Why didn’t you come earlier? When Nobel Laureate Kailash Satyarthi was asked this question, he realised its import, and was in tears…

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Every single child, every single childhood matters. Once Netaji (Subhash Chandra Bose) said “Tum mujhe khoon do, mein tumhe azaadi doonga.” (Give me blood, I’ll give you freedom.) Today, when you Rotarians pledge to send back 1 lakh children to school in your bid to eradicate illiteracy in India, millions of children left out of education are telling us: “Tum mujhe education do, and I will give you peace, prosperity and a great, proud India.”

With these magic words, Nobel Peace Laureate Kailash Satyarthi held spellbound the delegates of the Rotary Presidential Conference on Literacy and Wash in Schools in Kolkata.

In his hour-long speech, he thundered, he cajoled, he encouraged, and motivated Rotarians to look far beyond the “modest” goal they had set for themselves — 1 lakh children in one year. “This hall is a powerhouse, and I can feel that power. The world knows that polio was a curse and Rotarians fought against it and have successfully eradicated it (from India). I was so eager to see what kind of people are these who can take such a big challenge and succeed in it,” he said.

Millions of children left out of education are telling us: ‘Tum mujhe education do, and
I will give you peace, prosperity and a great, proud India.’

And now Rotarians had geared up for another massive challenge — “to eradicate another kind of polio. Polio is a physical ailment, but illiteracy is a polio which is a social, mental and economic disease … the biggest impediment in economic growth and social justice. When you pledge to fight it, you are warriors and heroes.”

Handing out generous praise to Rotarians, Satyarthi said he felt that in the Netaji Indoor Stadium, the venue, a yagya (a Hindu ritual), was taking place, which was “beyond the Hindu religious yagya. This is an assembly for the betterment and enlightenment of society.” Quoting the Vasudeva Kudumbam mantra from the Rig Veda, which says the whole world is one large family, he said: “This mantra is a call for the betterment of humanity and enlightenment. I can see from your faces and hearts that you are ready to light the fire of knowledge which could be converted into prosperity” for the nation, and the world. Thousands of years ago, Indian rishis, “the masters of knowledge and wisdom, had linked the power of knowledge to economic growth, and now the World Bank and IMF research reports establish this ancient wisdom.”

Satyarthi said Rotary’s larger goal — to send back to school 3 lakh children in three years — “is too small. It is not such an astronomical thing for you. You can do it. Seeing your power, passion, experience and approach, I can tell you that this target is too small, you can make India illiteracy-free.” But for this to happen, freedom from slavery and labour was necessary, he reiterated.

Recalling his incredible journey which has so far rescued over 83,000 children out of slavery, Satyarthi said that on his first day of schooling in Madhya Pradesh, when he saw a 5-year-old shoe shiner asking for work from students like him, “I asked my teacher: Sir why is he not sitting in the classroom with the rest of us?”

The teacher’s explanation that poor children had to work to earn a livelihood and this was very common in society, cut no ice with him. “I saw him everyday, his empty eyes desperate for a job from us, but we all wore new shoes so we had no job for him.” So he asked the child’s father, “Babuji, why don’t you send your son to school? He was shocked and said, no no, you are Babuji, not I. He said I’ve never thought about it; my father, grandfather and I’ve done this work since childhood, and so does my son. Nothing is new.”

When I asked the little shoe-shiner boy’s father: “Babuji, why don’t you send your son to school, he was shocked and
said, ‘No no, you are Babuji, not I.’ ”

But it was the second part of his answer that remained as question for Satyarthi for his entire life. “He said, ‘Babuji, you don’t know, we people are born to work.’ He thought so because he was born in a particular caste and I had no understanding of the caste system at the age of 5. But I refused to accept that day, as now, that some children are born to work at the cost of their childhood, freedom, education, health … or even dreams.”

For years he fought with himself on how to find an answer to this question. For long years the rights of children were not acknowledged globally. “They were non-issues, until 1989 when the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child was adopted. “Till then there was no notion of child rights.” So when he gave up his career as an electrical engineer in 1980-81, and started his quest to return children their childhood, there were no takers and people suggested he do some charity work or start an orphanage or school for poor children. “But I could see something beyond poverty and that was the denial of human dignity and liberty, which are non-negotiable rights. I strongly felt then, as now, that every human being is born free because that is the most precious gift of God. As is learning … not only a Constitutional or legal right, it is divine right given to us by God.” So he has spent his life fighting obstacles placed in the way of that divine right.

From L to R: RI Director Manoj Desai, RI President K R Ravindran, TRF Trustee Chair Ray Klinginsmith, Nobel Laureate Kailash Satyarthi, Conference Chair and PRID Shekhar Mehta and PRIP Rajendra K Saboo.
From L to R: RI Director Manoj Desai, RI President K R Ravindran, TRF Trustee Chair Ray Klinginsmith, Nobel Laureate Kailash Satyarthi, Conference Chair and PRID Shekhar Mehta and PRIP Rajendra K Saboo.

Relating a heart-searing story of one of his earlier rescue missions, Satyarthi said some years ago he rescued a group of 36 persons, some of whom were sexually abused, from an illegally run Haryana stone quarry belonging to a powerful politician. “So we couldn’t rely on the police. I put the children in my car and the rest in a truck. It was 4 a m and I was driving fast and soon realised that the children were traumatised and couldn’t comprehend what was happening. They had never seen roads, cars or trucks.” He offered them bananas kept on the back seat, but they had no idea what these were. When he urged them to eat, they first did so with the skin on, and didn’t like the fruit. Finally after peeling one, and tasting it, 6-year-old Devali seated next to him tugged at his sleeve and said angrily, “Kyo re, tu pehley kyo nahi aaya? (Why didn’t you come earlier?)”

This anger, added Satyarthi, was because the girl had seen how her mother was raped and her father beaten when he tried to save her. She’d seen her brother die for want of medication. She had been let down by everybody, but “suddenly her trust in society began. I could sense it and was in tears. I felt so lucky that thanks to me, she could finally feel some trust in society. Her question was not only to me but everybody who is a human being … of any religion, any constitution, any law.”

He then threw a challenge to the assembled Rotarians. “What will you people do to address the challenges in society raised by this question from Devali?” Later, after rehabilitation, the same child became “such an inspired and motivated girl that in her hometown she sent back to school every single child in her neighbourhood … all 30 of them. Those who had never ever seen a school wall, were sent to school by a tiny girl who was born in slavery and who had never tasted a banana!”

Every human being is born free because that is the most precious gift of God.

Many years later, when he was invited to address an important UN session on education, attended by a group of State heads and kings and queens, he took with him to the dais Devali and a few other children. She told me “Bhaisaab ji, I’ve never seen so many white people. How did they become so white … and fat? How can I become so fat?”

She related her story on how she had sent to school so many children and “threw a moral challenge at them by asking: ‘When I could do it, why can’t you free the world of ignorance and illiteracy? You have power and money, you can do it.’ Many of them were in tears.” The Australian Prime Minister, the Queen of Qatar, etc, hugged her and on the spot promises and pledges were made for $450 million to educate children.

Repeatedly raising his voice and chanting ‘You can do it’, he said he could feel the power inside the hall. The founder of the Global Campaign for Education, which exists in 180 countries, and organiser of the Global March against Child Labour in 140 countries, he could authoritatively tell them that over 100 million children were victims of trafficking and sexual abuse, illiteracy, child marriage, etc. But on the other hand, there were 100 million young people in the world full of energy, idealism and hunger to do something good. For them I am going to launch a campaign ‘100 million for 100 million.’

“For 10 crore bachho or yuva ke liye let us make 10 crore young champions, change makers and heroes, so that the children who are left out, and the young people who want to do something good for society, can connect with them. This way we are going to globalise compassion, build a global civil society with a sense of global citizenship.”


Each one could make his own contribution for this cause in different ways. “I am so happy that the Kailash Satyarthi Children’s Foundation and Rotary are joining hands. Though I am not a formal Rotarian, being with so many Rotarians I feel I am also one,” he added.

Promising to help the Rotary India Literacy Mission to send back children to school, he said, “Together, we will extinguish the fire of illiteracy in this world. We will do it.”

Conference Chair and PRID Shekhar Mehta said when they went to invite Satyarthi and briefed him on what RILM was doing, he was amazed that businessmen and professionals of Rotary “had gone into such details on literacy. That was a big compliment and we requested him to come here. He said I have only 19,000 invitations pending, but I promise you that if the smallest window opens, I will do it. We are grateful that he has come.”

Please do not employ children as domestic labour — it’s immoral, unethical, illegal.

An MoU of cooperation was signed between the Kailash Satyarthi Foundation for Children and the Rotary South Asia Society for Development and Co-operation to “launch a joint campaign to enrol 3 lakh out-of-school children across India into schools in three years,” under the Asha Kiran project.

An agile and enterprising Mehta grabbed the opportunity to raise funds for the freshly minted agreement. He announced that an incoming Governor Abhay Gadgil, from RI District 3131, was celebrating his birthday that day by donating Rs 11 lakh for this cause. He urged Satyarthi to wait for a few minutes and shake hands with Rotarians who donated Rs 5 lakh or more for the cause. Within minutes Rs 1.3 crore was raised; Rs 50 lakh coming from Rtn Vishram Patel from Seychelles (D 9220); Rs 15 lakh from Rtn Suresh Poddar, and generous contributions from Sanjib Choudhury, President of RC Calcutta Megacity, PDGs Vinay Kulkarni (D 3131), Rajendra Khandelval (D 3291), Ravi Vadlamani (D 3150), Dattareya Deshmukh (D 3030) and the Inner Wheel clubs.

Pictures by Rasheeda Bhagat


Every child has freed me

Addressing hundreds of moist eyes in an enthralled audience, Kailash Satyarthi said: “When I rescued all those children, I felt that I am freeing myself. I did not free any child, every child freed me from inside, and I am thankful to them all. Each time I see a child and witness the first smile of freedom on that child’s face, each time a mother who had lost all hope of getting her child back hugs the child, and tears roll down her cheek, I get a glimpse of god.”

He said he felt absolutely fortunate; “I don’t know who has seen god, but I have seen god at least 80,000 times in my life. (He has rescued over 83,000 children from child labour.) You can do it. Most of you are religious people. All religions teach compassion, let us begin practising compassion. If you make a child smile — an unknown child who you don’t
know — that would be the beginning of witnessing the god inside you.”

“In all your neighbourhoods there are slums, poor areas. On Saturdays or Sundays, take some time off and take your children or grandchildren … go and eat with them, play with them, laugh with them. That will be the beginning of empowerment for them and beginning of the realisation of god inside you.”

You can do it

“See what the moral voice of a tiny girl can do. There is sense of commitment, idealism, a Devali inside each one of you, that’s why you are here. Do you think you can send only 100,000 children to schools? Why not all of them? Don’t be shy, you can do it. It’s a moral obligation for all of us. When a child enters a school gate … the moment the door of a classroom opens for a child, millions of doors of opportunities open for her. The power of the pen is a million times more than the power of a gun. When the wall of a school is constructed, millions of walls and boundaries —
social, economic and political come down. Education is power, an enabler, equaliser, change maker, transformer. And it is not a charity that you’re doing; education is a right which you bring into the lives of these children.”

Neither employ, nor tolerate child labour


You come from different cities, State capitals and so your outreach is vast. You are doctors, engineers, businessmen, educationists. I’m not asking you to give up your careers but you can do so much in your own way. Your friends or relatives might be using child domestic labour… some might be thinking they are poor and will starve if they don’t work for us. At least we give them food. Please, please, think that these children have all the potential and possibilities as your children.”

With these words Nobel Peace Laureate Kailash Satyarthi appealed to a mega gathering of Rotarians at the Rotary Presidential Conference not to ever employ or tolerate child labour. “If you are a good human being, employ their parents or elder siblings, but never engage children as domestic workers. It’s immoral, it’s illegal it’s unethical and it’s economically unviable for society. If you go to a shop where a child is serving you and you happily ignore that, please remember the child’s mother is waiting for him somewhere.”

He thundered: “Do you know that in India seven children go missing every hour? And their mothers are waiting eagerly for them. If you are happily enjoying the tea or snacks served by children on the streets, you are fuelling the crime, the sin and the tears in the eyes of those mothers. I call upon your conscience. Please don’t use the hospitality of those children.”

Since Rotarians were the “new champions” for sending children back to schools, “try to find out more about that child. Make a record, take notes, and ensure that the child gets back into school.”

He then related stories of the children he had rescued from slavery and labour, often brutally assaulted and beaten up while doing so. Way back in 1981, when he rescued the first group of children from a brick kiln, acting on the complaint of a desperate father that his daughter, only 15, was going to be sold to a brothel, “we were beaten up. But I went to court; India did not have a law at that time but there was an old British law — I used the habeas corpus law and finally liberated her.”

– RB

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