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Kailash Satyarthi on the Preparatory Events Leading to the March

It could be news for many that the germane idea of the Global March was not born in a high-level intellectual meeting of experts and thinktanks. It neither came from donors’ group nor inter- governmental agency but from a group of children who had suffered as child slaves.

As the first move to involve a larger civil society we decided to write letters to the organisations working in the field of child labour in particular and child rights in general. I did not have any contacts with such organisations in Latin America and Africa. Actually there were not too many or at least known organisations working against child labour - my organisation SACCS (South Asian Coalition on Child Servitude) and two others- International Labour Rights Fund, Washington DC represented by Pharis Harvey and London based Anti-Slavery International headed by Mike Dottridge, were the ones to be actively involved with this issue. We decided to write a joint letter to the potential supporters, proposing an idea of organising a worldwide march against child labour. The consensus letter was also not easy though we were a mere group of three. It was because Mike’s position was much more softer on child labour whereas Pharis Harvey’s stand, who took part in the Indian March in 1994, was much more stronger. Coincidentally Henriette from NOVIB was visiting India then, which gave me an opportunity to speak to her at length. She was fascinated by the idea and suggested me to meet other people and their campaign advocacy team in Hague. I think it was mid - December 1996 when I visited them. Jan Klinkist, a wonderful person, was the head of the campaign. He was enthusiastic but quite pragmatic. We had a lengthy discussion. My feeling was that they were convinced but wanted to take it up to a higher level for reaching a decision. I wanted to meet Max van den Berg, whom I knew personally and at that time he was the head of NOVIB. He was a visionary and an impressive leader coming from a social democratic background. Unfortunately, I could not meet him since two days, as he was busy with meetings.

It would be appropriate to mention here about the preparatory work in our office. During the same period I received a request from a Canadian lady named Teresa Kielberger to send some information on child labour in South Asia for her 12-year-old son Craig who suddenly became interested in this issue."

But then miracles do happen. And believe it or not, sometimes your food habits can play a very important role in causing the unexpected to happen. I am a vegetarian and meagre in spending on my food too. So I always look for cheap vegetarian food. To suit my taste and liking, Toon Shampers, the desk officer of India unit in the organisation though a non-vegetarian, took me to a modest vegetarian restaurant for dinner. We were sitting close to a big glass window. Suddenly, I saw a person riding his bicycle, and stopping near the window where we sat. He took out a chain and locked the bicycle with the railing of the window. Imagine my surprise when I realised that it was none other than Max! In a few seconds he came in and joined us. What more could I have asked for? He was also a vegetarian and opted that particular restaurant to take his dinner. That evening became memorable as Max not only supported the idea of the Global March but also brought forth many innovative suggestions to make it more attractive. His eyes and face brightened with the idea, just like the children in the ‘Gol Kutia’, the thatched hut made of straw. He said, “I know you will do it and we are with you.”

This resulted in NOVIB agreeing to host and sponsor a larger meeting in February 1997 in Hague, Netherlands where about 40 people were invited from different NGOs, trade unions, both from the North and South and some of their partners from Latin America and Africa were also present.

It would be appropriate to mention here about the preparatory work in our office. During the same period I received a request from a Canadian lady named Teresa Kielberger to send some information on child labour in South Asia for her 12-year-old son Craig who suddenly became interested in this issue. We kept on sending lot of information and material of our work. Later on they showed interest and the boy together with another young man Alam Rehman wanted to visit India and South Asia. We were asked whether we could help in organising their study, learning and exposure with SACCS partner organisations. We arranged it, as I was very impressed with the interest shown by these two youngsters to learn about child labour and work for the cause. When I met them, I found Alam who was then 25 years old, very serious and concerned about the issue, whereas the younger one looked to be more tutored and guided by his family and friends in Canada for publicity and this was quite obvious considering his young age.

I also observed that Alam was very talented and hardworking. Most of the times, he was busy mentoring young Craig, preparing for his speeches, press releases, sometimes taking his photographs with two cameras, one of them being a video camera. I discussed the idea of the Global March with them. The older one showed greater interest and enthusiasm. I asked him whether he was interested to work in India with us, either in our work of elimination of child labour or for the Global March. The two young men stayed with my family for some time and also travelled to many places. Alam asked for sometime to think and later joined as the first volunteer of the Global March. Soon after, two bright young girls, Uma Sarkar, a Canadian and Kimberley Bhesania, an American joined us as volunteers. Shashank was the first one to be employed in our office. Slowly we gathered a dynamic team of young activists, volunteers and professional staff.

Coming back to the first meeting of like-minded organisations in Hague in February’97, let me mention that it was an extremely hard period. One issue was the different ideological poles; the second was the doubts and lack of self as well as mutual confidence among various participants for undertaking such a big risk; thirdly the doubts about the aptness of the strategy of marching and finally the questions raised on funding. With a series of one-to-one meetings, in-depth debates, convincing arguments based on our past experiences of marches in India and South Asia leading to positive results, eventually we reached to a consensus on formulating a simple but well articulated mission statement and commonly agreed objective of the Global March. To further mention, Jan Klinkist’s knowledge and diplomatic skills must definitely be credited for that. Although there were so many promising individuals but a young law officer from Brazil, Lelio still remains in my memory. He was so genuine, rational and open. Today he is one of my best friends.

It was also a beautiful coincidence that a week after our meeting, I had an opportunity to participate in another important event. This was the first international conference on intolerable child labour organised jointly by the Dutch government and the ILO in Amsterdam. This was perhaps the most suitable place to introduce the idea of the Global March, which we were able to perform successfully. Besides a large number of participants from all over, we found one of our most important supporter in Assefa Bequele from ILO, one of the most internationally acclaimed officials and expert on child labour. I still recall his encouraging words. He said, ‘This is divine and success is definite.’

Then began the real work. About 30,000 organisations, institutions, individuals and a database of several people were prepared. They were contacted through emails, letters, phones and other means of communication. We had only one desktop computer and few months later I bought an old laptop from London. Alam started storing anything and everything in it and was always carrying it in his bag. He used it as a pillow while sleeping, even took it along with him when he used to go for a bath. Let me tell you a secret in this context! Frankly speaking, before we bought the computer, and even before my fingers touched the keyboard, I have been hearing a lot about the invention of the email system. But I have never sent or received emails before fixing up a modem in our computer. It seemed like a miracle to us when we typed something to Harvey and Mike and got the reply within minutes.

I would also like to mention a particular incident while attending the aforesaid ILO Dutch Government Conference. There we faced a lot of difficulties. Due to the presence of a very large group of ministers and diplomats, the security was very extremely tight for the distribution of the photocopies and some basic information on the proposed Global March to a few hundred international delegates. We needed someone to help. Alam was not officially allowed to stay for the conference but somehow he managed to enter. To add to our troubles our laptop also got stolen. While he was standing in a queue before a ticket counter in the Hague railway station, the unfortunate incident occurred. Everything was gone along with it. A big loss for us indeed! But we decided not to lose heart and our patience. We quickly wrote something on paper, photocopied, and distributed them and our mission was accomplished.

After returning from Amsterdam we had no other option but to depend on our sole desktop which did not work half the time, sometimes due to electricity failure and most of the times due to technical snags. Moreover it was then difficult to find a computer mechanic on time. Many a times our phone lines were out of order so no e-mails! These day-to-day problems were not only a good learning experience for us but thrilling and challenging as well.

... To be continued in the next speech, the part III of the Global March Movement

Kailash Satyarthi... the seeker of truth
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