September 9: Govindpuri, a sprawling slum settlement in New Delhi, spread over nine km, is like any other slum — a congested maze of narrow lanes, uncovered drains and tiny houses. But it is unique in one aspect. The children living there have come up with an unusual way to settle their problems. They have set up Bal Panchayats or local governing bodies that have child members only.
“We started Bal Panchayat two and a half years ago to address our own problems. We handle topical issues like students dropping out of school, somebody failing in exams or even Kargil. Then we decide our course of action and act on it,” says Ravi, one of the members, sounding very confident.
What course of action do the children take?
A course of action that has included a lot of things – making films on tuberculosis and drug abuse by children, participating in art workshops like clay and plastic modelling, doll-making and metal embossing, and conducting street plays to collect money for the families of soldiers at war. They air their views at the Panchayats, and then try to devise solutions to the issues bothering them.
A non-governmental organisation called Community Aid Sponsorship Programme,
(CASP), motivated the children to set up the Panchayat. It is part of a CASP project for child welfare and development for slum children. Two international agencies – the United States Agency for International Development and McArthur Foundation, are helping CASP carry out the project.
The aim of the project is to educate poor children early about their rights and to convince them that their voices can’t be ignored in society for they too are members of society. The Bal Panchayat Meetings are held in the basement of the office of CASP. The kids are left to make their own decisions as no adult presides over these meetings. But if they feel the need for adult guidance, they seek the help of the counselors, also provided by CASP.
There is great enthusiasm among the children for the Bal Panchayat. Not only does it give them the opportunity to prove that they can handle their own affairs in a mature manner, it also shows to them how governments work in a democracy.
Their enthusiasm has not dimmed despite many adults lecturing them to give up the meetings. Now the children are trying to change the attitude of those adults!
The children admit that their own parents, too, did not take kindly to the idea of the Bal Panchayat at first. They called it a waste of time. But then, they were made to attend a session and listen to what their children discussed.
They realised that the children were not just becoming more aware of things, but were also learning new skills that would help them throughout their lifetime. They stopped complaining after that.
The project has given the children the confidence to think big. Now they plan to create a children’s parliament of sorts. Who would have guessed that these children have the same political ambitions as adults?