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Monday, January 14, 2008

Children Speak Up

I write on anything that interests me, and am happy to publicize a worthy cause. My article on children's participation in local self-goverment in rural India was published in December by Infochange news and features. Other sites and bloggers have put this up, so I'm sharing it again here. Let's spread the word.

Children Speak Up

By Monideepa Sahu

11 January, 2008

The Karnataka government's panchayati raj ministry recently issued an
order (638-2007, dated 30.10.2007) making it mandatory for all
panchayats to provide children a platform to put their concerns
forward directly to elected representatives at special children's gram

The order makes it mandatory for panchayats to report back on action
taken to address issues raised by the children.

Concerned for Working Children (CWC), an NGO that has been involved
with child-related issues for over two decades, was consulted during
the drafting of the circular.

This is indeed a welcome move -- an affirmation of the child's right
to participate in the decision-making process. "(It) recognises
children as citizens of today and highlights the accountability of
elected representatives to the children of their communities," says
the CWC.

But if it is not to fall by the wayside as yet another
well-intentioned but ineffective measure, the order must be properly
implemented. Intensive and systematic capacity-building is required to
enable children to effectively use these gram sabhas to realise their
rights through active participation and cooperation with adults in
authority. Likewise, adults, especially those responsible for
facilitating the gram sabhas, must be trained to appreciate their
importance and to conduct the proceedings smoothly. Children need
special guidance in order to derive optimum benefit from the gram sabhas.

Makkala panchayats (children's councils) were introduced for the first
time as a parallel government of children working closely with
panchayats in Karnataka in 1995 as a pilot project by the CWC and the
Bhima Sangha (a union by, for and of working children, facilitated by
the CWC). This was a collaboration with the ministry of rural
development and panchayati raj, government of Karnataka, aimed at
empowering children. Under this project, the first children's gram
sabhas took place in Keradi, Alur and Belvi in Udupi district, in
2002. The chief executive officer of Udupi district, the state
government-appointed administrative head of the district panchayat,
observed the functioning of the children's panchayats. Impressed by
what he saw, the CEO requested that the CWC replicate its work in all
panchayats in Kundapura.

The model of including children in local self-government has been in
place since 2004 in all 56 panchayats of Kundapura taluka, Udupi
district, Karnataka, covering a population of 380,000, of which around
160,000 are children (2001 census). Of them, nearly 20,000 children
and adults have taken active part in gram sabha meetings and allied
discussions and surveys. Children are encouraged to become actively
involved in planning for local issues under the Five-Year Plan system.

In the Kundapura taluk gram sabhas, children listed problems and
difficulties affecting their community, as they saw them. "Stray
cattle make the area in front of our school dirty and smelly," said
one child. "This place gets flooded during the rains forcing us to
take a lengthy route to school. Our mothers also find it difficult to
trudge so far to fetch water," said another child from the Hallihole
panchayat. Wading through the flooded stretch was not a problem for
the adults in the area, but for little children the water was
neck-deep. Alcoholism was another major problem, and children bore the
brunt. In Golihole panchayat, intoxicated fathers beat up their wives
and traumatised the children. In Hengavalli panchayat, many children
felt that money spent on liquor was a major cause of their poverty.

While tabling local issues, the children of Kundapura taluk offered
practical solutions benefiting not just themselves but the community
as a whole. They showed great organisational capabilities and clarity
of thought as they conducted surveys, collected data, and documented
discussions between groups of children, women, the differently-abled
and other special groups in support of the solutions they came up
with. A boundary wall could be constructed around the school, thus
keeping out stray cattle and providing children with a safe play area.
The daily drudgery of village women and children could be reduced by
constructing a simple footbridge to shorten the tortuous route to
school and the potable water source. Alcoholism and its attendant
evils could be curbed by closing down liquor shops and persuading
liquor traders to take up alternative means of livelihood.

The first series of special children's gram sabhas for 2007 have
already commenced and have had a powerful impact on reinforcing local
governance. Hundreds of children took part in a recent sabha in
Hallihole, a remote panchayat in Udupi district. The panchayat
reported back to the children about the successful implementation of
19 programmes that had directly arisen out of issues raised by the
children at the 2006 children's gram sabhas. These included the
construction of toilets in schools and improved access to basic
facilities and services, not just for children but the entire
community. President of the panchayat, Shankar Narayan Chatra, said:
"It is now absolutely clear to me why children's participation is
essential to strengthen local government. Children not only list their
problems, they also describe the implications of the problems and the
importance of addressing them. This has been extremely useful to us to
develop our action plans."

Seven-hundred-and-fifty children participated in the children's gram
sabha at Hardalli Mandalli, also in Udupi district. After organising a
procession in which they voiced their concerns, the children made
detailed presentations about local issues such as the need for a
community hall for the local high school, and water facilities and
toilets for homes that lack them.

Replicating the successful model of these special children's gram
sabhas throughout the state will involve a high degree of commitment
and cooperation among all the involved parties. The unique
socio-economic factors and polity of each village pose challenges that
will have to be taken on board. Each problem will have to be tackled
with patience and imagination to arrive at equitable solutions that
are acceptable to the entire community.

The sabhas should be widely publicised and include within their scope
all children, including children out of school, migrant children, and
children with special needs. Children with special needs and children
from marginalised sections of society need to be encouraged to
participate, while extra effort must be made to include children from
migrant communities into the sabhas.

The actual sabha itself should be conducted in a lively and
interesting way to motivate children to attend and discuss their
problems honestly and without inhibition. A non-judgemental and safe
environment must be ensured for all children.

At present, the special children's gram sabhas have been envisaged
only for rural areas. But urban children too need to be included in
the process of self-government. The possibility of holding urban
children's sabhas should be explored with NGOs working with children
and city corporations and municipalities.

Adults also must be trained to make the best use of the system. Gram
panchayat members and government officials involved in enabling the
special children's gram sabhas should be provided inputs regarding
children's rights and addressing violations of these rights. They need
to be made aware of the importance of enabling children's
participation in local self-government. Only enlightened adults who
probe and question the given scheme of things, and consistently review
the situation, can act responsibly towards developing a healthy
socio-economic basis for democracy to thrive.

Likewise, budgets must be specifically allocated towards addressing
the issues raised by children. The current government order makes it
mandatory for panchayats to report back on the action taken, ensuring
a degree of compliance. However, panchayats can show lack of funds as
an excuse for inaction. A solution, suggests Kavita Ratna of the CWC,
would be for the state government to set aside a specific percentage
of the budget to address child-related issues.

Critics of the government order believe that the emphasis on
children's participation may be misconstrued as a dilution of adult
responsibility. Although it is vital to inculcate democratic values in
young children, adult community leaders must not make this an excuse
to shirk their responsibilities and grow apathetic towards
child-related issues. Kavita Ratna of the CWC says: "The new system
makes adults more accountable." In a major shift from its earlier
stance, the current government order links these gram sabhas to the
planning process and programme implementation of panchayats.
Panchayats are now required to provide follow-up reports on action
taken to address the issues raised by children. "We have already seen
it in action," Ratna says. "Panchayat members are now preparing
databases, setting projects in motion, and taking child-related issues
more seriously."

InfoChange News & Features, December 2007

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