amendment. I had led the Shiksha Yatra back in the year 2001 with a clear demand to make right to education a fundamental right. We walked from Kanyakumari to Kashmir and then to Delhi with our demand. Shiksha Yatra led to the constitutional amendment paving way for the Right to Education Act becoming a reality.

Teachers must go beyond the call of their duty to ensure moral, behavioural and attitudinal progress of all children. Teachers are very important stakeholders for the fulfilment of Right to Education Act ensuring equitable and meaningful education for all children. Even, RTE Act puts the onus on the teachers for regular follow-up of children’s attendance and presence in the classroom.

It is equally important for the teachers to learn and keep themselves abreast with latest teaching methodologies to make education more participatory, meaningful and inclusive. While technology can never become a substitute for teacher, it is only prudent for a teacher to strike the right balance between technology and humanity. The more human the teacher the better chord would she or he strike with the children in classroom and beyond.

A lot of responsibility rests on the teachers of bridge schools who need to bring the socially excluded and marginalized children into formal mainstream integration so that they do not once again drop out and drift away in the dark dungeons of exploitation.

A deep sense of responsibility, accountability and carefully planned performa

nce parameters for teachers will go a long way in retaining children in classrooms and ensuring that they are learning.

It is heartening to note that globally the number of child labourers has gone down from 26 crore to 17 crore in the last 15 years. The number of out of school children at the primary level has fallen significantly from 13 crore to 6 crore, but our struggle to bring all children to school continues.

3. Your message to teachers on TEACHERS’ DAY!

There is a call in the Vedas, ‘Vayam rashtre jaagriyaam purohitaah’. This means, ‘We the teachers who are meant for the betterment of the society pledge to awaken the conscience of the nation. In any situation of darkness, it’s the teachers who ignite the spark like a matchstick to enlighten and enliven all human beings.’

Today when the society is grappling with a serious deficit of 3 Ts i.e. Truth; Trust and Tolerance, people look up to the teachers as role models for plugging these deficits while guiding others. This is in the best interest of all children for a safer and peaceful world. This goes much beyond just the students to the society at large. Teachers, you are harbingers of positive change in the society!

This article was originally published in magazine in the month of September, 2018.


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