Until last year, 36 children aged three to six were crammed in a 500-sq-ft room all day, trying to learn their nursery rhymes, exercise and rest in a space that served as gram panchayat office, anganwadi classroom and anganwadi kitchen in remote Garadgaon village in Maharashtra.
Then, the Delhi-based Indian arm of global NGO Save the Children, which operates in 11 states across the country, decided to expand its Children’s Group programme to this village in Akola district, through a local NGO.
It is a model that Save the Children follows across India, tying up with local welfare groups to form groups of children aged 12 to 14 and encourage them to raise and demand redressal for issues relating to local infrastructure and administration.
In each village, a Child Protection Committee (CPC) comprising a handful of local teachers, police officers and activists helps guide and support the young advocates for change.
When the Garadgaon village Children’s Group met for the first time in November, members of the CPC asked what they felt was the most pressing need in the village.
The children said their younger siblings could not learn or even rest well in the overcrowded, shared space of the anganwadi (the term for a government-run child- and mother-care centre), and asked if they were entitled to a separate space.
The CPC said that they were, and advised the children to raise their demand at the next panchayat meeting, which they did. All 16 members of the group also co-wrote and co-signed a letter asking for a dedicated space for the anganwadi.
The panchayat approved the request, allotted a space and applied through the Collector for funds. Six months later, Rs 6 lakh arrived from the Centre for the construction — enough for the panchayat to build a 750-sq-ft space for the anganwadi and a 300-sq-ft adjoining space for the anganwadi kitchen, where the afternoon meal is cooked for the mothers and children.
“The new space that the panchayat has built is only for studying, playing and resting,” says Roshni Lage, 12, a member of the Children’s Group. “Now, the children are no longer disturbed by the sound of gram panchayat meetings or kitchen work.”
Anganwadi worker Nirmala Mankor says she too is thankful to the children’s group because the dedicated space for a kitchen means that they can keep it clean much more easily, without people coming and going all day.
“Often, elders fail to identify with children’s problems,” says Pramila Shinde, representative of local NGO Samajik Arthik Vikas Sanstha. “This programme helps make children aware of their rights to education, to playtime, to a clean and a safe environment, and then teaches them how to demand what they are due.”
Across the country, similar initiatives are encouraging children to demand their due, tackling issues such as infanticide, child marriage, trafficking of children and child labour.
Save the Children alone operates its programme in 11 states, including Maharashtra, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Jammu & Kashmir and West Bengal. And Plan India, a Delhi-based child rights NGO that runs a similar programme, has set up Bal Panchayats in 11 states, including Bihar, Jharkhand and Andhra Pradesh. Elsewhere, local NGOs such as Bangalore-based Children’s Right Trust are also working on the same model.
In each group, local NGOs hand-pick children based on their communication skills, ability to influence peers and aptitude for community service and then conduct regular sessions to teach them about the laws and schemes relating to the issues that the children identify.
The activists also guide the children on how to push their demands and spread awareness to other children so that the group becomes a platform where any child from the village can discuss a problem.
In addition to attending panchayat meetings and writing letters to the relevant authorities, the children’s groups also organise rallies, hold discussions with governing bodies and file petitions, using government schemes and the Right to Information Act to further their cause in tackling their chosen issue.
In Garadgaon, after tasting victory with their new anganwadi, the Children’s Group has identified a number of new issues at their fortnightly meetings — including the need for a science laboratory in the village primary school (the lab was inaugurated last month) and the need to convince parents not to pull their children out of school.
With the dropouts, for instance, the children persuaded the panchayat to speak to the parents or wards and have the children returned to class.
“My uncle had convinced me to leave school and work on our farm, but my friends in Children’s Group pestered me to get back to class and I am glad I listened to their advice,” says Gautam Vankhede, 14, a Class 8 student. “After the panchayat spoke to my uncle, he sends me to school every day and I am determined to become an engineer.”
The science laboratory, meanwhile, was built at a cost of Rs 25,000, with funds collected from the government and the school budget. “The Children’s Group and the Child Protection Committee in my village are very active and that is beginning to benefit the entire village,” says village sarpanch Pradeep Gatmare.
“They are doing a fine job of empowering themselves and other children.”
* Clean drinking water in school
Where: Karuru gram panchayat area in Bellary district, Karnataka
Some battles fought and won: Clean drinking water in five village schools; repairs on school buildings; filling teacher vacancies
It’s been seven years since children from the five villages in the Karuru gram panchayat area began to receive training from NGO Children’s Rights Trust (CRT) on how to raise issues in the panchayat.
So far, the children have worked with activists, panchayat members and local officials to address issues related to child marriage, school dropouts, lack of clean drinking water and toilets, inefficient bus transport, unavailability of school uniforms and computers, and teacher vacancies.
P Manjunath, a Class 7 student, recently raised the issue of villagers leaving their cattle loose on the school premises and got, in response, a ban issued by the panchayat. Class 6 student Kavya Mallappanavar has asked the panchyat to provide metal plates for the school midday meal, and has received an assurance that they will be provided.
“It is the duty of people’s representatives to be concerned about children’s problems,” says K Ramaiah, chairman of the Karuru gram panchayat. “After all, they are the future of the nation.”
CRT works with children across the state, in the same model. “We now plan to try and develop a similar model for cities, operating at the ward level,” says NGO director Nagasimha Rao.
— Naveen Ammembala
* Desks, buses, more teachers
Where: Umra village in Akola district, Maharashtra
Battles fought and won: A desk and bench for every child in the village primary school; three teachers’ vacancies filled; a playground for the school; a change in the state transport bus schedule to ensure children could get to their secondary school 5 km away in time for their first class
Two years ago, when the Children’s Group was formed in Umra, there were no desks and benches in the village primary school’s seven classrooms, and only five teachers.
Today, each of the 375 students enrolled here has a shared desk and bench and the school has eight teachers. Recently, the Children’s Group also petitioned for and received an adjoining plot that now serves as a school playground.
Some of their battles were easily won — the desks and benches, for instance, arrived after a signed petition was sent to the panchayat and the district collector.
To have the teacher vacancies filled, however, the children had to organise a protest that saw the school shut for two days. Their demand was then met by the collector’s office.
Another battle the children have won over the past year is getting the state transport department to ply buses half an hour early in the late morning slot, so that secondary students can get to their school 5 km away in time for their first class.
“We were often late for school before, but now we’re always there on time,” says Pooja Pawar, a Class 9 student. “And getting home is easier too, because there’s now a bus that leaves from near the school just after our last class ends at 5.30 pm.”
The Children’s Group plays an instrumental role in helping the panchayat recognise their problems, says Umra sarpanch Gajanan Markha-de.
“And it’s not just in terms of facilities. These children have also sought help from the police and elders to stop a child marriage, which none of us knew of but the kids did through their network. I am proud of them.”
* First at the scene
Where: Gogla village in Chamoli district, Uttarakhand
Battles fought and won: Toilets and a drinking water purifier installed in the village school; learning to administer first-aid
The closest hospital is three hours away and there are no doctors in remote, mountainous Gogla village. So when the Bal Panchayat was first constituted here four years ago, in association with child rights NGO Plan India, the first issue the children picked was learning to administer first-aid, so that they could help the many villagers injured regularly while chopping firewood or farming in the steep, terraced fields.
Accordingly, Plan India helped set up sessions on first-aid and basic counselling, conducted by experts from the Nehru Institute of Mountainee-ring. For years, the youngsters provided crucial first aid in their village.
Then, this year, the Uttarakhand floods hit and their services became crucial. “Our village was not very badly affected,” says Kashmira Kotwal, 15, a Bal Panchayat member. “But some villages in our district and in neighbouring Rudra-prayag were very badly hit, so we decided to send a team of volunteers there.”
Those 30 trained teenage volunteers have been working to provide first aid in remote regions and to help the government and NGOs document losses and direct aid to where it is most needed. “The situation in some villages is very bad,” says Kalpana, 17, who goes by only one name. “We felt we had to help.”
The children will continue to volunteer in 10 villages over the next few months.
* Testing the waters
Where: Gopal Nagar, Durbarchatti and Ramganga villages in the Sundarbans, West Bengal
For eight years, the 20,000 residents of these three villages in the Sundarbans have suffered from frequent bouts of diarrhoea and severe abdominal pain.
In April 2013, when the area got its first-ever Children’s Group, operating under the guidance of local NGO Sundarban Social Development Centre (SSDC), the first issue the children identified was these recurring ailments.
With the NGO’s help, they zeroed in on polluted drinking water as a possible cause. The group is now in the midst of a project to test the pollution levels of water from the 50 tube wells used by the villages.
After a two-day training session conducted by SSDC activist Jyotirmoy Chakrborty, a civil engineer and former director of NGO Water for People, 45 children, 15 from each village, were deputed to collect water samples every Sunday for four months.
The water is then tested in a pop-up laboratory set up with the help of the SSDC. “The final reports will be sent to the gram panchayats and other government agencies by the children in mid-August, along with their demand for safer drinking water,” says local SSDC project coordinator Biplab Brahma.
For the children, the project has been an indication of what they can achieve. “I have been working on the project for four months and I am happy that my work will not just benefit me and my family but everyone else in the community,” says Abhijit Das, a Class 10 student from Gopalnagar village and a member of the Children’s Group.