|Image: Courtesy the Concerned for Working Children|
(I wrote about this unusual initiative in rural Karnataka in 2004)
WHEN the Hosangadi panchayat in Karnataka held its first gram sabha on July 24, 2004, over 100 people crowded into a room that could barely hold them all. Apart from anganwadi workers, teachers, farmers, workers and women from self-help collectives, 10 local children formed part of the group.
At a signal from the panchayat secretary, 12-year-old Kumari strode up, clutching a huge sheaf of papers. Her voice unfaltering, her gaze clear, she read out a list of demands that children of the community had drawn up for implementation. "We need compound walls," she said. "We need playgrounds. And electricity and water for our homes." Her list, based on surveys done by village children, was substantiated by data culled from the panchayat office. Kumari's clear-eyed vision led to the adoption of these demands by the gram sabha, following a series of ward sabhas.
Kumari is just one of 1,60,000 children in Kundapur taluk, Udupi district, whose data-based inputs are being accepted as part of the 2002-2007 five-year plan. In this novel attempt at participatory government in the taluk's 56 panchayats, children have led the democratic planning process.
This experiment raises hard-core questions. At what level are the information and discussion inputs by Kundapur's actively involved 20,000 children and adults valid? Does this signal child-responsive governance?
The Concerned for Working Children (CWC) initiated the first steps of the process. Executive director, Kundapur-based Damodar Acharya, shares his experience from the initial five gram panchayats — Kuradi, Uppunda, Balkur, Alur and Belve — where children were allowed their say in 1995-96.
"When adults started looking into the problems raised by school going children about footbridges, drinking water, the anganwadi or the location of ration shops, they found they did not have enough data," explains Acharya in Bangalore. In Balkur, through the children's or Makkala Panchayat, 13-year-old Revathi kept asking for a footbridge over a small stream, which puzzled the gathering," Acharya narrates. Adult priorities were streetlights, pucca roads, drinking water and so on.
When Revathi took the panchayat president to the site, he realised that the waters came up to the child's neck, while an adult could wade through. So, two granite slabs were sanctioned to ease her crossing.
Ground level realities surfaced through these child interventions. Through their surveys, the adults realised that, in a 3,000-strong village, nearly 60 children stopped attending school. Faced with an adult barrage of questions about cost, population impact and so on, the CWC trained the young ones to use a picture-oriented, multiple-choice questionnaire, geared to their literacy levels. In Isloor, for instance, data collected indicated the degree of alcohol and tobacco addiction in the community, and the amount squandered on substance abuse.
In coastal Uppunda, teenaged girl children trudged nearly 15 km each way daily at 3 a.m. to Alur to collect a head load of firewood, harassed by forest officials, fording streams en route.
Discussions with the Assistant Commissioner and the Deputy Forest Officer threw up the alternative of a subsidised firewood depot. But the 14-15 year olds, fought it off. Why? Because it deprived them of a peer group outing, besides personal earnings. "They said, `If there is a depot, our parents won't allow us to step out. Instead, they'll ask us to repair torn fishing nets at home.' What measures resulted from the children's inputs? In Alur, where most parents work in tile factories or the cashew industry, older siblings sought fulltime, centrally located anganwadis to sustain their own education and curtail the school dropout rate.
Children of 14-plus expressed their preference for cashew industry employment over domestic work, safeguarding their own vulnerability and economic independence, at Rs. 25 to 40 per day. Those under age could attend classes in the factory premises.
Was there adult resistance to the experiment? "At first, adults asked why the (1996-initiated) Makkala Panchayats needed to be taught politics," stresses Acharya, "because theirs is a parallel children's government, including their own voter's list of those from six to 18, elections with their own ballot boxes in each ward and candidates with their own symbols. Even when a candidate is unopposed, ballots are cast to find out how widely he or she is supported. It is basically about the right to vote."
In one unique instance, both the defeated and elected candidates chose to represent their constituency at the ward meeting without acrimony, for hadn't they both won some votes? That provided a new angle on democracy.
For each problem, the children listed the affected families and arrived at their own solutions, appended to the costing by the local panchayat secretary or engineer. "This is the first time adults have recognised what these rural children have achieved," notes Acharya. "Secondly, in a sense, they have become community leaders and resource people for the whole block."
These politically aware children, drawn from those at work and those at school, detailed the number of houses in a village that lacked electricity. Or their long trudge to school? Or how many girls dropped out at 13, lacking an accessible high school? Or the prevalence of child marriages?
How was their data collected? In the first five panchayats, the school blocked time for their exercise. For updates, they chalked out schedules in their own free time over weeks or months, with each child visiting three or four houses.
How do others perceive this first Indian essay into child-participatory governance? Vasant Saliyana, District Minister, Udupi, feels, "It has created a high level of awareness among the elected representatives. Even more important, it has brought to the forefront our accountability to children."
Ashok Mathews Philip, executive director of the Bangalore-based South India Cell for Human Rights Education and Monitoring (SICHREM), responds, "I believe the child has a right to express his or her views, including political participation at even a national level. But this has to be based on informing the child objectively about a particular issue. If only we listen, we will find children have the ability to give a realistic analysis of many subjects."
Will this initiative usher in a new political order? Will Karnataka choose to replicate this model State-wide? Its future hinges on the responses of adults in positions that count.
(The Hindu Sunday Magazine 2004)