Special Report LAST UPDATE November 4, 2007
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October 13, 2007 An Interview with artist and activist John Devaraj, founder of Born Free Art School
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John Devaraj of the Born Free Art School entertains participants with his multitude of artistic talents
John Devaraj is a big man with a big mission. Through art, he hopes to liberate the 134 million child laborers in India and give them a chance to regain their childhood. More than an institution, Born Free Art School has evolved into a social movement. We asked him about his vision for the future and solving the problem of child labor in India.

Can you tell us about what drove you to start the Born Free Art School?
The main objective is to be able to “Childrenize” the world - to create a “Childom” with the contribution and support of children because I believe that children can free other children. In the process we started to rewrite the history of working children. We undertook the History Expedition where we rode bicycles for 4040 km around Karantaka province. We came out with 25,000 pictures which we presented to the Indian parliament and outlined the role the state is playing as well as society which is a silent spectator for the exploitation of children. We showed that 50 percent of the world’s 246 million toiling children are in India. In 2006 we wrote the world’s largest love letter. It was 380 feet x 240 feet written by the children of India, and it requested: “Dear Children of Pakistan, Let us join our hearts and minds to create a better world.” It was signed by 1 million children in India and Pakistan. This was necessary because the Indian government is spending an equivalent of 10 yen per child on education, and 1000 yen on defense, likewise in Pakistan, with a smaller budget. Pakistan has nine nuclear bombs and India has seven. What for? The people of Pakistan do not want to fight us. We believe they should use this resource on education, not on defense.
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Children who were once child laborers find freedom at the Born Free Art School. Courtesy of John Devaraj
Why is child labor so prevalent in India?
The child labor economy is benefiting the pockets of those with greed, and small businesses that employ child labor. For example, India is the highest producer of tea, sugar and milk in the world. 40 percent of farm workers in India are children. The child labor economy is supporting the defense economy. This is a contradiction. Talking about child labor is actually talking about war and peace. Article 9 (the pacifist clause of the Japanese Constitution) in Japan is far more critical in India than Japan. We will do an event that will help to set our country afire with freedom and peace. So, in August 2008 to commemorate the Hiroshima-Nagasaki bombings we will hold a huge event connecting Bangalore to Hiroshima. We want to show that the people who died 60 years ago in Hiroshima are not numbers but people with flesh and blood and sensibilities but we have forgotten this; yet we must not allow a third atomic bomb to fall. And in Bangalore we have about 130 Japanese companies working there. There is a special interest between these two and we want these companies to support us.
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One boy shows off his artistic abilities gained at the school. Courtesy of John Devaraj
Are these the same companies that are using steel in their mobile phones and computer parts that come from child labor?
Yes. Japan is enjoying the child labor of Karantaka. For example, steel and iron ore is imported to Japan but Japanese people do not know that it has been collected by children as young as five years old. The 200,000 children working in this industry should go to school. The international community is utilizing child labor and this needs to be exposed. It also becomes their responsibility. Globalization is increasing child labor, to meet supply and demand. Poverty is increasing because wealth is concentrated in the hands of a few. In October we will do another event, cycling 3663 km from Bangalore to Lahore with 10 young cyclists from Pakistan. Our message is one: safeguarding the environment; two: every child has a right to an education; and three:– spend money on education, not war and defense. We’ll call it “From Bangalore to Lahore: One Ore, One Heart.”

When cycling around taking pictures, did you ask the adults why they were allowing the children to work?
We asked the adults ‘why are you doing this?’ They always said: ‘Where can we get jobs? Where can we get money to send our children to school? And, where are the schools?’ They want immediate gain from their child. A child is not always an extra mouth to fed, but an extra pair of working hands. There are 300 million unemployed youth in India. But, in one province, 300,000 children were liberated. The whole region saw an increase of wages and in employment. There is no alternative for child labor except to send them to school. Give the job to the older brothers and sisters or the parents. Illiteracy and poverty are increasing and India will be limping in 20 years when the children grow up. On the other hand, there is fantastic development in India. IT is so advanced. But, the contradiction exists – next to a large software company will be a slum with 100 children. Everyday, 100 children come to Bangalore to swell the ranks of working children. This is a problem of the peasantry who can’t repay loans for fertilizer. So, most of the street children are the children of peasants.
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The children use theater to express their struggle for freedom and to regain their stolen childhood. Courtesy of John Devaraj
So what can we do to stop child labor, to make an impact?
The peace movement is very important for stopping child labor. Born Free Art School is not an NGO, it is a social movement. We expect it to spread and it should be established in Africa, Latin America and Asia. We can build a social movement along the way, and that way we will win. Child labor is a very big business, we can’t counter money power with money. We can counter it only with a philosophy and a good will to start this.

Do you have a message for Peace Boat participants?
I think that Peace Boat as an organization is the most contemporary peace movement. It’s very inspiring and I would like to do a Peace Boat trip to Bangladesh, India and Pakistan. Similarly, there must be a Peace Boat for Palestine. I think any movement which can sustain itself, and be financially self-sufficient is far more efficient. It can spread its ideas. But, it should go to the next step which is to help the peace movement in the countries it visits.

To find out more about Born Free Art School, visit www.bornfreeart.org. John Devaraj can be contacted at johndevaraj[at]gmail.com