About 30 years ago, when I decided to declare war against child servitude, it was like chasing a wild goose in the dark since child labour was not even considered an issue and was treated as a way of life. There was nothing substantive to learn from or seek support for, except trying to emotionally sensitizing and rationally convincing the people around.
The corrupt polity and enforcement machinery, lack of political will, poor sensitivity, age-old mind-sets, scarcity of resources, absence of legal support and protection were among the biggest obstacles that came my way. It has been an equally big challenge to survive amidst danger, threats and formidable attacks, times innumerable when I have missed death by a whisker.
Recently, the Supreme Court has ruled that child labour in circuses be banned compelling the government to make amendments in child labour law. You may be aware that not too long ago, me and my colleagues from the Bachpan Bachao Andolan (BBA) had taken on the circus industry, where a large number of children, particularly girls, were being treated worse than animals. They have been trafficked, kidnapped and brought to work in circuses where physical torture and sexual abuse is a norm. These circuses are nothing short of fortresses. In the summer of 2004 I led a secret raid along with a team of parents, magistrates, police and colleagues from BBA to rescue about 12 girls — held in bondage for years.
Soon after we were allowed entry inside the residential tented area by the circus proprietor, the atmosphere turned violent. The proprietor along with his men started shouting at us claiming that there weren’t any girls. All of a sudden the flabbergasted owner pulled out his pistol at me. As luck would have it, the video camera of a TV Channel was on. With the camera exposed, the conniving police personnel on the spot advised the owner to hide his gun as the footage was being captured in the recording device.
The owner immediately pulled his pistol back but ordered his people to kill me and my colleagues. In this murderous attempt six of us were gravely injured and had to be rushed to the hospital by passers by. Since we failed to rescue the girls, I announced a fast-unto-death in protest against this social evil on the second day of my being discharged by the hospital.
We tried to build up a strong public movement around this issue and simultaneously approached the High Court. Finally complying with the order issued by the court, 24 girls were rescued. Subsequently we moved the SC seeking a permanent remedy and we succeeded against all odds.
Yet another incident that I can recount, occurred in 1989 when after rescuing 14 bounded child labourers from a carpet weaving unit near Allahabad, I was waiting at the Mirzapur railway station for the train back to Delhi on a freezing winter night. I saw at least 30-40 scantily clad children shivering on the another platform on the station. These children were in a group and were being chased and steered by a man as though they were cattle. When I intervened and questioned the trafficker, a policeman who was an accomplice in this act manhandled me and locked me up in a cell at the railway station itself. Throughout the night I kept sitting on a stone bench inside the cell without a blanket. For a few hours, I was annoyed and upset at the whole incident, but gradually as the night passed, realization dawned upon me that rescuing a few children here and there would make no dent. I realized that the demand for child labourers who come cheap and easy was on the same wavelength as the demand for Indian carpets in western markets.
In the morning when I was freed from the lock up, I walked out with a new lease of commitment and called up my German supporter, Rainer Kruse later in the evening to launch a carpet consumers’ campaign. I was completely cognizant of the risk that the Indian carpet industry ran towards a total ban on the product in western markets. I engineered a technique for individually accrediting child labour-free carpets, which eventually resulted in the first ever social label of child labour-free goods in the world, popularly known as Rugmark. It was obviously difficult to proselytize European charities to join me in this campaign, at a time when the phenomenon of Corporate Social Responsibility had not been discovered.
Initially the industry and its allies in the government brandished me a traitor for ruining the economy. This did not deter me. Today, one third of the total carpet traded from South Asia is Rugmark certified and there exists no other example where the number of child and bonded labourers has decreased from ten lakhs to barely three lakhs as it happened in South Asia.