By Yashodhan Ghorpade
I first met Kailash Satyarthi in 2005, when, while studying for a postgraduate degree in economics, I was planning to undertake a study of children working in gemstones polishing in Jaipur. I had contacted the Bachpan Bachao Andolan (BBA) for an internship to make my research project in Jaipur possible. Kailashji greeted me with an affectionate smile and we started discussing my research ideas.
I wanted to compare home- and factory-based child labour in gemstones polishing and study what determined the choice of where children work. Not convinced by the relevance or perhaps viability of my project, he suggested I focus on the ways in which employers recruit and treat children, and the problems children face. I pushed back, making a case for studying market failures that cause child labour. He agreed that that was important but added that child labour was not only an economic problem but a social ill, even a crime against god, because children, he said, “are a form of god”. Who could disagree? He suggested I focus on generating recommendations that the BBA could act on. I asked him about its approach, even suggesting that its focus on raid-and-rescue missions seemed to constitute only a partial response. He smiled again and patiently explained that raid-and-rescue was the first step and that the BBA coordinated closely with the district administration to reunite abducted children with their families. The BBA also runs care homes for rescued children and drives media campaigns to highlight the problem.
He then confirmed my internship and asked his staff in Delhi and Jaipur to help with my work.
I read up on child labour. Kaushik Basu and P.H. Van’s famous paper on multiple equilibria was instructive, invoking action to move from a bad equilibrium marked by low adult wages and high child labour to a good equilibrium with high adult wages and low child labour. Child labour is not a manifestation of low parental concern, but of poverty. The economics of child labour is critical. Ignoring it can lead to idealistic but flawed responses. I recall reading of an instance when a ban, in the West, on carpets made by children in Nepal led many of the girls working in the industry to enter prostitution. Prashant Bharadwaj and his collaborators show that the ban on child labour in India actually reduced children’s wages, causing longer work hours and reduced school enrolment. In my own recent research on child labour in the garments factories of Tiruppur, a group of working children coolly recounted how they hid behind bales of cloth when labour inspectors visited.
The existence of child labour also, of course, marks a deep social failure. In India, in particular, the social consciousness against child labour is weak. While the labelling of child labour-free products, such as the BBA’s Rugmark initiative, have resonated in the West, the absence of any such mechanism for products in India is stark. Retailers don’t always know whether the carpets, pottery or firecrackers they sell are free of child labour. Perhaps few consumers care enough for labelling or certification to be viable. Observed reductions in the employment of children in homes or shops are perhaps driven by expanding education and its rising returns, not matched
by any compunction many of us feel in employing children.
Even as we must recognise poverty as giving rise to the need for children to work, a progressive social consensus cannot dismiss child trafficking, hazardous child labour or child illiteracy as teething trouble during the transition from bad to good equilibria. This I recognised
most clearly in my interactions with BBA volunteers and staff, each driven by idealism to change the prevailing social consciousness. Kailashji’s struggles and his grit and commitment in the face of threats formed the heady folklore that sustained the spirit of the BBA office. Occasionally there was talk of the Nobel Peace Prize, but my impression was that no one in the office thought it a real or near-possibility then.
In Jaipur, I found most working children based at home, often combining schooling with some gemstones polishing. The failings of the schools in my field sites were evident — from teacher absenteeism and poor teaching quality to the stigma
attached to repeating a class, at every step there was compelling reason to encourage dropping out. Faced with only a bleak chance that their children would complete enough school to secure a livelihood, many parents fell back on the family-based and skill-imparting trade for the occupational security of gem-polishing. In such a setting, distinct from carpet factories or brick kilns, the BBA and its partners focused on bridge schooling and delaying children’s entry into the workforce rather than raid-and-rescue.
Towards the end of my internship, Kailashji asked how my research was progressing and what I had learned. I told him that the poor quality of schooling was a bigger problem than children working. He stared at me and said, “Write that in your report”. I sent the BBA a version of my dissertation, which was immediately acknowledged and, I believe, kept in their records.
I feel fortunate to have known Kailashji and the BBA long before the Nobel Peace Prize. His relative inconspicuousness in Indian public life thus far is yet another facet of the social failure he and his team have been working to overcome. In this moment of recognition, there may also lie an opening for remedy.
The writer is at Institute of Development Studies, Sussex