Children's tryst with democracy 

Children's tryst with democracy 

In a quiet but fantastic display of local governance, thousands of children come together in hamlets and villages across Karnataka in November every year. These ‘Makkala Grama Sabhas’ help youngsters experience democracy at the grassroots, as envisioned by Mahatma Gandhi. 

In his village in Mandya, Pavan M saw his friends negotiating muddy lanes and deep pits on their way to school each morning. One day, Pavan found himself in a pit. What he did not imagine was that bringing up the issue of this road in a Makkala Grama Sabha meeting would change what had been a constant concern for years. 

“This incident boosted my confidence to demand basic amenities when they are lacking. If we were able to achieve this, then there is no reason why we cannot come together and get solutions to the other problems we face too,” he said. 

Many children like Pavan, who are often deemed “future citizens” of the nation are told to keep their opinions on public issues to themselves, until they grow up. This serves to not just muffle the opinions of children but also affects the attention given to children’s rights and issues. 

Almost two decades ago, when child rights activist Vasudeva Sharma N V and a group of social workers surveyed a dozen villages, they discovered that there was no proper data base of the demographic profile of children and their schooling status. Data on even more pressing concerns like child labour, child marriage, or details of children from the underprivileged communities did not exist. 

Realising this significant gap in information, the team got to work, collating basic data from Anganwadis, schools and other stakeholders. As they gathered these numbers, Sharma and his team found that the data was telling the stories of children’s situation. 

In 2006, the efforts of the team led the Karnataka government to issue a circular to all gram panchayats and the Makkala Grama Sabha began. Since then, every November, a day-long session is conducted in each village, where children engage with Panchayat Development Officers and Panchayat members on important issues. 

Karnataka is a pioneer in Panchayat Raj implementation, explained Uma Mahadevan, the Principal Secretary of Department of Rural Development and Panchayat Raj. “The state has over 6,000 functioning Grama Sabhas, which are unique because they are village assemblies and do not only consist of elected officials — representatives can directly get in touch with those electing them,” she said.

In fact, the Panchayat Raj Act of 1993 calls for the inclusion of children’s voices in village assemblies and Karnataka is one of the first states to involve children in the process.  Child participation is also a key principle in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, the most widely-ratified treaty on children’s rights. 

Matters of importance

Mahadevi Hanumantha Kuri, a Class 8 student from Mutallageri in Badami taluk who attended a Grama Sabha session, explains that most issues brought up at the Sabha relate to school. “Education is the most important thing for us, so the government needs to listen to the concerns we have about sanitation, lab facilities, transport, school infrastructure and safety. As students, we face these problems every day, and so we know these issues very well,” she said.

One example of a tangible outcome of the Makkala Grama Sabha was witnessed by Apoorva S L, a II PUC student from Sidlaghatta in Chikkaballapura district, who attended a session when she was younger. Many children travelled about 5 to 10 km to reach their school, where they had no access to drinking water facilities and had to go thirsty for a major part of the day. Even their toilets did not have running water. 

The Makkala Grama Sabha provided an effective platform for the children to voice their needs. Soon after, the village came together to provide these facilities to the children. “It was nice to be able to ask for something and get a solution for it,” she said. 

Like Apoorva, many children across Karnataka have been responsible for similar victories by bringing to officials’ attention issues that would have otherwise slipped their notice. From better-equipped science labs and libraries to safer toilet facilities and cleaner playgrounds, these young advocates have ushered in changes in how their schools look, function and teach. 

While many concerns revolve around school, Makkala Grama Sabhas also bring to the fore important child rights issues and help sensitise the community on the dangers to which children are left vulnerable. In many villages, for instance, girls are troubled by the harassment they face on their way to school. Others may discontinue their education after puberty due to lack of access to sanitary napkins and poor toilet facility. 

Though issues like these are great deterrents to the education of girls, they often go unnoticed, until they are voiced in a public platform, like the Makkala Grama Sabha.

The results of these sessions also include long-term transformation of attitudes and social norms, explains social worker B Shailaja Kumar.

“Every child in the Makkala Grama Sabha gets a chance to speak. Watching my friends speak about their problems without fear was really inspiring and gave me the courage to speak and raise my issues,” said Supriya N C, a I PUC student from Nallegarahalli, Chikkaballapura district.

Many children like Supriya feel these meetings empowered them to discover, strengthen their right to participate and demand what is rightfully theirs. 

Empowering young voices

The platform also sparks reflections on the nature of our democracy and our society, equality and equity, as was the case with Abhilash K V, an 18-year-old student from Sadali, Sidlaghatta. 

“The government needs to listen to us. They need to build roads in our village, install street lights in every lane, and also give homeless people land and free housing. These may not be issues that affect me directly, but there are people in my village and community who need this help, and therefore I want to speak for them,” he said. 

This network that empowers young children like Abhilash is not just limited to the villages, but also allows children’s voices to be heard at district and state levels. Through the Child Rights Parliament, young children from different districts have the opportunity to present their needs, debate and urge decision-makers to act on them. 

Child representatives congregate once a year to list out demands and some matters are escalated to the level of the Chief Minister, and some demands have even made their way into policy. In the last two years, children have been meeting at the Vidhana Soudha for this purpose.

“Children have the opportunity to interact with elected officials as equals. This enables them to exercise their right to participation. Even if this hasn’t brought in change overnight, their voices are being acknowledged, and many village panchayats have taken action as well. This hasn’t just strengthened local democracy but also empowered children by enabling them to become leaders,” said Uma
Mahadevan.