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Meet the New Heroes
Kailash Satyarthi

Photo: Red Hill Productions

Kailash Satyarthi

Projects: Global March Against Child Labor, Bachpan Bachao Andolan (BBA), South Asian Coalition on Child Servitude (SACCS), Rugmark

Locations: New Delhi, India (headquarters), partners in Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka

Kailash Satyarthi has saved tens of thousands of lives. At the age of 26 he gave up a promising career as an electrical engineer and dedicated his life to helping the millions of children in India who are forced into slavery by powerful and corrupt business- and land-owners. His original idea was daring and dangerous. He decided to mount raids on factories — factories frequently manned by armed guards — where children and often entire families were held captive as bonded workers.

After successfully freeing and rehabilitating thousands of children, he went on to build up a global movement against child labor. Today Kailash heads up the Global March Against Child Labor, a conglomeration of 2000 social-purpose organizations and trade unions in 140 countries.

Yet even as he has become a globally recognized figure, Kailash continues the gritty work of leading raids to free slaves. Kailash believes that he must focus on a range of activities -- from the most grassroots to the most visionary -- in order to win the fight.

What Does SACCS Do?

Since its inception in 1989, SACCS and its partners have liberated nearly 40,000 bonded laborers, many of them bonded, working in various industries, including rug manufacturing. But to free such children without offering new opportunities would, in Kailash's view, be meaningless.

Bal Ashram in Rajasthan, India is a transition center where newly-freed slaves are taught basic skills. Kailash describes the arrival of a girl recently freed from a stone quarry: "It's a joyous experience to watch the changing emotions flit across this beautiful girl's face. She's like an open book, and her varying expressions tell us a story: the story of transition from slavery to a new life of freedom. When her face lights up, it is clear she is taking her first steps toward freedom and belief in others."

Since the Ashram can only serve 100 children at a time, Kailash has begun a program called "Bal Mitra Gram" to encourage Indian villages to abolish child labor. In order to be a part of the program, an entire community must agree that no child will be put to work and every child will be sent to school.

While changing India village by village is a worthwhile pursuit, such a strategy could take centuries to achieve Kailash's goal, and he is not prepared to wait that long. So he has begun attacking the problem by harnessing the immense power of market forces.

Many rugs from South Asia are manufactured using child labor. Kailash believes that if consumers around the world knew how their expensive and colorful Indian rugs were made, they would no longer think they were so beautiful. He started "Rugmark," a program in which rugs are labeled and certified to be child-labor-free by factories who that agree to be regularly inspected. Kailash plans to extend the labeling program to other products such as soccer balls, another popular product that is commonly made by children.

Kailash says "If not now, then when? If not you, then who? If we are able to answer these fundamental questions, then perhaps we can wipe away the blot of human slavery."