Nov 14, 2008

India - Brave new world beckons in 'child-friendly' villages

Nandita Sengupta

Razia Sultan's eyes sparkle. Just 11, she is already a mix of power-lady and princess. Nothing in her mien gives away the fact that the eldest of
nine siblings toiled for four hours every day after school to stitch footballs in Meerut for two years till 2004.

But Razia's come a long way since those days. Her village, Nanglakhumba, on the outskirts of Meerut in west UP, has been a child-friendly village, or bal mitra gram, for four years now. And Razia is an elected member of the bal mahapanchayat, a national body that deals with children's issues such as labour and early marriage. She is the oldest among her nine siblings and clearly a beacon of sorts for her peer group.

Razia's transformation from football-maker to child activist who has ensured separate toilets for girls in her school, is a story of hope. It is the tale of what village communities can achieve once shown the way. Like thousands of others, Nanglakhumba village was a hub of child labour till villagers rooted out the practice and recognized that the road to a better future cannot be built on the labour of children.

The shift in the villagers' mindset was an outcome of an initiative by Bachpan Bachao Andolan working with a group of foreign NGOs for a project called Building Child Friendly Villages. The concept of such a village is simple, if difficult to actualize. Villages with intensive child labour are identified, followed by extensive awareness and goal-oriented programmes where villagers are weaned away from acceptance of child labour. Enrolment in schools is ensured and village-level surveillance is mounted so that no unscrupulous person exploits children.

The panchayat is usually the first to acknowledge the evil of child labour. Community-level intervention leads to compulsory education. Every village where child labour is rooted out has its own bal panchayat, which interacts with the adults.

The results are remarkable. In a report, child rights activist Bhuwan Ribhu says that in conservative Tewari village near Jaipur, an alert panchayat welcomed the initiative and one of its first actions was to shoot off complaint letters about the absence of a health worker and teachers in the local government school. The realization that villagers themselves can work towards improving their lot has raised the community's self-esteem. An active bal panchayat here vociferously advocates withdrawing children from work and curbing child marriage.

But it's easier said than done. Activists report facing stiff resistance in every village, but in the 10 years since the project has been implemented in India, 238 villages have become child-labour free, and at present 43 are in the process of conversion, says Umesh Gupta, an activist with Bachpan Bachao Andolan. It takes an average of two years to rid a village of the practice and make it a bal mitra gram.

Nangalkhumba's bal panchayat is headed by 11-year-old Ubed, the youngest of eight brothers. Pradhan Ubed, as he is called, is happy to record that his panchayat has pushed parents of 48 kids to enroll this year alone. He has a steely gaze and understated confidence. He wants to be a doctor.

Razia asserts she will become a samajsevika. She is preparing for a meeting with the district magistrate on Nov 25. There are issues, she says, that need to be tackled. There's no missing the purpose in her voice.

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