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Thursday, September 13, 2001



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Children stop child marriages and more ...

Rasheeda Bhagat

YOU hardly expect a reform pertaining to children's rights and participation to emerge from a state like Rajasthan which has one of the worst records on women and children's rights. According to UNICEF data its infant mortality rate (IMR) is as high as 8 1 per 1,000 live births; its immunisation cover had actually declined by four percentage points from 21 in 1992-93 to 17 in 1998-99; 82 per cent of children under age three are anaemic with this being the second highest rate of anaemia in the country; ch ild malnutrition levels have increased by nine percentage points between 1992-93 and 1998-99; and only 21 per cent of its girls and 50 per cent of its boys complete primary education.

If all this is not horrendous enough, consider this. About 82 per cent of girls in Rajasthan are married by the age of 18 and of this 48 per cent are married by the age of 15.

And yet, thanks to a unique initiative launched by the UNICEF, and supported by the panchayat chiefs in several villages of two districts in the State -- Ajmer and Baran -- you have bright-eyed, well-scrubbed and better informed children, both boys and g irls, taking on social evils such as child marriage, tobacco chewing and liquor consumption in children, urging adults to send their children to school, not to use polythene bags, keep their villages clean and plant trees and much more.

All this is happening through the Bal Panchayat which is formed on the model of the adult panchayat. Sixteen-year-old Sayar Singh is the Secretary of the Bal Panchayat in Kesarpura village about 20 km from Ajmer. With a dead pan serious expression and as though he is relating the story to a child he describes how on one fine day he returned from school to be told by his mother that they had an unexpected visitor -- his father-in-law.

``She said your sasraji has said that your marriage will be held on akhatees (an auspicious day which comes around April end-May beginning and during which thousands of child marriages are held in Rajasthan). I said I will not get married; she said you w ill have to. So I said if you force me, I'll leave the house.''

He is now in Std. VIII and told his parents he will not think of marriage till he finishes his education. His parents left the task of explaining this to his sasraji and this chit of a boy lectured to his father-in-law-to-be: ``If I get married now, I wo n't be able to study and get a good job. This will not be good for your daughter.''

His parents though were infuriated and after three days of squabbling, they gave in ``as they were scared that I might jump into the well and end my life if they forced me.'' Finally, on Sayar's assurance, his parent's have given the commitment to 11-yea r-old Seema's family, that he will marry only her, but when she is 18.

O.P. Mathur, Project Director, Ajmer Adult Education Society (AAES), an NGO which is co-ordinating with the UNICEF to facilitate and promote the setting up and running of Bal Panchayats, is even more enthusiastic than the children. ``On the last akhate es day the Bal Panchayats took out massive rallies in several villages and did a door-to-door campaign against child marriage. The result was that in these villages not a single child marriage was held.''

The adult Panchayat chief of Kesarpura, Madan Singh, says proudly that thanks to his village's Bal Panchayat's efforts, ``not a single child marriage was held in Kesarpura and this is a record.''

The 14 members of the Bal Panchayat, who are elected by the children of the village, point out that about 25 such marriages were planned. Says the diminutive Bal Panchayat president Nirmal Kumar, ``From the children we found out which families were plan ning the marriage of their children. Then we went as a group and begged them not to destroy the lives of their children and explained the evils of child marriage. And it worked!''

Though Madan Singh nods in approval, there have been umpteen occasions when he, as his counterparts in other panchayats, has been on the receiving end from the collective might of this panchayat, on issues such as a hand pump that was not working; or a s treet light not burning, or a crumbling school wall needing urgent attention. Small wonder that sarpanchs like him refer to their bal panchayat members as `our vanar sena. ``They have very little patience and want the work done fast, and refuse to under stand constraints like dearth of funds.''

Anita Upadhyay, Project officer of the AAES, who is virtually the friend, guide and philosopher of the bal panchayat members, reminds you of the adage that the child is the father of the man when she says, ``These children have such an unusual way of th inking and are brimming with such excellent ideas, that very often when I am sitting with them, I wonder how come I never thought of this idea first!''

But then as the UNICEF Project officer in Jaipur, Shikha Wadhwa, who originally hit upon the concept of bal panchayat during her previous posting in West Bengal points out, ``Children are non-controversial and non-partisan, so when they demand something, everybody listens and the panchayat president and others in positions of power try their best to meet their demands.''

She hit upon the concept during her posting in Kolkata in 1994. ``I felt that though a lot was happening on the child rights front, nobody as talking about child participation. This was not a priority even for UNICEF, leave alone the government.'' She fe lt that it was UNICEF's responsibility to bring the participation of children on the agenda of the panchayat and the government and involve them in decision making as we are ``non-partisan and our only agenda is children. We have a credibility so why not take advantage of it.''

So `very modestly and very quietly' she launched a bal panchayat in the Bishnupur block of 24 South Parganas with the co-operation of the district collector. From 22 villages 22 children were taken and they met once a month and discussed issues importan t to children.

So when she came to Jaipur in 1997, it was but natural that she should continue this work. ``But I realised that the anomaly in that model was, that being from different villages the children could not meet frequently. So I thought every village should have its own panchayat.''

It took a while to get the bal panchayats organised and two NGOs -- the AAES in Ajmer and Bharat Gyan Vigyan Samiti in Baran district -- were identified as partners and over the last one year 30 bal panchayats have been set up in Ajmer and 35 in Baran.

Luckily the 30 bal panchayats have created such waves that the zilla pramukh (district chief) who has the rank of a minister in Rajasthan, has sent a circular to all the panchayats saying that they should strive to have their own bal panchayats.

The bal panchayats too follow the one third gender reservation policy, so panchayats with women chiefs have a girl heading that bal panchayat. The child representatives are in the age group nine to 16, ``so that they can retire at 18.''

It is delightful to discover how the children are using this forum not only to discover and put to the test their leadership qualities, but also to tackle social evils which hurt the children most. Child marriage is one; and another is the addiction to t obacco.

Mathur explains that there are very high levels of addition to the gutka (tobacco of the pan parag variety) in Rajasthan society. Adults send the children to buy the gutka and four or five times after they have watched their elders relishing it, the chi ld is tempted to experiment and in no time becomes a slave to the habit.

High on the agenda of each of the 65 bal panchayats which have been set up till now is the fight against not only children's addiction to gutka but also alcohol brewed and sold locally.

In many of the villages, thanks to the campaign against gutka carried out by the bal panchayat members, the owners of petty shops which sell gutka packets by hundreds a day are scared to hand over the stuff to children. With the support of the sarpanches of the village panchayats these children have passed a directive that shopkeepers who sell gutka to children will be fined heavily.

In one bal panchayat we came across a 13-year-old member who is himself addicted to tobacco. With downcast eyes he said, ``I have been addicted for a long time. I cannot give it up suddenly. But I am making a very sincere effort to cut down the amount an d I have given an undertaking to the bal panchayat that in a few months I'll stop gutka intake completely.''

When children speak like that, naturally your heart goes out to them. But at the same time your spirits soar to look at those

eyes filled with such hope and confidence ... that they can, and will, make a difference to their lives.

As we drive away from the dusty, pothole ridden and sometimes totally katcha roads of these villages, it is with our batteries recharged. Surely it will be a matter of course for them to step out from the bal to the adult panchayat. But the NGO represent atives are not too sure that this would be the best course.

Says the AAES President, N.K. Marwah, a retired professor of English from the Dayanand College in Ajmer, ``I feel very happy to see them forming opinion in their community. They take the initiative and write letters to the real panches and even the Colle ctor. They nag the panches into doing things, and even bombard the Collector because as children they don't feel daunted. But as for these children ending up in politics, I'd like to ask you: Have you come across many straight politicians?''

Pic.: The bal panchayat members of Nand village near Ajmer, show some posters that carry messages on social upliftment.

Picture by Rasheeda Bhagat

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