Review: Why Didn’t You Come Sooner? by Kailash Satyarthi
The Nobel laureate’s new book recounts the stories of 12 rescued child labourers interspersed with wisdom gleaned over many years of interacting with children in dire circumstances
Nobel Peace laureate Kailash Satyarthi’s latest book consists of 12 comprehensive accounts of children he has rescued. These gut-wrenching stories have been picked from those of countless nameless, faceless children across India, who routinely become slaves in industries such as stone quarrying, mica mining, carpet weaving, agriculture and in circuses and brick kilns. They are exploited, kidnapped, trafficked, sold, abused and experience horrific incidents of trauma.
When Sabo was freed from a brick kiln in 1981, she became the spark that led to Satyarthi’s worldwide movement to end child labour and slavery. Eight-year-old Devli belonged to the third generation of a family trapped in slavery and bonded labour at a stone quarry. After her rescue in 2004, she asked Satyarthi a question that has stayed with him all these years: “Why didn’t you come sooner?” It became the title of this book. In 2008, she addressed world leaders at the United Nations to ensure the freedom and education of children. The following year, she presented her views on the right to education at the UN General Assembly in New York.
Considered a bad omen by his family and village, Pradeep was made to work at a tea stall, where he was mistreated and injured. Narrowly escaping death, he was full of mistrust and fear when he was rescued by Satyarthi and his team. His journey of healing gradually began at Bal Ashram, a centre for the education, training and rehabilitation of rescued bonded and child labourers in Jaipur district. After staying at the ashram for 12 years, Pradeep is today a financially independent and self-reliant young man.
In 1995, Satyarthi’s team rescued a grievously injured Ashraf who worked as a child labourer in the home of a government official. Branded a thief for sipping some leftover milk, his employers punished him by burning parts of his body. The case got a lot of media attention, and was taken up seriously by the National Human Rights Commission. In 1996, Ashraf was rehabilitated and educated at Mukti Ashram, a centre for rescued bonded and child labourers. In 2000, he participated in an international campaign against child labour in Washington, DC. Two years later, he participated in a programme organised by the International Labour Organisation in Geneva. Further, his efforts planted the seed for the amendment of India’s law against domestic child labour in 2008.
Kalu was wounded and burnt at a carpet weaving factory where he worked for around four years. Working nearly 16 hours a day, he was paid no wages. After he was rescued by Satyarthi’s team in 1997, Kalu was educated at Bal Ashram. When Kalu met then US President Bill Clinton, he asked him what he was doing to eradicate child labour. Before the end of his term, Clinton increased the fund for the elimination of child labour globally from $30 million to $150 million.
In 1999, nine-year-old Om Prakash was rescued from agricultural child labour. He went on to form an organisation called Paathshala, which educated needy children and delivered sports equipment to them. Currently, he is an activist with the Bachpan Bachao Andolan.
When Bhavna was eight years old, she was transported from Nepal to India to work in a circus. There, she faced numerous atrocities and sexual abuse for many years. In 2004, she was freed from the circus along with 23 other girls. Her story led to the first proper legal framework against human trafficking in India.
Manan Ansari was born in Jharkhand’s mica belt, where he worked for two years as a child. His story shows how mica mines are graves for innumerable children and parents who are buried alive under them. It also brings out the irony of beauty products whose shine is created through the blood and sweat of children like Manan. Satyarthi reveals that many of the approximately 5000 children involved in the extraction of mica are as young as five years old. Like others in the book, Manan’s story is one of hope. Currently employed as a junior scientist, he is applying to pursue research in microbiology at a prestigious institute in Europe or America.
These stories have been sensitively told, and consist of vivid memories and anecdotes of incidents as well as the author’s interactions with each of the children. Their journeys became a fundamental part of Satyarthi’s life purpose. 12 years in the making, this book is interspersed with several nuggets of wisdom gleaned over many years of interacting with rescued children. Along the way, the author also shares details about his organisation and the varied work it does, such as cultural programmes, celebrating public holidays as well as the birthdays of every child at the ashram. Satyarthi’s family, comprising his wife Sumedha and children Bhuwan and Asmita, have played an integral role in this journey along with him. “When you witness humanity and childhood re-emerge in a child, it feels like the universe is celebrating,” he writes.
A freelance writer based in New Delhi, Neha Kirpal writes primarily on books, music, films, theatre and travel.