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And the Nobel goes to… (Kailash Satyarthi, who?)

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Why is it that we know so little about this man who was deemed Nobel-worthy?
For many Indians, 10 October was the first time they heard of a man called Kailash Satyarthi. Desperate Google searches were the order of the day, as people everywhere quickly tried to bring themselves up to date on this unknown man who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize along with 17-year-old Malala Yousafzai from Pakistan, whom we all know, thanks to Western media. By the end of the day, a 101 on Satyarthi was available. We had all learnt that he gave up his job as an electrical engineer to lead a movement against child labour under his NGO Bachpan Bachao Andolan, and had rescued 80,000 children through three decades of hard work.

It led to a certain amount of honest soul-searching on the part of media for completely ignoring him heretofore. Why is it that we know so little about this man who was deemed Nobel-worthy? Is it because of the cause he is associated with? The ubiquity of child labour in India does not make for breaking news. But, Satyarthi was generous in acknowledging the role that India has played in bringing him this honour. In an interview to a television channel after the announcement he said, beaming with pride, “India is the country of hundreds of problems, but it is also the country of millions of solutions.” When asked what inspired him to fight for children, he replied off-handedly, “Somebody had to do it.”

60-year-old Satyarthi has been advocating for strict laws against child labour and trafficking. His pet theory is simple and logical, and yet as a nation we need to constantly be reminded of it; child labour is not the result of poverty, rather it perpetuates illiteracy and poverty. In 2011, he estimated the child labour figure in India at 60 million. His work has most often centered around mass marches and conducting raids at factories and units where children are employed as bonded labourers, and by creating consumer resistance to products made by children. This had led to the death of two activists working with Bachpan Bachao Andolan.

In an interview to BBC earlier this year, he blamed the middle class in India for the culture of child slavery. “This is the most ironical part of India’s growth. The middle classes are demanding cheap, docile labour.” Adding, “The cheapest and most vulnerable workforce is a child – girls in particular. So the demand for cheap labour is contributing to trafficking of children from remote parts of India to big cities.” It also came as news for many, that Satyarthi was nominated several times in the past for the Nobel. He edged out Pope Francis, whistleblower Edward Snowden and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who were the other nominees this year.

The timing of this Nobel was certainly noteworthy. Along with the outpouring of congratulations, there were messages exhorting the two warring nations, India and Pakistan to make peace at the border.