Santu says he was 11 years old when his father sold him to the owner of a roadside food stall in India’s capital for $160.
For two years, Santu says, he worked 15 hours a day, chopping vegetables and sweeping the floors of the busy establishment. He received no pay.
“So many people watched me getting beaten every day,” said Santu, now 13. “Nobody said anything.”
Child labor is so widespread in India that many don’t see anything wrong with employing children. Millions of children toil as laborers in brick kilns and mines or work as domestic helpers or in shops and restaurants.
Santu was rescued in August by the Save the Childhood Movement, the group whose founder, Kailash Satyarthi, last week won the Nobel Peace Prize along with Pakistani schoolgirl activist Malala Yousafzai. The boy now lives in a shelter run by the group on the outskirts of the Indian capital.
The Nobel committee cited Mr. Satyarthi for showing “great personal courage” while “focusing on the grave exploitation of children for financial gain.”
India says that out of its 280 million children between 5 and 14, about 1.5% or 4.3 million, are laborers. Unicef estimates the figure could be as high as 12%. That would make the country home to a fifth of the world’s child laborers
Mr. Satyarthi’s group works with law-enforcement agencies to rescue child workers and help them rebuild their lives. The shelters run by the organization offer schooling and teach children about their rights.
“Our aim is to educate these children and help them stand on their feet,” said Aditya Mishra, the shelter director. “At first, when the children arrive, they recoil and rebel. Gradually, though, they open up and take interest in sport and studies.”
Mr. Mishra said his team works with the police to reunite children with their parents when possible. In cases where parents sold their children, or when the child’s origins can’t be determined, they are transferred to a long-term halfway house.
There, in additional to funding a child’s schooling, the nonprofit offers vocational courses in stitching, welding and gardening.
Since it was set up in 1980, the Save the Childhood Movement says it has rescued more than 83,000 youths. Mr. Mishra points to their success stories: one rescued teenager is studying to be a child right’s lawyer; another counsels kids.
Santu, in a crisp red-and-white Reebok shirt, is the youngest child now at the organization’s Delhi shelter. He said he had met Mr. Satyarthi briefly after his rescue. The Wall Street Journal agreed not to use Santu’s surname.
Santu said he showed Mr. Satyarthi cuts he sustained chopping vegetables – including one so deep it almost severed his left thumb – and burn injuries he suffered using a coal-fired Indian oven. “He asked me to take care of myself,” Santu said. “He was like a holy man.”
Santu says he’s enjoying life at the shelter home, and has no plans to return to his father, or his employer, who is facing trial under Indian laws that restrict child labor. The employer denies wrongdoing and is out on bail.
“I want to study,” Santu said. “I want to become a doctor so I can help when children like me are cut or burned.”
Santu’s teachers say he is making good progress. A few days ago, he learned to count up to a hundred in English, and also to spell his name correctly in Hindi. He’s taken a liking to cricket, and found a friend — a boy rescued from a steel factory a few weeks ago. Together, the two prepared a card congratulating Mr. Satyarthi – one they hope reaches him in the coming week.
Santu, for his part, drew a parrot perched on a tree. “Look, this parrot is not caged. It is free,” he said. “This is what I feel his organization has done for me.”
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