Dear young friends,
It has been 68 years since India won independence from the British. Many countries got their independence before and after India, but our freedom struggle and hopes have been different from those of others.
The courageous, legendary and visionary leaders of our freedom struggle might have had two distinct ideologies and approaches. But their definition of freedom was never limited to overthrowing the British. It was more comprehensive. That definition included education and freedom for all, abolition of untouchability, gram swaraj (village independence), socialism, decentralisation of power and effective democracy. Most of these principles and aspirations have been weaved wonderfully into our Constitution.
However, the notion of freedom has become shrunken and superficial. Today, while celebrating Independence Day, we should not forget the original idea of freedom. Let us remind ourselves of our countrymen who have still not tasted freedom. Some of the people who celebrated August 15, 1947 are still not free. Moreover, their second or third generations are born enslaved to their landlords and masters. I have myself freed grandparents, parents and children from bonded labour.
I am speaking of children forced to live away from their families to toil in mines, quarries and brick kilns, who suffer burns while making firecrackers in factories, who work around toxic chemicals. I am speaking of those children who work in carpet, leather, iron and plastic factories, who starve to serve us in hundreds of dhabas and restaurants, who miss school to embroider our wedding trousseau. I am reminding you of those lakhs of our daughters and sisters being sold and bought for less than the price of animals.
Isn’t this an absurd joke for one of the oldest civilisations and the largest democracy?
I want to narrate here the story of a girl called Meena, born in a poor family in Assam. She was kidnapped and trafficked to Delhi, where she was a domestic labourer and faced regular abuse at the hands of her employers. She did not receive a single penny for her work and was even raped. By the time the Bachpan Bachao Andolan could rescue Meena, then 17, she was traumatised and had suicidal tendencies. She was also pregnant. When her father broke down looking at her and tried to hug her, she withdrew from him because she thought she was impure.
According to the latest government figures, there was a 50 per cent increase in cases of crimes against children between 2012 and 2013. Six children go missing every hour. Per Census 2011, 43.5 lakh children work as child labourers. But according to non-governmental sources, this number is almost five crore.
The government admits that half of all children, about to finish eight years of schooling, have still not learned basic skills in arithmetic. The irony is that this apathy prevails in a country full of youngsters. India currently ranks 135 among 196 countries on the Human Development Index. It ranks among countries with the largest number of child labourers.
Till each child gets a free, safe, healthy and respectful childhood, we cannot call our country completely free. The freedom struggle led by figures such as Mahatma Gandhi, Bhagat Singh, Subhas Chandra Bose, Chandrashekhar Azad and Ashfaqullah Khan, and many more, is still not over. They were the freedom fighters of the past, but you can be the freedom fighters of today. No segment has more energy, enthusiasm and idealism than you, the youth.
Wherever nations have risen against oppression and injustice, it has been because of the youth. It is this potential that I sense in the Indian youth. The situation today is very different from that of 1947. Indian youth are more educated, well travelled and globally aware. This youth population is not just our prized demographic dividend but also the biggest moral force.
Let us begin by choosing the right heroes for this moral force. Recognise and cultivate the hero inside you. Each one of you has a leader, a change-maker, a nation-builder inside you. Speak out when you see any injustice against a child. Use the power of social media to bring this to the notice of the authorities. Use the power of your vote to choose a leader who prioritises education, health and freedom of children. I feel tremendously empowered and inspired meeting young people right from the villages to the institutes of excellence. One thing is common between the two: Young people are hungry to make India better.
Each one of you can do it. If not you then who? If not now, when?
The writer, founder of Bachpan Bachao Andolan, is co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, 201