Kailash Satyarthi who? That was the question in India after the Norwegian Nobel Committee yesterday awarded the 2014 Peace Prize to the little-known child-rights activist from the South Asian country.
Hours after the announcement, followers on his Twitter Inc. account surged to more than 12,000 from 89 on Oct. 6 as the scramble to know more about him crashed his web page and that of his New Delhi-based Bachpan Bachao Andolan, or Save Childhood Movement. He will share the $1.1 million prize with Pakistan’s Malala Yousafzai, 17, the global face of a campaign against terrorism, illiteracy and poverty.
The 60-year-old Satyarthi has helped rescue more than 80,000 children from bondage, trafficking and exploitative labor in the past three decades. After giving up a career as an electrical engineer in 1980, he also spearheaded a movement to make free and compulsory education a constitutional right for children in India in 2009.
“People working hard at the grassroot level are hardly known by name or face,” said Vinod Shetty, a lawyer who runs an education project for children in Mumbai’s Dharavi, Asia’s second-biggest slum. “It’s a thankless job, and the award is a pat on the back for him and his family.”
India, home to the world’s highest percentage of malnourished children except for East Timor, officially had 4.35 million child workers in 2011, according to the latest data from Ministry of Labor. Satyarthi wrote in an article in the Mint newspaper in the same year that the number might be as high as 60 million.
Uttar Pradesh, India’s most-populous state accounted for 15 percent of the officially tracked child labor in the country, according to a 2012 report by the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation. The majority of children employed in the country work in the tobacco industry, followed by construction work and spinning and weaving, the report said.
In 2011, crimes against children in India rose 24 percent from the previous year with a total of 33,098 cases reported in 2011 versus 26,694 in 2010.
“The prize is a recognition to hundreds of millions of children who are still languishing in slavery, who are still deprived of their childhood, health, education and their fundamental right to life,” Satyarthi said as scores of reporters and photographers jostled in the overcrowded lobby of his office in New Delhi yesterday. “I recall all those children who are still languishing at some mine, stone quarries, brick kilns and in homes. They remain invisible and unknown.”
Satyarthi’s organization rescues child workers and provides them with free education, according to the Bachpan Bachao Andolan.
Indian President Pranab Mukherjee said the prize should be seen as a “recognition of the contributions of India’s vibrant civil society in addressing complex social problems,” according to a statement.
“It’s a prerequisite for peaceful global development that the rights of children and young people be respected,” the Norwegian Nobel Committee said in a statement yesterday. “In conflict-ridden areas in particular, the violation of children leads to the continuation of violence from generation to generation.”
Satyarthi said he had been moved at the start of his education as a boy to witness the son of a cobbler who wasn’t able to go to school because he had to work.
“I was unable to digest the fact that some people were born to work, while fortunate ones like me were able to go to school and pursue our dreams,” Satyarthi said yesterday, wearing a brown kurta, a flowing shirt worn over pajamas. “It is a myth poverty causes child labor and poverty, but it is a proven fact that child labor causes poverty, child labor perpetuates poverty and child labor perpetuates illiteracy.”
Satyarthi’s office in a middle-class neighborhood of the Indian capital was thronged yesterday with well wishers, supporters and journalists. Some of the 100-odd staff were busy passing around sweets while others tried to bring order as the place, which was packed to capacity.
Thorbjoern Jagland, the head of the committee, said at the announcement that Satyarthi has, in Mahatma Gandhi’s spirit, mobilized public opinion, in India and in other countries.
“It’s not a compensation for the fact that Mahatma Gandhi never got the prize,” Jagland said. “I don’t know why he didn’t get the prize. But we should then appreciate that one who is taking up his tradition gets the prize.”
The Nobel Peace prize, along with literature, physics, medicine and chemistry honors, was created by Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel and first awarded in 1901. Winners include the European Union, as well as U.S. President Barack Obama, Martin Luther King Jr. and Mother Teresa, who until today was the only other Indian to win the prize.
“This award will guarantee recognition and draw attention to the dangers of child labor and the need to use education as a form of intervention for vulnerable children,” Shetty said.