NEW DELHI - Indian child rights activist Kailash Satyarthi, named co-winner of the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday, is credited with freeing tens of thousands of youngsters working as cheap labour in homes, factories, construction and other jobs.

Satyarthi, 60, has been at the forefront of a drive against child labour in India, home to the largest number of working children in the world, according to the charity ChildLine, despite a 2010 law decreeing all youngsters between six and 14 must attend school. Satyarthi, who trained as an electrical engineer, founded in 1980 the Bachpan Bachao Andolan or Save the Childhood Movement which rescues children working in horrifying conditions.

The married father of two lives modestly in New Delhi and keeps a low profile except for his crusade against child labour. Satyarthi said his social conscience was awoken when he was six and saw a boy his age outside a school, cleaning shoes.

Seeing many such children working instead of being educated, he felt an urge as he grew older to solve the problem. ‘I was not born to remain an engineer - the passion from my childhood was to work for children,’ Satyarthi told reporters in New Delhi after learning of the Nobel Prize. The activist described the award as ‘recognition’ for the child rights fight and said he was ‘delighted’.

He began his work staging raids on Indian manufacturing, rug-making, and other plants where children often are employed as bonded labour or work to help support their families. Under bonded labour, families borrow money and work till the funds can be repaid. But often the money is too much to be paid back from meagre earnings and people are sold and resold.

Children are particularly prized by employers for their nimble, small fingers and ability to work hard.

 ‘Illegal and unethical’

Building on his initial activism, Satyarthi organised the Global March Against Child Labor in the 1990s, an international coalition of NGOs, unions and civil socity groups, dedicated to freeing millions of children worldwide abused in a form of modern slavery. He and co-winner Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani teenage education campaigner shot by the Taliban in 2012, were honoured by the Norwegian Nobel Committee ‘for their struggle against the suppression of children and young people and for the right of all children to education’.

‘To employ children is illegal and unethical,’ Satyarthi said on the Global March Against Child Labour website. ‘If not now, then when? If not you, then who? If we are able to answer these fundamental questions, then perhaps we can wipe away the blot of human slavery,’ Satyarthi said, summing up his philosophy.

The activist is also founder of RugMark, a widely known international scheme that tags all carpets made in factories that are child-labour free. Amod Kanth, founder of another India-wide charity Prayas and a longtime friend of Satyarthi, told AFP the activist had been ‘torn by the pain of child labour and this became his crusade - to stamp it out’. Satyarthi described the plight of children forced into the worst kinds of abusive work in a 2010 interview with the Robert F. Kennedy Centre for Justice and Human Rights.

‘If they cry for their parents, they are beaten severely, sometimes hanged upside down from trees and even branded or burned with cigarettes,’ he said. He also spearheads the South Asian Coalition on Child Servitude or SAACS, among other groups, and helps oversee transition centres where freed labourers learn fresh skills. ‘I think of it all as a test. This is a moral examination that one has to pass to stand up against such social evils (as child labour),’ he said in the Kennedy Centre interview.