Devising a development strategy is no child’s play. Institutionalising it on the ground is even harder. When such a strategy is brought about by children in the age group of 10 to 19 years, it’s worth learning a thing or two.
Mahesail II and Aurangabad I gram panchayats (village councils) are two rare examples under Suti II, a community development block in West Bengal’s Murshidabad district, where children are bringing the waves of change.
The stretch of lush green trees on the two sides of NH 34 throughout the 70 km drive to Mahesail II from Berhampore, the administrative headquarter of Murshidabad district, gives the feel of presence of Bhagirathi flowing nearby. At Mahesail II, the breeze of Bhagirathi is enigmatic that will draw people to the smart, confident children, always ready to help and above all greet with a smile.
“Aami Lili, o Lipi aar o Mili. Aamra Murali Pukur High School ae class six ae pori. Aasun bhetore.” I’m Lili, she is Lipo and she is Mili. We study at Murali Pukur High School, Class 6. Please come in. With this, three little girls give a hearty welcome to VillageSquare.in on a school premises at Bamuha village, where children of their age-group meet twice a month.
Sitting in a delightfully decorated room with posters and pamphlets on child rights were 30 more children aged 10 to 19, all eager to share their part of the story of development.
Season of Change
“Development is a wonderful word, but everything doesn’t happen as easily as it sounds,” said 16-year-old Ramiz Raza, a Class 12 student of Murali Pukur High School and a group leader of children in the 15-19 age group.
Bamuha village in Mahasail II, with a population of around 3,600 and 300 households, was like a nondescript rural village till six years ago. “In 2010, Vijay Hazra, who was well versed with the government schemes and policies, asked our elder brothers and sisters to form a Village Level Child Protection Committee,” said Raza. “He gave handholding support to constitute it. The main purpose of Village Level Child Protection Committee was to protect child rights.”
Ramiz explained that under Village Level Child Protection Committee, every village has groups of children aged 10 to 19 and each group has a leader. The group members select the leader, whose main task is to hold group meetings, hear children-related problems and take up issues with village seniors,which can also be the gram pradhan (village head).
“We had been maintaining a committee register since 2010 and have solved so many child rights-related cases,” Vishnu Priya, a Class 11 student, told VillageSquare.in.
Foiling child marriage
Citing the successes of these groups, Priya gave her own example. Two years ago, when she was just 14, her marriage had been fixed. “I was very scared when a marriage alliance was proposed to my parents from relatives in Malda,” she said. “While I was a student, the boy was a mason. I wanted to study further but my parents did not agree.”
Priya took up the matter at meeting of her group. “We consulted Renu Sarkar, a teacher by profession who acts a guide for us. She talked to a few more seniors in the village and all talked to my parents to stop my marriage.”
The group has had several other successes too – from identifying child labour to solving local nuisances.
“There was a betel shop near a primary school nearby that used to play television during school hours and any request to stop it was refused,” said 15-year-old Supriya Das. “This matter too was discussed at the group meeting. We took the matter to the gram pradhan and he directed the shopkeeper to stop the nuisance.”
While the group of seniors solves bigger problems, those of the juniors are great informers. “Lili, Lipi and Mili’s group did a great job by letting us know that there was a child at a local mason’s home who was never seen here before,” Priya. “We apprehended that it might be a case of child labour. We had to consult the village seniors to find out if the boy was a labourer. It was then found that the mason had brought the boy for work. Local police helped us to send back the boy to his home in Howrah.”
Adults of the Bamuha village are very proud of the childrens’ efforts. “Can you believe that our villages do not report a single child marriage case, neither a single home delivery?” said Shyamali Roy, a member of the village’s women’s group. “Our area was known to be Bidi bachchader elaka [areas of children employed in bidi-making factories]. But the scenario is changing. Our children go to schools and not to the bidi factories.”
Around 15 km away from Bamuha in Mahesail II is Baguipara village under Aurangabad I panchayat. In this Muslim-dominated village, and girls’ education and early marriages are big challenges. The villages in Aurangabad I have not only a not only Village Level Child Protection Committee but also Children’s Panchayat. “My heart goes to these children who are emerging as crusaders of change and development,” said Jaidev Das, gram pradhan of Aurangabad I.
“Every village has one or two representatives that jointly constitute the junior panchayat,” Osman Gani, panchayat secretary, told VillageSquare.in. “This [panchayat] holds meeting with the senior’s panchayat once a month to discuss the issues that children are facing,”
For girls in West Bengal’s Aurangabad, eve-teasing and child marriage are major concerns.
“I was a Class 5 student when I got married,” said Nazma Khatoon, now 18, who is a member of the cildren parliament. “Once I came back home after the wedding, I refused to go back and expressed the desire to study further. It was children’s group support that I got talaq. But the clouds were not over. My marriage was again fixed in Class 8. This time I sought the help of the panchayat, the police and help of Child in Need Institute, a West Bengal based noted organisation working for women and children, to help me out. I am thankful that my marriage was avoided.” Nazma Khatoon, now in Class 11, has been recognised by several organisations for her courage.
Sukheda Khatoon said the children’s panchayat also helped many girls out in cases of eve-teasing. “Girls of Class 8 and Class 9 complain of regular eve teasing,” she said. “We took this matter with senior’s panchayat. Seniors have now not only consulted local police but also deputed trustworthy boys to keep a watch. Girls are now feeling safe.”
Let’s talk development
How do seniors see the children’s involvement? “Their participation has actually made our functioning better,” said Mohammad Suqir, former gram Pradhan of Aurangabad I.
In this region, the children are not only doubling up as activists but also helping panchayat officials in making a budget for kids.
“Earlier, we used to spend money only on infrastructure development like road construction, drain construction, repair works of schools and garbage removal,” Suqir said. “The children helped us to go beyond the specific allocations. They started preparing a budget for children.”
In the financial year 2015-’16, the panchayat had a budget of Rs 13.5 million. “Out of the total, we were able to allocate Rs 6.34 lakh only for children and allowed the children parliament to spend it,” said Gani, the panchayat secretary. “They distributed the amount judiciously.”
Gani said intelligent children were no longer deprived of coaching facilities or means to study further. “Through budget for children, we are not only arranging for their education but health too,” he said. “Child rights are not neglected anymore.”
Figures tell a tale
Recent data suggests that these efforts are making a difference. The National Family Health Survey IV data released earlier this year said child marriage in West Bengal has gone down from 53% to 40%. Even institutional delivery in the state has improved from 75% to 40%. Women’s empowerment and gender-based violence too have shown marked improvement with 90% of married women participating in household decisions, which was earlier 70%.
This article first appeared on Village Square.