Empowering children

Print edition : September 29, 2001

Rajasthan successfully experiments with the concept of bal panchayat, which involves children in the decision-making process at the village panchayat level.

RASHEEDA BHAGAT in Jaipur and Ajmer

CHILDREN in Rajasthan are making waves - not the ones who go to elite English-medium schools in Jaipur or any other urban centre but those who belong to the villages. They ask questions about their rights, fight social evils such as child marriage, campaign against children's addiction to gutka (tobacco) and alcohol, wage a war against the use of polythene bags and demand from their panchayats that their villages be kept clean, that the promise of teachers and other staff for their schools be fulfilled, and much more. Not the least of their achievements is the massive drive to get children working in the fields or doing household chores into schools.

Child power has become a reality in certain parts of rural Rajasthan, thanks to a unique and novel concept known as bal panchayat. Modelled on a gram panchayat, each bal panchayat comprises between 14 and 18 members in the age group of 9-16, has a president and a secretary elected by the children of the village, and takes itself very seriously.

Initiated and supported by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), this model, which was tried in the Bishnupur block of West Bengal a few years ago, has been implemented with gusto by two districts of Rajasthan - Ajmer, renowned for its dargah of Garib Nawaz, and Baran.

Thirty bal panchayats are functioning in Ajmer district. Well-scrubbed and smartly dressed and with bright eyes and confident faces, the children welcome you, offering either a bouquet or a garland made by them with flowers from plants that they grow with gentle care. Planting trees in the village and having them sprayed periodically with insecticides is also a part of their work. So is the administration of polio drops, so that "hamare gaav mein koi bhi bachcha langra ya loola na rahey" (in our village no child should be handicapped).

Members of the bal panchayat at Nand in Ajmer district. As many as 68 children in the village are back in school, thanks to the initiative of this panchayat.-RASHEEDA BHAGAT

Perhaps one achievement the bal panchayats are immensely proud of is that "not a single child marriage was held" in their villages on the last akhatees day. (On this day, which comes around the end of April or the beginning of May, thousands of child marriages are conducted in Rajasthan. The day is considered so auspicious that there is no need to seek the help of a priest and get a muhurat for the marriages). A proud Madan Singh, the sarpanch of Kesarpura, about 20 km from Ajmer, said: "The children took out a rally some time before the akhatees day and told the villagers that they should not get their children married as that was a sure way to push them into lives filled with misfortune."

Children in the village are used as "informers". Says Nirmal Kumar, president of the bal panchayat: "From them we find out which families are planning marriage. Then all the members of the bal panchayat would go as a group to the parents of the child whose marriage is planned and plead with them not to conduct the marriage." One can imagine the shock of the adults listening to these children's lectures on the evils of child marriage and the need to give their child a decent education.

The story of 15-year-old Sayar Singh, the secretary of the Kesarpura bal panchayat, is interesting. He said: "When I returned from school one day, my mother told me that my sasraji (father-in-law) had come in the morning and my marriage was going to take place. I said I would not get married. She said I had to. So I said if she forced me to get married, I would leave the house. Till I pass my Standard X, I don't want to get married." Sayar Singh took on the responsibility of explaining to his sasraji that he was committed to marrying his daughter, but only after he was 21 and she 18. The parents ultimately gave in.

Such is the power of the bal panchayat. But two Muslim girls, themselves bal panchayat members in Govindgarh, about 33 km from Ajmer, could not benefit from the surge of child power, because the bal panchayat concept has been implemented in Rajasthan only in the past 15 months. Fifteen-year-old Abida's marriage took place at the age of one and her colleague in the local bal panchayat, 14-year-old Shahina, got married when she was two. They are so embarrassed that they do not meet your eyes as they relate the stories of the marriages they cannot even remember, leave alone relate to. Abida cannot bring herself to utter the name of Khurshid, the 'husband' she has never seen. He lives in Bhakri village in Rathore district, which is about 120 km from Govindgarh. She does not know how old he is or what he does. More interesting, she has no desire to meet him.

The teenager has turned up for the bal panchayat meeting in her school uniform as she is just returning after writing an examination. Undaunted by a relationship she knows nothing about, she spells out her dreams. She wants to get as much education as her parents can afford, try and get elected to the adult panchayat and then get into mainstream politics. The party of her choice? "The Congress, as I admire Sonia Gandhi."

Shahina (second left) and Abida (right), who got married at the ages of two and one respectively, with some of their colleagues in the Govindgarh bal panchayat. Some of the bal panchayats fight against the social evil of child marriage.-RASHEEDA BHAGAT

Shahina's 'husband' Shabbir Mohammed, 17, is a tailor in Pisangar. She knows she has no choice but to join him. "But before that, I have told my parents, I will complete at least my high school education," she says firmly.

Rajasthan has a dismal record on the gender front. According to UNICEF, 82 per cent of the girls in the State are married by the age of 18; 48 per cent by the age of 15. The child sex ratio too is loaded against the girl child, with the number of girls (per 1,000 boys) in the 0-6 age group coming down from 916 in the 1991 Census to 909 in the 2001 Census.

EACH bal panchayat has a register which contains details about children who have gone back to school thanks to the bal panchayat's efforts. In Kesarpura, 92 children have returned to school, but only after the bal panchayat reached out to the families of each one of them and argued with the parents that their child needs to be in school and not in the fields tending animals or performing household chores.

Harender Singh, president of the bal panchayat at Nand, 25 km from Ajmer, proudly tells us how the panchayat managed to send 34 boys and 34 girls back to school: "We went as a group to the parents and most of them asked us what the children would do with education. We told them that they would get a much better job than grazing animals or working in the house. While some complied with our request, others were adamant. To these parents we suggested that they send their children at least to the evening classes. That suggestion is working, too."

Shikha Wadhwa, Project Officer of UNICEF in Jaipur, who hit upon the bal panchayat idea during her posting in West Bengal earlier, says that the objective of the scheme is to make children conscious of their rights and get them to participate in efforts aimed at addressing issues that concern them, "be it child marriage, issues related to their schooling, or the cleanliness of the village". She says: "They go to the panchayat chief and tell him that they need garbage bins in their village or that the hand pump or the water tank needs to be repaired. They also help the panchayat to reconstruct a crumbling school wall or to clean up a dirty street."

Says Madan Singh: "These children do not understand constraints such as the lack of funds and are unwilling to make compromises. If they bring up a proposal, it has to be carried out the next day."

One way of getting around the shortage of resources, says Wadhwa, is either to tap funds meant for rural development that often lie unused in Delhi, or to appeal to the Member of Parliament or the Member of the Legislative Assembly concerned. Some politicians respond to appeals from children and set apart a part of their constituency development funds. "But they do this only after they receive a request on the letterhead of the bal panchayat, signed by the president or the secretary," Wadhwa says.

Children getting addicted to tobacco is a major problem in Rajasthan. O.P. Mathur, Project Director of the Ajmer Adult Education Society (AAES), which has set up the bal panchayats in the district, says that this happens when the child is asked by adults to get the gutka packets for them. "Finding that the father or the uncle cannot do without it, the child is curious about the contents of the packet and starts experimenting, and in no time gets addicted."

Shikha Wadhwa, Project Officer of the United Nations Children's Fund in Jaipur, who conceived the bal panchayat idea.-RASHEEDA BHAGAT

Many bal panchayats have passed resolutions seeking to impose a heavy fine on shops that sell gutka to children. The children hope to implement this diktat with the cooperation of the gram panchayats. Similar resolutions have been passed against shops selling liquor to children.

Most of the bal panchayats have started a drive against the use of polythene bags. The objective of the campaign, however, is not to protect the environment but to prevent cows and buffaloes from swallowing bits of polythene along with garbage. Polythene harms them and can even cause their death.

On the objective of setting up bal panchayats, Wadhwa says: "Our agenda is children. So we thought it was UNICEF's responsibility to bring the participation of children on the agenda of panchayats and the government and involve them in decision-making on issues concerning children. Most of the time we have had only tokenism in matters relating to children. I felt that UNICEF needed to do more than implementing pulse polio administration or related programmes."

And yet, Wadhwa says, UNICEF will provide only a model, which will have to be taken up by the government and the gram panchayats. "Otherwise there will be no sense of ownership," she says.

Going by the response of Ajmer's zilla pramukh, whose rank is equal to that of a Minister in Rajasthan, this district should see more bal panchayats. Enthused by the work done by the children, he has sent a circular to all the 300 panchayats in the district asking them to set up bal panchayats in areas under their jurisdiction.

EVEN though children are doing wonderful work as bal panchayat members and office-bearers, there is no guarantee that many of them will graduate to the regular village panchayats. Anita Upadhyay, Project Officer at the AAES, says that though their enthusiasm and dedication are infectious, many of them come from such poor families that they may not get even high school education. Nirmal Kumar is a case in point. He belongs to a Scheduled Caste. (Since the Kesarpura gram panchayat is reserved for the Scheduled Castes, the bal panchayat is also headed by an S.C. member.) He is in Standard VII and is a brilliant student who scores over 95 per cent marks. But his family is so poor - his parents are illiterate - that he may not be able to complete his school education.

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