At the entrance to Kailash Satyarthi’s nondescript office is a small noticeboard, of the old fashioned type, with white plastic letters pressed into a dark felt background.
It marks the number of children he has freed from slavery. When I first met Kailash, nearly four years ago, the number was a little over 74,000.
I remember being so stunned by the figure I scribbled it at the top of my notebook, as a reminder to ask him about it. He was undemonstrative, but perhaps secretly pleased it had been noticed.
“This is what we do, this is our job every day,” he said of his organisation, Bachpan Bachao Andolan, which he formed in 1980, after leaving his job as an electrical engineer.
That figure on the noticeboard is about to tick over 80,000. That’s 80,000 young lives transformed – and now the Nobel peace prize.
In almost every way, Kailash Satyarthi is an unlikely Nobel laureate.
He has a gmail address, correspondence to which he answers himself, when he can eventually find the hours in the day. He freely gives out his mobile phone number, and, again, when he has time, happily answers it to all callers. And he has maintained the same office for years, in a dusty, poorly-paved street in unfashionable Kalkaji, in south Delhi.
We would meet every few months. I wanted to talk about stories I was working on, he was looking to further spread his message.
Inside his office, the meeting always ran the same. Seated behind his broad desk, barefoot and dressed in white kurta pyjamas, Kailash was always expansive, always generous with time he didn’t really have.
Over sweet, milky chai, he would talk about the “raids” just gone and upcoming, he would recount the ones that went well, the ones that ended badly.
He would show the scars from the interventions that had gone really badly, like the time a group of men from the Great Roman Circus – who were employing trafficked teenagers from Nepal as dancing girls – attacked him with iron rods and cricket bats.
And we would discuss the industries and the places that were proving harder to rid of the “scourge of child labour” – his phrase – than others.
With Kailash’s guidance and contacts, I pursued stories on Indian children making footballs for sale in Australia; girls sold into bonded labour schemes in textile mills; boys from poor families trafficked thousands of kilometres to work in tiny, collapse-prone ‘rat-hole’ coal mines; girls from itinerant families forced by economic circumstance into mining mica, the mineral that goes into makeup to make it shiny.
But always there was more with Kailash: more stories the media could cover to highlight the problem; more that the government could do to enforce the legislation parliament had passed to outlaw child labour and mandate education; more police could do to stamp out the corruption that meant officers looked the other way; more that multinational companies in the developing world could do to ensure they weren’t making their money from the bent backs of children.
But Kailash realised, too, the nuances of child labour in the developing world. It is not as black and white as it is seen in the west.
The families in which children work are desperately poor. Parents are concerned about earning enough money just so they can eat.
Invariably, children are encouraged to work. Whatever meagre income they earn can be the difference between going hungry and not, between surviving and not.
But there is a distinction between child work, where children work alongside their parents a few hours a week after school to supplement the family income, and child labour, where children are taken out of school to work and their family depends on what they earn.
The former is an inescapable fact of children growing up in low-income economies, the latter is a guarantee of a lifetime of poverty.
“I know I am taking away their future, but we need to eat today,” the mother of two girls, 10 and 11, who stitched footballs for a living told me.
Much has been made of Kailash Satyarthi sharing the Nobel Peace Prize with Malala Yousafzai. Of their contrasts: the young girl, the old man; the Pakistani, the Indian; the Muslim, the Hindu; the world-renowned, the barely-known.
They are, in reality, two sides of the same coin.
Both are seeking to return to children their childhood.
Some have argued the award to Kailash and Malala is not in keeping with the original ambition of Alfred Nobel, who wanted a prize that promoted global disarmament.
But getting children out of work and into school will do more for world peace than almost any other act.
Children in schools will change the world.
Girls born to a literate mother are 50% more likely to survive until the age of five.
Boys who have the chance at a genuine education and a working life beyond don’t become radical fundamentalists.
Universal education will transform developing nations such as India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, places where the practice of keeping children (especially girls) from school – to work, to be married, to raise siblings – stubbornly persists.
Across those three countries, an estimated 22 million primary-school aged children are not in school. But, overwhelmingly, the obstacles that keep them from class are solvable.
Malala was stopped from going to school by the vile fanaticism of the Pakistani Taliban. But for every girl stopped by fundamentalism, there are 10 in her part of the world who are not at school for much more prosaic reasons.
They don’t go because the school is too far away, because it is not safe to walk there, because there is no segregation of boys and girls, no modesty wall, or working toilets.
They stop going because the teacher turns up only to mark the roll and get paid, or because there are no books or pencils.
They stay at home because they have to care for younger siblings, because they have been married off as children, or because they are made to go to work.
In the wake of his Nobel win, Satyarthi promised to “join hands” with his fellow laureate. But the Indian man rescuing children from slavery and the Pakistani teenage girl encouraging them into school are already working hand in hand.