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‘Engineering Social Transformation’

The wiseNobel Laureate discusses his first spark of social reform, life and idea of transformation with Sreerupa Sil

Photo Credit : Ritesh Sharma


His dream as a child was to click a ‘selfie’ with a Nobel Laureate. Rabindranath Tagore, Martin Luther King and other Nobel Laureates inspired him, but that’s of course later in life. He did have a spark of nobility when he was merely five years old and it all started at school. Very few know that Kailash Satyarthi is an electrical engineer and understands social transformation in terms of the function of a ‘transformer’. The wiseNobel Laureate discusses his first spark of social reform, life and idea of transformation with Sreerupa Sil.

Edited excerpts:

The path you tread is not the usual one post one’s engineering degree, especially in India. Where did it all begin? 

50 years ago, my parents had a dream. They wanted their son to become an engineer. I too, like every child of that era followed the path my family chose. I was fortunate to be schooled. The first spark was on the first day of my school when a cobbler boy of my age sat outside the school gate looking at us. He was probably looking at our feet with the hope of getting some work. At the age of five and a half, I could hardly comprehend the situation and innocently asked my teacher why that cobbler boy couldn’t join us at school. My teacher said poor children had to work for helping their family. My family and friends had a similar answer that enraged me quite a bit at that age. One day I gathered all my courage, went to this cobbler boy and his father and enquired the reason of not sending the boy to school. ‘I never thought about it. My entire family across generations did shoe mending and cobbling jobs’ said the father, ‘Babuji, you are born to go to school and succeed. We are born to be like this.’ That was unacceptable for me. Although I couldn’t do much at that age, I kept challenging these notions later.
You engineered social change at a very early age…

I realised many of my friends were dropping out of school owing to their financial difficulty. At the age of 11-12, I gathered old books and used my pocket money to deposit their fee.

How did an engineering education help you?
Engineering actually helped me in a lot of ways. It gave me a lot of strength. Being analytical, rational and scientific are some of the skills developed intrinsically through engineering education. Mathematics calculations crafted the problem solving capabilities. Engineers are created to solve problems and not create them. As an electrical engineer, I was building transformers which actually taught me how to increase efficacy. Underpinning principle of designing transformers is to convert one voltage to another without wasting any energy. I applied the same to understand transformation of society.

You worked in the mainstream sector only between 1978 and 1980 before moving full time into social work. What did your parents say?

I lost my father at a very early age. My mother lived long but wasn’t very happy with my decision. She argued and tried to convince me to open up a charity or school for orphans or children if I really wanted to do social work. She was apprehensive of me moving into the unknown. But I firmly believed that conventional charity is no answer. My friends were equally angry because I gave up my traditional career and had a wife and a child to feed. That was indeed a very difficult time.

Do you really believe education is a philanthropy in India? 
Entrepreneurship, employability, excellence, ethics — if education is able to hone these skills, whether state run or philanthropic, I think it is fine. But if education is provided under the garb of philanthropy actually being a commercial activity, then it is a sincere question.Unfortunately, education and health is commercialised in India bringing difficulty to the parents, teachers and students. I still think state run institutions like IIT and IIM are far better than the private run institutions. In our time, there were only 7 engineering colleges in Chattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh combined. The total intake were only about 450. Now I was told that there are more than 100 engineering colleges in just one city of MP. Hence I don’t think we should even argue about quality.

What is your thought about Demographic Dividend?
Our country is youngest in terms of youth population and the oldest in terms of culture, history and heritage. Quite a paradox, isn’t it?
Children are not on the priority list when it comes to budgetary allocations. Look at the math. At present, 40 per cent population is under the age of 18 but India spends only 3.2 per cent of its total GDP on health, education and protection combined. We are not talking enough about investing the right amount on primary education, secondary classes, healthcare and protection. It is contradictory. At least 10 per cent of India’s GDP must be invested in the triple combined. That would be justice.

Another serious problem is growing fear of sexual assault. In the last 15 years, the violence against children have grown five-fold marking about a 500 per cent growth.

What then is imperative as a solution?
Critical lacuna in our culture is we haven’t learnt to respect children as they are. I believe in the culture of child rights and not the statutes and laws. I believe in empowering children as human beings, fighting against mindset, work on holistic policies. More collaboration to create holistic policies are required. Education, labour and health departments must work together to address the need of a child, especially at the ground level. Only then we can build India and make a dividend out of the demography, and not a disaster.