Children in remote parts of Murshidabad district in West Bengal are taking an active role in community governance, and are not only tackling social ills but also feeding their potential to be future leaders.
By Chhandosree*, Murshidabad, West Bengal
Devising a development strategy is no child's play. Institutionalising it on the ground is even more difficult. When such a strategy is brought about by children in the age group of 10 to 19 years, it's worth sitting down and learning.
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.
A stretch of lush green trees line the NH 34 throughout the 70 km drive to Mahesail II from Berhampore, the administrative headquarter of Murshidabad district. The River Bhagirathi is not far, and you can feel a hint of it in the breeze. At Mahesail II, the smart, confident children are equally refreshing.
We have been maintaining committee registers since 2010 and have solved so many child rights-related cases. Vishnu Priya (16)
"I'm Lili, she is Lipi and she is Mili. We study at Murali Pukur High School, class six. Please come in." That's the welcome that VillageSquare.in got from three little girls in the school premises at Bamuha village, where children of their age-group meet twice a month.
Found sitting in a delightfully decorated room with posters and pamphlets on child rights were around 30 more children between the ages of 10 and 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 Ramiz Raza (16), a 12th standard student of Murali Pukur High School and a group leader of children in the age group of 15 to 19.
Bamuha village in Mahesail II has a population of around 3600 spread over 300 households. Until six years ago it was like any other neglected Indian village. "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 (VLCPC). He gave us support to constitute it. The main purpose of VLCPC was to protect child rights," said Ramiz.
Ramiz explained that under VLCPC, every village constitutes children's groups, each of which has a leader who organises meetings and takes important issues to village seniors such as the gram pradhan (village head). "We have been maintaining committee registers since 2010 and have solved so many child rights-related cases," Vishnu Priya (16), a class 11 student, told VillageSquare.in.
Combating child marriage
Talking how her own marriage, settled two years ago, was foiled through the children's group, she said, "I was very scared when a marriage alliance was proposed to my parents from relatives in Malda. While I was a student, the boy was a mason. I wanted to study further but my parents did not agree. I discussed the matter at our group meeting. We consulted Renu Sarkar, a teacher 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 also tackles other social problems. "There was a betel shop near a primary school nearby. It used to play television during school hours and any request to stop it was refused. We took the matter to the gram pradhan and he directed the shopkeeper to stop the nuisance," said Supriya Das (15), another member of the group.
While the group of seniors solves bigger problems, the juniors are great informers. "Lili, Lipi, Mili 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. We suspected that it might be a case of child labour. We asked the kids to befriend the boy. But the mason stopped the boy from meeting other children. Again 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. The local police helped us to send back the boy to his home in Howrah," Vishnu Priya said.
Our area was known to be a source of child labour for bidi factories. But now our children go to schools and not to the bidi factories. Shyamali Roy, Bamuha
Shyamali Roy, Karabi Das, Pobitri Das, all residents of Bamuha, are very proud of the children. These women feel that a wave of change is visible due to the children's work. "Can you believe that our villages do not report a single child marriage case? Our area was known to be a source of child labour for bidi factories. But the scenario is changing. Our children go to schools and not to the bidi factories," said Shyamali Roy, who is also a member of the village's woman's group.
Around 15 km away from Bamuha in Mahesail II is Baguipara village under Aurangabad I panchayat. Here the children are not only active but also helping panchayat officials in making a budget for children. Jaidev Das, gram pradhan of Aurangabad I, says, "My heart goes to these children who are emerging as crusaders of change and development."
While Bamuha is mostly home to Hindus, Baguipara is Muslim-dominated—thus the challenges faced by young girls are greater when it comes to continuing their education and preventing early marriage. The villages in Aurangabad I, thus, have not only a VLCPC but also a children panchayat. "Every village has one or two representatives that jointly constitute the junior panchayat. It holds a meeting with the senior panchayat once a month to discuss the issues that children are facing," Osman Gani, panchayat secretary, told VillageSquare.in.
"I was a class five student when I got married. Once I came back home after marriage, I refused to go back and expressed the desire to study further. It was thanks to the children's group support that I got talaq. But the clouds had not passed. My marriage was again fixed in class eight. This time I sought the help of the panchayat, the police and the Child in Need Institute. I am thankful that my marriage was cancelled," said Nazma Khatoon (18), member of the children parliament, a class 11 student, who was awarded by several organisations for her courage.
Their participation has actually made our functioning better... They started preparing a budget for children. Mohammad Suqir, former gram pradhan, Aurangabad I
Sukheda Khatoon pointed out that being a member of the children's panchayat was helping them in a big way. "Girls of eighth-ninth standard complain regularly of sexual harassment. We took this matter up with the senior panchayat. Seniors have now not only consulted local police but also deputed trustworthy boys to keep a watch. Girls are now feeling safe," she said.
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. "Earlier we used to spend money only on infrastructure development like road construction, drain construction, repair works of schools and garbage removal. 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. They distributed the amount judiciously," informed Osman Gani. He said an intelligent child was no longer deprived of getting coaching or attaining higher education. "Through budget for children, we are not only arranging for their education but health too. Child rights are not neglected anymore," he added.
Figures tell a tale
The claims of the children and women make sense. The recently released National Family Health Survey (NFHS) IV data says child marriage in West Bengal has gone down from 53% to 40% over a period of 10 years. 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, a jump from 70% in 2005-2006.
Chhandosree is a journalist based in Ranchi.
This article was first published on VillageSquare.in, a public-interest communications platform focused on rural India.