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If not now, then when? And if not you, then who?

It’s been a long time since I have spoken to you in my column. But this gap had been full of challenges, excitements, thrills and achievements. Let me start with Mirkee with whom I am sitting along with other people. 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 she smiles, her face lights up and it is apparent that she is taking her first step towards freedom and belief in others.

“Our objective is that NGOs must be taken into account as critical partners in policy designing and programme monitoring besides their abilities and specialisation in other arenas. Most of the governments did not want to accept this role. Their usual argument was ‘legitimacy’ and ‘representation'. But at the end of the day there had been some respectful agreements. It was a huge victory for the civil societies to have their inputs being reflected in the final communiqué."

Severe beatings, no wages, no holidays, lack of medical care and above all regular sexual abuse were common to these bonded labourers. The scary part was that 12-year-old Mirkee was always the target of the advances of her masters. When we offered these children some fruits like guavas and bananas, they were hesitant to touch and eat them. Looking at her father, 9-year-old Sharda asked innocently, “How can we eat these potatoes without boiling?” They had never seen or tasted fruits before. They started eating bananas without even peeling the skins. It was an inexplicable experience and a matter of shame indeed!

When 12-year-old Mirkee, her 9 year-old sister Sharda and their 55 year old father Mangelal and many more started their usual day, this morning, by breaking stones in a quarry, nestled in a remote desert in Haryana, northern province of India, little did they expect to escape from the clutches of the ‘red-eyed’ threatening masters and end their day with dance and laughter at Bal Ashram, a rehabilitation centre in Rajasthan, India. It was no less than a miracle for them.

Mirkee and her brothers and sisters were born and brought up in the quarries as slave labourers. They were not allowed to venture beyond their confines to see the world. I watched them from a distance when we reached to free them in a secret raid. Their faces were like stones with no expressions. Afterwards when we stepped closer, they were filled with fear on seeing a group of activists with me. Their reaction was however expected. How could they hope for an ‘outside help’ to come into their lives when such an incident like this had never occurred before. Everything was a ‘hush-hush’ affair and happened very swiftly. It was 35-year-old Narayani who broke the ice between the bonded labourers and us. She was freed by us from the neighbouring quarry few months back, and known to Mirkee and her family. She assured them time and again. The whole atmosphere was vibrant with excitement and hope. ‘The wind of freedom has come,’murmered an old woman working in the quarry. These words kept ringing like music in my ears and also touched the soul of other quarry workers. The operation lasted hardly 10 minutes. Once the feeling of freedom seeped within them, the 12 people including 6 children started fleeing like birds. They collected their whole life’s earnings- a handful of maize (known as ‘bajra’ in their native language), a few old tattered clothes, quilts and two worn-out iron boxes. They wanted to leave the place and the memories of the chains of slavery behind forever. It was a secretive and a speedy operation because if the word had leaked out by any chance, we could have been attacked by the local goons of the quarries. Immediately we rushed to the Magistrate but he was conspicuously absent from his office. Despite all our efforts they were callously non-cooperative due to obvious reasons. I must mention that we were compelled to conduct this secret raid without the help of the administration and I have a strong suspicion that they were shamelessly involved with the slave masters.

We were also accompanied by some local journalists and the Dutch T.V. Channel ‘Network’. We drove back to reach our Ashram where other inmates, the freed children had been waiting and urged the newcomers to join in the dance and celebration of freedom till midnight. And so Mirkee danced and laughed with all of us to celebrate the victory of liberty over slavery, the victory of truth over untruth.

Only a few weeks back, 11 year old Manju, who underwent a similar experience of slavery, took part in the Children’s Parliament on the Right to Education in New Delhi organised by us, along with Global campaign for Education(GCE) from 8-10th November 2003. She is now free and staying in the Balika Ashram, our rehabilitation centre for girls. In the last session, I introduced Manju to dignitaries like Koichiro Matsura, Director General, UNESCO, Carol Bellamy, Executive Director, UNICEF, and a few more important civil society leaders. Manju asked, “I am surprised to see so many people here for our help.” “Do you really work together?” she wondered aloud. She further questioned, “Then why were you so late in freeing us from this life of torture and bondage?” I knew why she was raising these questions as she and her mother were born and brought up in bondage. These innocent and sacred questions pose a huge challenge before us. I feel do we really and honestly work together to cooperate and collaborate with each other to find the solutions and to bring freedom in the lives of children? Do we at all have a sense of urgency to act? If we are able to answer these fundamental questions, perhaps we can wipe away the blot of human slavery.

This Children’s Parliament was organised just before the official meeting of the High Level Group (HLG). 80 children from 11 states across India participated in the two-day event in New Delhi from 8-10 November 2003. The children came together to share their experiences on education, to debate the problems faced by all children to have access to education, and to draft a key set of demands that they identified as important to be dealt with to ensure education for all children.

High Level Group (HLG) has been constituted by UNESCO to track the country-wise progress of Education For All (EFA) to generate political will, to help mobilising the additional resources, to fill the financing gaps of the developing countries and to coordinate the worldwide efforts of donors and recipient countries and governments and UN agencies on Education For All. This comprised of the various heads of UN agencies, governments and civil societies. The third HLG meeting took place in New Delhi from 10-12 November 2003. I have written earlier about the past HLG meetings in this column. I feel that despite the improvised and enriched discussions and participation in each succeeding High Level Group meetings, the key objective of constituting this group is still missing. And that is bringing together the heads of the governments from donor and recipient countries to create a strong political will and the ability to take ‘on the spot’ political discussions.

Among the key highlights of this group was participation of two children – Bhagyashree and Basu. They spoke about the outcome of the communiqué of the Children’s Parliament and presented the declaration to the leaders. It was largely applauded by the participants. This particular involvement of children in such an important meeting rendered a strong human face and emotion to the dry discussions and deliberations. As the representative of the Global March Against Child Labour and Global Campaign for Education, I raised the civil society voice as strongly as possible. The discussion of UNESCO’s global monitoring report identified the member countries of Dakar Framework but so far there had been no monitoring of the donor countries who have been making promises for enhanced funding both in Fast Track Initiative and in general and more or less failed in fulfilling those promises. I suggested that in the next monitoring report, a rigorous evaluation of quantitative and more essentially the qualitative funding cooperation of donor countries be made which was largely appreciated by the developing countries’ ministers and thereby initiated a critical debate in the House.

The big fight was in identifying the existence of child labour and its eradication as one of the major obstacles in achieving EFA, particularly for girls. It was mentioned in the draft communiqué in the beginning but was deliberately removed due to diplomatic manoeuvring by few governments like India and China. There was a tough debate in the last session on the discussion of the final communiqué. I endeavoured to deliberate emphatically not only to identify but also to bring elimination of child labour as a programme strategy for EFA. And the good news was that some governments were in favour of this idea and moreover the support of Mr. Frans Röselaers, Director of ILO's International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour played an important role. Finally the word of progressive elimination of child labour had been incorporated in the final communiqué.

Another hard-hitting area was the role of civil society. It is encouraging that UN agencies and the governments have started recognising the presence and in some cases the constructive role of non-governmental organisations. But normally NGOs are being perceived or used as some ‘good doers’ or the ones who bring expertise or do better in service deliveries remaining quiet on government policies who sublet them for programme implementation. Our objective is that NGOs must be taken into account as critical partners in policy designing and programme monitoring besides their abilities and specialisation in other arenas. Most of the governments did not want to accept this role. Their usual argument was ‘legitimacy’ and ‘representation'. But at the end of the day there had been some respectful agreements. It was a huge victory for the civil societies to have their inputs being reflected in the final communiqué. It was declared in the communiqué that non-governmental and other civil society organisations should become fully recognised and accepted partners in the effort to achieve the gender parity and EFA goals through engagement in national policy dialogue and other participatory processes between governments and international agencies.

Global March has also been working in association with ILO, World Bank in organising a Round Table conference on 13th November in New Delhi. In my last speech I spoke about Triangular Paradigm on Child Rights Protection and our on-going plan to organise a Round Table conference on Triangular Paradigm. Let me share with you frankly that this meeting has been one of the most remarkable initiatives in the Global March history. The efforts which we have been making for the last one year and organising a series of bilateral and collective talks and small meetings with various UN agencies resulted in the highest possible level policy making intervention. Global March has been successful in jointly organising this Round Table with ILO and the World Bank. This was the first ever High Level Round Table on bringing synergy in policies by interlinking elimination of child labour, reducing poverty and achieving Education For All goals. The hosts have been able to ascertain the presence of education and labour ministers from strategic countries as well as the representatives of the donor governments. The presence of Mr. Ad Melkert, Executive Director of the World Bank, Aicha Bah Diallo, the Deputy Assistant Director General, Education, UNESCO, Mr. Frans Röselaers, Director of ILO's International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour, Geneva, and Edwin Judd, Director, Programme Division, UNICEF, were very significant. The synergy was enormous apart from the openness and receptibility of the participants. The common agreement among the UN agencies was to institutionalise the process of holding the course of such round tables more frequently in future in order to feed the outcome of the round tables in the official process of decision making by the various UN agencies. World Bank stated to feed the outcome document in the upcoming annual meeting of the development financing committee of the Bank. Similarly it would be an input for the next official HLG meeting of UNESCO in Brazil and the ILO/IPEC conferences. The World Bank Vice President quoted to work for the incorporation of the elimination of child labour besides free and quality education as key components in the Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers (PRSPs). The PRSPs are meant to determine the course of action of country policies as well as now being considered an important prerequisite in multilateral and bilateral funding. The most promising factor was the common agreement towards the formation of a Global Task Force on child labour and education comprising of all aforesaid UN agencies, Global March Against Child Labour, Global Campaign for Education and teachers’ organisation. For whom are we having all these meetings and conferences? It is for the likes of Manju, Mirkee, Sharda and Mangelal.

As I finish narrating the speech, I have been watching the actions of these 12 recently freed ones. They did not spare anything when given some good food to eat and ate as much as they could and as fast as possible. Watching them eat like this is a joy in itself. And I also could see the oldest of the lot, Mangelal (55), from a distance, who might have never taken a bath for years or have never been to a barber. His eyes were filled with tears and face was sparkling with joy as he broke into a dance on his bony legs- 'Bravo Mangelal !', - -the words of praise spontaneously came to me. It seemed as if he was suddenly electrified into action. And Mirkee too was in a similar spirit like her father. It’s amazing to watch this little girl dancing and laughing when few hours ago she wasn’t even aware of freedom and happiness Let us answer the concerns of Manju, Mirkee and many more by 'coming together' and by generating a genuine 'feeling of urgency to act' now. If not now, then when? And if not you, then who?

Kailash Satyarthi... the seeker of truth
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