The puzzle that has perplexed Kailash Satyarthi for most of his life presented itself to him on his first day of school, when he was barely 6 years old.

A boy about his age sat on the steps outside the school with his father, cleaning and repairing shoes, and not entering the classroom like everyone else. He saw this every morning. It was a common sight in the central Indian town of Vidisha, but facing it daily left Satyarthi feeling humiliated, he said. One day Satyarthi gathered up the courage to ask the cobbler why it was so.

The cobbler replied: "Young man, my father was a cobbler and my grandfather before him, and no one before you has ever asked me that question. We were born to work, and so was my son," Satyarthi recalled.

He was left unsatisfied by that explanation, and by others offered by his parents, teacher and headmaster. "It was very difficult for me to understand," he said. "I used to see that kid every day, and I was unable to solve the problem."

By the time he was 11, Satyarthi had begun urging other boys and girls to collect used textbooks and money to give to families who could not afford tuition for their children. It was the beginning of a life of activism.

He went on to study engineering, but did not last more than a year in that vocation after he graduated from college in Bhopal in 1978.

"The seed was sown that very day," Satyarthi said about his first encounter with child labor.

Today, at 50, with a smile that is still gentle and a boyish expression of innocence, Satyarthi is chairman of the Global March Against Child Labor and of the South Asian Coalition on Child Servitude, as well as chairman of the Global Campaign for Education. Over 25 years, he and his organizations have rescued 66,000 children from circuses, rug-weaving enterprises, glass manufacturers, stone quarries and households where some are trapped as domestic servants.

Circuses are a dying trend in India, but dozens still operate. Street shows also remain popular, with fire eaters and snake charmers taking their trade to bustling markets in remote areas. Satyarthi and some of his colleagues describe a mafia-like network of circus owners, middlemen, recruiters and thugs acting in complicity with local authorities and magistrates on both sides of the India-Nepal border at the foot of the Himalayas.

The circuses move into location overnight by truck, rickshaw and bicycle. Metal walls are immediately set up around the site, which becomes a fortress and a front for trafficking people, drugs and guns. Many children end up working for the circuses, getting paid no more than 40 cents a month and often becoming enslaved. Some are molested and left traumatized.

The girls are often forced to entertain officials in rest houses nestled in the forests on both sides of the border, Satyarthi said. One girl released in a recent raid said she and other girls were given tranquilizers and painkillers before and after they were raped. One of 17 girls rescued this year from the southern Indian state of Kerala said she was told that if she did not submit to a circus master's advances, she would be dismembered and "fed to the lions," Satyarthi said.

Nepalese girls, known for their flexible bodies, become the target of circus scouts looking for potential acrobats. Testimony from girls who have tried to resist molestation has revealed systematic threats and brutality.

"There is such disrespect towards these girls, my head hangs in shame," said Sudhanshu Joshi, the Washington-based executive director of the International Center on Child Labor and Education. "You are above the law if you keep officials on both sides of the border in a state of eternal bliss."

In June, during an attempted raid on the Great Roman Circus, then in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, Satyarthi and his son were badly beaten up. As Satyarthi tried to force his way in with a group of activists and Nepalese parents, a circus owner put a gun to his head.

"I will kill you now," the man bellowed, and did not back off until he was warned from the sidelines, Satyarthi said. "Look at the cameras, are you mad?" someone shouted, according to Satyarthi, and the cocked gun was slowly pulled away. Indian television networks picked up the story, which stirred nationwide outrage.

There have been other attempts on Satyarthi's life. He receives threats. His home was ransacked and his office in New Delhi was set on fire in 1994.

In the 1990s, Satyarthi established the Rugmark Foundation to exert consumer pressure on the rug industry in India, Pakistan and Nepal to end illegal child labor. The organization permits factories that agree to certain guidelines to put the Rugmark label on their products, informing consumers that the rugs were made without illegal child labor. The label also means that the company has contributed a portion of its profits to assisting children who have labored in such conditions.

In 1998, Satyarthi's movement organized a march across several continents, ending in Geneva. "Instead of believing what people told me and going away quietly, I have challenged them," he said.

Kailash Satyarthi was threatened at gunpoint last month while confronting a circus owner in India.