Case studies

Nurturing Tomorrow’s Leaders

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In the Shaskiya Purva Madhyamik Shala (Government Middle School) of Goindri village in the Mungeli district of Chhattisgarh, 16 year old Pooja is the President of her Bal Panchayat (Children’s Council). Along with the 11 other members, the group has been supported by PACS and partner SYM to use their position to make positive changes, both in school and within the village, learning how to advocate successfully for their rights.

Involving children in decision making

Quick-witted, outspoken and always up for a challenge, Pooja is just one of the 12 members of her school's Bal Panchayat.

Bal Panchayats are a type of Community Based Organisation, promoted by Shikhar Yuva Manch (SYM) through the PACS programme, to encourage children in rural areas to take charge of their own issues by fostering leadership and team spirit.

“Through PACS, our agenda is education,” explains Itwani Prasad Banjare - a member of staff from SYM. “We thought it was our responsibility to bring participation of children onto the agenda of schools and involve them in their own decision-making.”

Loosely, the concept mirrors the functioning of the Gram Panchayat (village council) – a formal local governance institution created under the Government of India’s Panchayati Raj Institution system.

An elected body

Like the Gram Panchayat, whose members are elected directly by the villagers, Bal Panchayat leaders are also elected directly by their school peers.

Although students in urban areas are largely familiar with electoral processes, for Pooja and the 250 other students, this idea was a novelty. “As part of reaching out to our ‘electorate’, we had to campaign and give speeches to articulate our vision for the school," recalls Pooja.

Each class (from 6th – 8th grade) gets to elect 4 leaders – 2 boys and 2 girls. “After the votes are counted, the candidate with the largest number of votes is appointed President,” explains Sarojini, a student in class 7. “The one coming second is appointed Vice President."

 11 out of the 12 members of the Bal Panchayat pose in front of the school building.

Springing into action

“The primary objective of Bal Panchayats is to provide children with an environment conducive to the healthy exchange of ideas and opinions,” says Itwani. “They also serve as spring boards for action.”

And action they have taken! Having been elected, Pooja and the other Bal Panchayat members didn’t waste a moment to address the problems they saw in school.

"Our Midday Meal used to be cooked in the open," says Shravan Kumar – a Bal Panchayat member from Class 8. "Insects and leaves would fall into it, and we were afraid it would make us sick."

After several rounds of discussion with SYM on how to proceed, Pooja, Shravan and the other members drafted a petition requesting the school to build a proper kitchen. All the school children signed and submitted it to the Head Mistress of the school, who approved of their request and forwarded it on to the Block Education Officer and the Child Development Project Officer (CDPO) for action.

It was a huge achievement for the children, and gave them the confidence to plot other changes.

Demanding the right to education

The number of teachers was the next item on their agenda. Under the Right to Education Act, each school should have one teacher to 30-35 children.

Isa from Class 8 explains, “There were not enough teachers in the primary and middle school, and despite our repeated appeals to the Head Mistress, nothing much had come of it.”

So, in 2014, the Bal Panchayat mobilised 80 children to march to the District Collector’s office and ask him for an audience. The children not only met with the Collector about their problems but they also handed him a memorandum demanding additional teachers for their school.

Not only did the Collector accept their memorandum but he acted on it and the school was sanctioned with additional teachers.

In addition to a school kitchen and more teachers, the Bal Panchayat have also had success in reaching out to families whose children weren’t enrolled in schools. “We went as a group to the parents,” says Ravi from Class 7. “Most of them said ‘What will our children do with an education?’ We told them they would at least get a much better job than grazing animals or working in the house!”

Members of the Bal Panchayat, like Dev, are now much more confident at standing up and speaking out about their rights.

Speaking out about other issues

The Bal Panchayat members from Goindri village have been speaking out about other issues too. “The children don’t hesitate to go to the Sarpanch [Village Head] and tell him that the village hand pump needs repairs or the school road is prone to water-logging,” says Khuman Das Sonwani – another SYM member of staff.

“We meet government functionaries to voice our demands,” says Isa proudly. “Even if nothing comes out of it, it doesn’t dishearten us. There is always another day and we don’t give up.”

This level of confidence, determination and action is precisely what the Bal Panchayats were conceived to do - to mould a new generation of sensitive, articulate and aware young men and women who could then be the change agents in their own villages and communities.

In Goindri, where the majority of the population come from Scheduled Tribes, this is a great achievement. Tribal groups have traditionally remained excluded from local governance issues, preferring instead to continue with their own systems. However, this isolates them from government schemes and entitlements, meant for them.

A future generation of leaders

For girls like Pooja, their leadership and advocacy experience in the Bal Panchayat holds real potential… the 73rd Amendment, which was implemented in 1993 to give constitutional mandate to the Panchayat system, requires that no less than one-third of all seats be reserved for Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, and women.

In Chhatisgarh where the gender ratio, according to the 2011 census, is 991 females for every 1000 males, and where far fewer women are literate and work professionally than men, it is girls like Pooja who have experience, courage and conviction that will help to ensure that the voices of women and Scheduled Tribes are heard.

“Before the Bal Panchayat, students would take their complaints to the headmaster," says Pooja. “But now they come directly to me.”

 The Bal Panchayat has helped members, like Sarojini, to develop leadership skills – skills that we hope they will continue to use in the future.

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