Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Children speak up

The Karnataka government has passed an order making it mandatory for panchayats in the state to offer children a platform to voice their concerns and problems, through special children’s gram sabhas.

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 sabhas.

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.”

Source: http://www.infochangeindia.org/features465.jsp

Forget yourself for others, and others will never forget you.

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