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How Kailash Satyarthi helped us bust a child labour racket

Vishwas Kumar
Vishwas KumarOct 11, 2014 | 12:54

How Kailash Satyarthi helped us bust a child labour racket

Kailash Satyarthi

It was 2007. I worked for a Delhi-based tabloid. We were a bunch of young reporters trying to carve a niche for ourselves by reporting on stories that shocked people and also changed things for the better. We would also dig deeper into stories than other regular newspapers. It was then that I first met Kailash Satyarthi.

There was a devastating fire in an illegal factory in central Delhi's Beadonpura. It had left six charred to death. They couldn't escape the fire at night because they were locked in by the factory owner lest they escape. The incident was widely reported for a few days and then it vanished. But they were many questions which were left unanswered: Why would the factory owner lock them up? Were they slaves or bonded labour? Who were they and where did they come from? Were they children or adults?

A little sniffing around revealed a sordid reality buried in the heart of the capital. These areas, part of Karol Bagh, were home to a number of jewellery factories that employed children from West Bengal. Some of them as young as eight. I had met Satyarthi at one of his numerous conferences that he held to garner media support for the cause of missing children and child labour.

We were looking for more than just a story. We wanted to rescue these children and rehabilitate them. Satyarthi assigned his Bachpan Bachao Aandolan colleague Rakesh Sengar to work with us. Rakesh started attending our editorial meetings to chalk out a strategy. We had to be discreet, we had to have evidence beforehand, and we had to have this all on tape to precede any kind of raid. The area, Beadonpura and Raigarpura, is heavily congested, the kundan units (jewellery factories) belong to the rich and powerful traders who have huge showrooms in Karol Bagh's gold street.

We discovered that there was a institute for jewellery worksmanship. I decided to pose as a student of the institute and roped in a young reporter, Shivika Shankar, to join me. On our very first day, we were confronted with a heart-wrenching sight. We saw close to a dozen young boys, holed up in a less-than-10x10-feet room, sitting around a gas-burner, throwing high flame to melt gold and other metals.

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Gold melts at 1,064 degrees Celsius, that's ten times more than it takes for water to boil. Coffee served at 82 degrees Celsius can cause a third-degree burn in three seconds! Yet these children were working without any protection, gloves, or eyeshades.

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There was no ventilation either. Their young faces shone in the fierce blaze of the furnace. A fan meant risking a fire. I happened to look at the fingertips of one boy, the residue of chemicals on his burnt fingers made him look like a character from a sci-fi film. With acid, potassium cyanide, nickel, the dank air was poisonous. We later learned that seven out of ten children here would end up contracting tuberculosis.

For a couple of thousand rupees for a month's work, they were being exposed to toxic fumes and debilitating chemicals. They ate, slept, worked in that low-ceiling dungeon, with a disturbing stench.

Our resolve to "rescue" them grew even stronger.

On the pretext of learning traditional jewellery design, we continued visiting them over the week and secretly recorded our conversations.

Once we had it all, the BBA team and the Delhi Police swung into action. Policemen, who are used to such extreme cases, were also shocked to see the state of affairs in these hellholes.

The Delhi government intervened to rehabilitate the children and take legal action. Kailash Satyarthi was happy with the work. He undertook this as a mission. We understood why. The joy of breaking another child labour ring. The assurance that these 100 street children can see the light of the day, and will be taken care of.

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Today, Kailashji (as he is fondly called) is a Nobel laureate. We all are ecstatic. I am sure he is smiling ear-to-ear, the same content smile that he sports after rescue operations like the one I became part of. All that glitters is not gold. Kailash and his colleagues like Rakesh are real gold.

Last updated: January 11, 2016 | 11:37
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