“I would like to take this opportunity to ask our Sarpanch, why do we still allow people to drink alcohol and smoke cigarettes around our schools? Why doesn’t my school have a boundary wall and a steady roof? Why do we still defecate in the open when we can build toilets in the village? Why can’t we have clean and separate toilets in schools? Why a child, the same age as mine, does not get to go to school? Why do people marry off their girl child before she turns 18? Why does a child have to work in a hotel when he should be going to school? Why don’t we have dustbins and street lights all around our villages just like in big cities? Why does a girl feel threatened when she goes out after the sun is down?” The voice of 9-year-old Tanmay Swain echoed in a room full of people. This was no ordinary gathering; it was a full-fledged Gram Sabha taking place in his Panchayat. Nobody asked why he was there, he had made himself clear. He was there to exercise his right to participate and the Sarpanch was obligated to give him an audience and listen to him.
Coming from a small village of Benagadia Gram Panchayat in Odisha, Tanmay never thought about these things before. Now, his outlook towards the world has changed, he has become a proud president of his local child club. He talks about bringing change in his community and village. Leading the club in various activities, they recently conducted a Swachhta Abhiyaan in their locality, drawing the attention of people on cleanliness and its benefits. But there is one particular issue which pinches this small wonder a lot, the problem electricity in his village. He goes on to ask that if in this day and age we cannot provide electricity to the village, how can a child go on to learn and become much more than what their parents have ever imagined. Much like his love for cricket, this boy has developed a love for community leadership as well. Such is the spirit of Tanmay.
Tanmay belongs to one of the many child clubs formed under the Child-Friendly Constituency (CFC) project run by State based NGO, Kalinga Kusum Foundation supported by UNICEF Odisha and volunteers from locally based organization, AASHA. It is a path-breaking and revolutionary initiative launched in the year 2015. With the primary aim to create a platform for the children to directly engage elected representatives, we have also successfully managed to facilitate the local elected representative to have a structured engagement at regular intervals on issues that affect the lives of children and their well-being with district administration, various stakeholders and with the community at large. In a nutshell, this model not only advocates for optimum utilization of the existing resources, structures and mechanisms allocated from the State and the Central Governments under the various policy, programs, and schemes but also include children and their views as well.
We have also successfully empowered more than 20 women through our GPRP training programmes through which they’ve taken their first steps towards financial independence and Community leadership. “I had never even set foot outside the house before becoming a GPRP. But now, people across the Panchayat know my name,” says Mrs. Kalyani Panda, 32, of Bhagwanpur GP. “I go for these meetings with a purpose now. Mothers and other villagers listen to me and trust me with the well-being of their children. But most importantly, my daughter’s pride in me and her constant motivation is what that drove me to take up this responsibility. I have found a purpose. I feel happy.”
In a span of just two years, we have trained about 40 Gram Panchayat Resource Persons (GPRPs) who have mobilized more than 2000 children as advocates of their rights, entitlements, and duties. Gram Panchayat level, Block level, and District level sensitization workshops have been organized to inform stakeholders (Panchayat members, parents, school teachers, Anganwadi workers, ASHA workers, police personnel, district administration, et al) on the child rights and their roles and responsibilities in securing and providing those rights and entitlements. But most importantly, through our Panchayat based child clubs, children of every Panchayat get together once every week to engage in activities like songs, dance, games, village, and household-based campaigns and discussions revolving around social issues and their perspective on them.
With persistent efforts, dialogue and trust-building exercises of the GPRPs and the children, the project has reached a key turning point, the recent success of the “Child-Friendly Gram Sabha”. On October 2nd of this year, 25 such Gram Sabhas took place across the constituency of Khandapada, Odisha. Young leaders from 25 Child Clubs were given the opportunity to put their views, opinions, and needs in front of their respective Gram Sabhas. Although this may seem a regular affair, it was no small feat. Gram Sabha has been envisaged as the foundation of the Panchayati Raj system in India. Serving as a model for decentralized democracy, it only consists of members who are adults of the village. This flagship exercise of children participating in Gram Sabhas was started in 2016 at various Gram Panchayats across the Constituency with limited success but, in 2017, we managed to conduct these Sabhas in 25 of them. Unlike any other “special Gram Sabha”, this meeting incorporated every functions and duty of any regular Gram Sabha. That means child-centric issues were not the only highlight of the meeting. Still, with enthusiastic support from the Sarpanchs and other members of the Panchayat Raj Department, we managed to provide equal opportunity, platform, and importance to the voices and concerns of these children as well. Every issue that the child leaders highlighted was formally incorporated in the Gram Panchayat resolutions and assured of concrete action from the Panchayat members.
Issues revolving around the construction of boundary walls around the schools to the provision of safe drinking and sanitation facilities were one of the prime issues raised by the children. But the dialogue was not just limited to that. They also took the opportunity to talk about what they see around them and what they feel about it. Problems of domestic violence, child labor, child marriage and children dropping out of schools, open-defecation were fervently raised by children as young as 8 or 9. Thus, showcasing their power to observe things and wanting to do something about it.
The team consisting of people coming from various academic backgrounds has actively involved itself in steering the capacity building of the GPRPs and for collecting and dissemination of the learning from Khandapada and other focus areas across the State to other elected representatives of the Odisha Legislative Assembly. Through this small step towards more decentralized democracy, this small Constituency in the heart of Odisha has shown the Country that participation of every member of the community not only leads to better governance, administration and participation, it also creates a path for social change and inclusive development.
 Name changed
 Name changed