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Birth of Global March Movement

How did the Global March begin? How was this idea born? Who were the people behind it? Although the questions were not new and had been asked occasionally by different people on different occasions yet they surfaced again recently during an external evaluation of the Global March Movement conducted by two consultants - Theo from Netherlands and Amit, from India. They travelled with me to Bal Ashram, our transit rehabilitation centre for freed bonded children and child labourers about 200 kms away from Delhi, the capital of India. The lively discussion about Global March was carried out atop a cement tank, several feet high where water is stored for drinking and other purposes. The rooftop gives you a panoramic view as you find yourself surrounded with the Aravalli ranges -- one of the most ancient hills of the Earth. The evaluators were explicitly anxious to start with a very important question - perhaps the very basic question for their task- whether the Global March is a loose conglomeration of NGOs or is it a movement? The answer partly lay in its genesis and in the present status and the future vision. The debate started in the evening and continued till late at night.

It was not too difficult for me to recall those exciting moments, perhaps historical, when we had a long reflection on our strengths and weaknesses with a similar external consultant, Prof Vasudevan in 1996. The place at that time was also an interesting one. It was a thatched hut built of straw and bamboo in the middle of the grounds, another of our rehabilitation centre for boys, commonly referred as the 'Gol Kutia' in Mukti Ashram, on the outskirts of Delhi. After we finished our organisational development exercise with our key activists, we continued chatting in a light mood with the children, the Ashram director Suman, our former project director Narayan Singh, activists like Khan, and former bonded child labourers- Govind, Mohan, Shaukat and a few more. A common strength identified by all of us in our organisation SACCS (South Asian Coalition on Child Servitude), popularly known as BBA (Bachpan Bachao Andolan) in India, was the innovative initiatives and the absolute determination to carry on the struggle against child labour. Suddenly, some children asked what should be our next most ambitious and innovative endeavour and spontaneously I asked them, "Why don't we go for a global march against child labour?"

A moment's silence prevailed. And then the faces of all those present brightened up with the challenging idea. The excitement was palpable. The enthusiasm emanating from all of us was truly encouraging. An animated discussion soon followed to make the Global March, just a mere idea then, into a reality. Interesting questions came pouring in from the children. "Shall we walk like the past marches or just fly in a aeroplane?" asked a child. "How big is an aeroplane? How can we eat within it or go to the toilet?" asked another. The random questions touched my heart and made me smile at their curiosity and innocence. They were among the millions of other children who have never seen an aeroplane or a train or a telephone in their lives. Yet they were so eager and excited to know everything.

I was visibly moved by their positive reaction and a deep sense of trust towards me. I really felt empowered. In no time, we took out an old world map and chalked out the possible routes across the globe with maximum of surface distance and minimum of air travel keeping in mind the major areas of child labour predominance. This did not mean that I was totally unaware of the hardships and potential difficulties starting with funding, support base, inter - territorial problems, diplomatic issues, passport, visas, selection of children, security and safety, legal matters and above all ideological and political divides and constraints on the issue itself. But it was a real challenge for us.

We know that there are two kinds of worlds - one comprises of the world of victims and the exploited lot consisting of children, women, poor indigenous people, minorities and so on. And the other world consist of those who merely talk about them, conduct research on behalf of the sufferers, write on them, organise conferences and provide glossy reports."

You may be curious to know why I suggested for a worldwide march and not something else. Of course, the seeds were sown somewhere in my subconscious when we had successfully organised three huge marches of the same pattern before - the Bihar-Delhi March in 1993, Bharat Yatra the Indian March against child labour in 1994 and the South Asian March from Kolkata to Kathmandu in 1995. The soul of these marches lay in the powerful voices of the children - who were the key partners in all these marches. These were the children who had gone through the trauma of exploitation and agony, bondage, servitude and prostitution. The moment of their first step for change and the first chant against exploitation would always echo in my ears. Every step followed by hundreds and thousands of others and every slogan multiplied with many more led to the birth of a movement against child labour in India. People from the media, politicians, government officials, businessmen, ordinary villagers and the parents joined in these marches. No one had the courage to justify that child labour should continue when these young marchers emphatically opposed it. No one could ignore the divine and sublime voices of the children demanding freedom and education. In our every step, every day we saw the building and creation of the movement, which could not be quantified through any measurable indicators.

Marching with children, parents, teachers, concerned individuals, social workers in remotest villages and suburbs, industrial areas and towns was one of the most effective ways to approach the ordinary people and establish heart to heart dialogue with them, not just for preaching but also for learning.

However, by watching the media or tracking the political debate in the parliament or court judgement one could have measured some kind of success. But the level of consciousness raised around this issue, which was a non-issue for many people in many places, was tremendous. Perhaps this was the key base for thinking the unthinkable.

It is the absolute truth that those who cannot take risks and accept big challenges to bring societal changes should not dream of making a better world. The scourge of child labour is one of them, a structural and systemic problem. In the name of reality and myths, poverty has been perpetuated for ages and the real beneficiaries have been those who look for cheap and docile labour. Those who want to find all the solutions to the problems always as part of establishment within the existing system and don't want to challenge and fight it out may be more happy and comfortable with minor accomplishments.

We know that there are two kinds of worlds - one comprises of the world of victims and the exploited lot consisting of children, women, poor indigenous people, minorities and so on. And the other world consist of those who merely talk about them, conduct research on behalf of the sufferers, write on them, organise conferences and provide glossy reports. The people of the first world thus become mere commodities, or objects of usage to serve the purpose of the second world. Don’t you think it's essential and ethical to bring these two worlds closer? Why don't the advocates of the sufferers genuinely go and join hands with the exploited lot and gradually give them the leadership so that these ordinary people can speak for themselves and share their dreams and aspirations?

We chose the path, which was comparatively troublesome but still it led to a sustainable solution - the building up of a worldwide movement against the social menace. And so we opted for the time-tested tool, the children's march.

An important concern was the time constraint. We wanted to organise the march sometime in 1998 and one year was too less of a time for the preparation of such events and activities. I was heavily counting upon some of our friends and organisations in Asia, Europe and America. We had good relations in the carpet consumers' campaign (Rugmark) which I had launched in ’89- 90 in Germany and rest of Europe and later, in North America to sensitise the consumers about the rugs made by child slaves in India, Pakistan and Nepal. There were some other groups in the west who were working on human rights and slavery issues, the most important being the International Trade Unions. Overwhelmed with the support of the former slave children and colleagues at SACCS, I thought of contacting those friends. The first reaction from a friend was, "I believe in you, you can do it." The second and the third friend on the other hand asked me whether I have become crazy and how can I get into this madness? Some thought the idea to be wonderful but more of a fantasy than reality. Another of my friend even jokingly commented, "So you finally want your wife to divorce you?" Others just wanted to focus on consumers' campaign. Many were concerned about the source of money, which might amount to millions of dollars. I was happy that the people have at least started reacting, which meant they looked at it seriously in one way or the other.

The idea of the march finally took shape in 1998. It was really interesting to see thousands of organisations and millions of people associating themselves with the same title during the 80,000 km march.

And now it is a worldwide movement in about 150 countries! What else can you call it but God's wish to see us taking up the challenge and turning it into a reality!

...To be continued in the next speech , the part II of the Global March movement .

Kailash Satyarthi... the seeker of truth
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