Padma Shri & Magsaysay Awardee on Why She Fought Against Child Labour for 35 Years

On World Human Rights Day, 10 December, the conversation in the media twisted ever so slightly towards child rights when Bollywood star Ayushmann Khurana chose to speak about it.

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As of 2011, there were as many as 10.1 million child labourers in India, with many estimates not covering the unorganised sector, having still dismal statistics. It was in 1992 that the government ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Children, as a part of its liberalisation agenda. However, it was the crusade, which had begun in the 1980s, based on management principles that helped change the course of India’s struggle with the menace of child labour.

Management education was introduced in India in the ’60s. It was the establishment of IIM Ahmedabad and IIM Calcutta in 1961 that the management education seeped into the broader society. The intellectual genius of Ms Shantha Sinha, the founder of the Mamipudi Venkatarangaiya Foundation (MVF — a child’s rights organisation), and a recipient of a Padma Shri and Ramon Magsaysay awards, combined the elegance of management principles with the epidemic of oppression of child rights.

India has had a complicated relationship with child rights, and thanks to the efforts of people like Mrs Sinha that the country stands a chance to win the war against child oppression. In an exclusive interview with her, she tells me how the anti-child labour movement was uncovered and has stood the test of time.

Let us start at the beginning. Who or what inspired you to undertake the struggle for child rights in India?

I think all of us are the products of our era. You are young, and your era is much different from what it was in the 1960s, which was characterised by radical democratic movements for egalitarian society and justice. That was the most inspiring influence on all of us. It isn’t easy to talk of one person but we can talk of the mood of the era, the zeitgeist, to which all of us belong. In 1962, what influenced us was the war with China. I was in class VIII or IX, and we were given woollen balls to knit sweaters to participate in the National Defence Fund. Nationalism was the order of the day, and the mood was for justice, and that is where I owe the call for change and transformation.

What were the roots of the movement? How did the movement grow and who were the key people for catalysing change?

I would like to focus on the key enablers which helped the movement expand. It was the triad of management principles, organisation principles and expansion. Everything started with the belief that if you follow a confrontationist stance, you are polarising the society. What is much more important is how you can harmonise society rather than leave debris of hatred and violence. After much soul searching, we focussed our energies on making and leaving behind a self-sustaining community that supports children, not one where the polarisation of different stakeholders makes everyone feel anxious about the change.

I was very much influenced by the Gandhian principles from the nationalist movement – wherein I looked at his (The Mahatma’s) process of resolving conflict. Whenever there is a change, there is bound to be conflict. But how you resolve that conflict and how you harmonise the society became the core organisational principles for Mamidipudi Venkatarangaiya Foundation (MV Foundation). When we study a movement, we look at the narrative – but what is much more important are the management principles which shape the movement along the way.

In this light, I admire the work of Mother Teresa. We admire the work that she did, but what we forget is that she had her organisation in more than 90 countries. It was an all-women organisation (headed by nuns) but nobody tries to find out how she did it. All the high-quality work was based on management principles, which to the world, just seems to be happening! I would encourage everyone to look at the management principles whenever we look at a movement.

So, it was back in 1992 that we framed our Programmatic Principles and the Code of Conduct. They have stood the test of time, and they continue to guide us. These principles are all based on the constitution of India, and engender the tenets of non-violence, inclusion and trust in the front-line workers. Any movement is based on emotion and very little is written about the interlinkages of these principles (i.e. the ideology) and the emotive content. Together, these become powerful forces of change.

Even in the pandemic, we see youth-led activities as bubbles of positivity everywhere. What is your message for the youth of today?

My only lesson would be to go with the constitution of India even when you feel you do not align with it. There is so much we can take-away from the constitution and the amendments.

Watch the full interview here:

Aayush Gupta is a second-year management student at the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad.

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