An endeavor to promote active citizenship and involve children in community building
An Initiative of the Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore Foundation
“If you want real peace in this world and if we are to carry on a real war against war, we shall have to begin with children.”– Mahatma Gandhi
Children’s participation is facilitating the active involvement of children in decision making at different levels in matters concerning them and encouraging their expressions in those issues.
Roger A Hart in Innocenti Essays No. 4, ‘Children’s Participation: From Tokenism to Citizenship’ describes participation as the “process of sharing decisions which affect one’s life and the life of the community in which one lives. Participation is the fundamental right of citizenship.”
‘A World Fit for Children’ which was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2002 calls upon all member states to ‘listen to children and ensure their participation’. It says that ‘children and adolescents are resourceful citizens capable of helping to build a better future for all. We must respect their right to express themselves and to participate in all matters affecting them, in accordance with their age and their maturity.’
Meanwhile the State of the World Children 2003 underlines that ‘promoting meaningful and quality participation of children and adolescents is essential to ensure their growth and development’. It further stresses, “A child whose active engagement with the world has been encouraged from the outset will be a child with the competencies to develop through early childhood, respond to educational opportunities and move into adolescence with confidence, assertiveness and the capacities to contribute to democratic dialogue and practices within the homes, school, community and country.”
The report also states that the values of democracy such as respect for the rights and dignity of all people, for their diversity and their right to participate in the decisions that affect them, are first and best learned in childhood. “Authentic, meaningful participation prepares children for their stake in the future. With all the understanding it brings to the children involved, participation is the keystone of cohesive societies, which in turn; are the keystone for peace in the world,” the report further adds.
Article 12 : States Parties shall assure to the child who is capable of forming his or her own views the right to express those views freely in all matters affecting the child, the views of the child being given due weight in accordance with the age and maturity of the child.
Article 13: The child shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of the child’s choice.
Democracy, citizenship and children
Mahatma Gandhi stressed on the need of involving all sections of the population in goal towards strengthening democracy in India. In Harijan (27-5-1939), he writes, “Democracy must in essence….. mean the art and science of mobilizing the entire physical, economic and spiritual resources of all the various sections of the people in the service of the common good of all.”
Elsewhere in Young India (1-12-1927) he writes, “Democracy is an impossible thing until the power is shared by all….Even a pariah, labourer, who makes it possible for you to earn your living, will have his share in self-governance.”
To ensure better functioning of democracy, we not only need to ensure that all sections of the society takes part in the democratic processes but also strive to build a better citizenry. Only a competent and responsible citizenry can secure democracy.
Democracy, writes Benjamin Barber, is not representative government or majority rule, but citizen self-government. “It makes citizenship not a condition of participation but one of participation’s richest fruits’. He further writes that as ‘democracy depends upon citizenship, the emphasis then was to think about how to constitute a competent and virtuous citizen body.’
There needs to be sustained efforts to promote children’s participation in various initiatives concerning them and the community as a whole. Barber’s ‘competent and virtuous citizen body’ can take proper shape only when people know about their responsibilities. By engaging children in collaborative programmes and activities where they gain from experiences of elders, they learn about their responsibilities. All these are not only likely to shape their contribution to the democratic processes when they grow up but also through their meaningful participation contribute to community development.
Shishu Panchayats- an initiative to promote child participation and develop understanding of democratic governance
In its endeavor to strengthen a ‘competent and virtuous citizen body’ which would not only be well-informed but also take the lead in tackling social concerns, Shishu Panchayats have been initiated in several parts of the country.
Initially, workshops were organized to encourage children to volunteer to take up constructive work. To ensure genuine participation and facilitate their understanding of responsible citizenship, children were then brought together by initiating Shishu Panchayats. It was felt that the Shishu Panchayats could be vehicles for children to get in touch with grassroots reality and facilitate their contribution to community building. Inculcating positive values is the bedrock of the initiative as ‘virtuous citizenry’ and values are synonymous.
Children involved with Shishu Panchayats are trained and involved to understand the underlying in their societies- be it their own issues or the larger concerns in their communities. These could include health problems, issues of drop-outs; environment etc. The children are then encouraged to formulate their own plan of action so that they can approach the problem in their own way and try to solve it. They are also acquainted with different Government programmes like Right to Education, different health programmes (National Rural Health Mission etc.) They get acclimatized with these issues right from young age.
If we have to deepen our democracy in today’s context, it would imply a redefinition of governance. Governance is not what governments do. Governance is about the process and systems of decision making, which mobilize and utilize public resources for common public good. This process and system of decision making has to be open and transparent to those whose resources have been mobilized and whose public good are being served. The process of decision-making and the systems have to be accountable to the citizens. Through the Shishu Panchayats, children learn to take collective decision on requires to be done in their community.
One overarching aim of the initiative is to train children to understand that life is a gift of togetherness and mutual accommodation. For this they need to embrace diversity and cross-cultural learning needs to be encouraged. The focus is on trainings which encourages collaboration and exploration of innovative ideas. Besides attitudes of children towards learning about others need to focus on their shared values and common strengths. They should also identify how their differences will benefit them in their journey for new ideas and innovations. They also learn the importance of mutual respect. These significant attributes will go in a long way in bringing together the child volunteers in today’s globalized world to work towards community building.
Some broad aims and objectives of Shishu Panchayats were put together in consultation with the children and other stakeholders. These included:
1) Promoting active and responsible citizenship.
2) Contributing to the democratic process
3) Inculcating and practicing positive values.
4) Training in peace, non-violence and conflict resolution
5) Training for ecological security and sustainable development
6) Develop critical thinking abilities and facilitate use of communications for social change.
7) Strengthen communicative skills and better understanding of the media.
8) Developing skills to organize and manage.
9) Taking part in decision-making process
10) Acquiring leadership skills and learning to work as a team
11) Innovation and creativity
12) Developing knowledge base on different issues of the society
13) Knowledge about child rights issues
14) Sensitivity to issues of concern of the society
Amongst all the initiatives that members of Shishu Panchayats may be taking up, keeping in mind the local concerns, one overarching campaign which the Panchayats are being encouraged to take up is to promote reading habits. It is not just limited to Panchayat members but the Shishu Panchayats are being encouraged to use the various trainings they undergo to promote reading habits amongst fellow students. Increasingly students rely only on textbooks and a majority of them don’t make attempts to spare time to read other useful books. This is a barrier to the development of their critical thinking and questioning abilities; it doesn’t stimulate their imaginative and creative talents. Mahatma Gandhi had said, “Persistent questioning and healthy inquisitiveness are the first requisite for acquiring learning of any kind.”
The emphasis to promote reading habits is directly linked to how holistic education can lead to active citizenship. It would be pertinent to quote Benjamin Barber on this, “Because democracy depends on citizenship, the emphasis then was to think about how to constitute a competent and virtuous citizen body. That led directly, in almost every one of the founder’s minds, to the connection between citizenship and education.”
Structure of Shishu Panchayats
Shishu Panchayats have been formed both at the school level and community level. Each Panchayat has a President, Vice President, Secretary, Media Secretary, Cultural Secretary and Treasurer. Most of the Panchayats meet every week to discuss various issues and initiatives that need to be taken. Each Panchayat has between 20-25 members. In some Panchayats, the office bearers are elected while in others they are nominated. In any case the term of the office bearers is mostly six months. The aim is to develop leadership qualities of all so generally office bearers cannot be re-nominated. Many Shishu Panchayats have initiated a process of developing a Shishu Panchayat Bank. Students contribute Rs two every month to this bank. This takes care of getting books for those who cannot afford and also expenses of some activities/ buying chart papers for wallpapers etc. Through this process, children learn about budgeting too.
Before initiating an activity, the programme is first discussed by the office bearers and is then taken up for discussions during the Shishu Panchayat meetings.
Functions of President:
a) To coordinate meetings of Shishu Panchayat
b) To coordinate activities of Shishu Panchayat.
Functions of Vice-President
a) To coordinate meetings/activities of Shishu Panchayats in the absence of the President.
Functions of Secretary
a) The Secretary writes minutes of all meetings of Shishu Panchayats
b) The Secretary is responsible of all the liaising work with various stakeholders like teachers/ other officials etc.
c) The Secretary ensures that all the decisions taken by the Panchayat are implemented.
Functions of Media Secretary
a) The Media Secretary ensures that the Shishu Panchayat wall paper which is generally brought out every month comes in time.
b) She coordinates with Secretary to assign responsibilities to members to write on specific issues/ develop illustrations for the wall papers.
c) She develops action plan for wide publicity of the wall papers and invites people to read them.
d) She gets feedback from the readers
Functions of Cultural Secretary
a) The Cultural Secretary coordinates cultural activities of Shishu Panchayats from time to time.
b) The Cultural Secretary coordinates with other stakeholders for conducting cultural programmes regularly.
Functions of Treasurer
a) The Treasurer is responsible for the functioning of the Shishu Panchayat Bank.
b) She ensures that all members contribute every month.
c) She keeps an account of the expenditures incurred.
Trainings of Shishu Panchayats
1) Inculcating positive values.
Homework of Values
The members of Shishu Panchayats should be encouraged to develop the following behaviours:
Peace and Non-Violence
Respect for others
Helpfulness and feeling of service, caring
During Shishu Panchayat meetings, there can be discussions on the above and how important these are to be better human beings. Shishu Panchayat members are encouraged to develop creative posters/comics/wall papers/video clips using mobiles on the above values.
Discussions can be organized using the communication products developed by the participants.
They can be encouraged to document stories of above behaviors from newspapers/magazines/television/films.
Student can relate their own experiences vis-à-vis the above behaviours and they can be encouraged to be candid to admit if they follow the above or not.
Each Shishu Panchayat can decide on a theme song for their Panchayat.
2) Reality Check: The Shishu Panchayats are trained to conduct reality check studies of various issues in their area. This helps them to gather baseline information. Through this exercise, children develop skills to interview, understand the complexities of their community and develop the ability to work with primary sources.
3) Shishu Panchayat members are trained to conduct survey in their respective communities.
4) Situational Analysis: After conducting reality check, the students do situational analysis of the issues they want to take up. Through this effort they develop analytical skills.
5) Developing Action Plan: The children are trained to develop a matrix of action plan they want to implement.
6) Communication Plan: To implement their action plan, the Shishu Panchayat members work the various communication tools they can use for the realization of their goals.
7) Media literacy training
8) Leadership development
9) Team building
Understanding grassroots democracy
In order to ensure that the members of Shishu Panchayats develops understanding of the functioning of local self governments, panchayat functionaries are seen as important stakeholders of the programme. Shishu Gram Sabhas are organized to ensure that the Shishu Panchayats understand issues of local self-governance.
Mahatma Gandhi wanted true democracy to function in India. He observed, “True democracy cannot be worked by 20 men sitting at the centre. It has to be worked from below by the people of very village.” According to him, in village swaraj, the village being the decentralized small political unit endowed with fullest powers, every individual will have a direct voice in the government. The individual is the architect of his own government. It will have all the authority and jurisdiction. The Panchayat will be the legislature, judiciary and executive rolled into one as there will be no system of punishment in it. In such a system of government there will be citizens who are self-controlled not authority controlled; endowed with initiative and highly developed sense of civic responsibility in place of those who look to government for all things.
According to Gandhi, real democracy, i.e, Swaraj works for the full freedom and growth of the individual who is the ultimate motive power of a real political system. Village Swaraj as conceived by Gandhiji is thus a genuine and virile democracy which offers a potent cure for many of the political ills that mark the present political systems. Such a pattern of decentralized genuine democracy will have a message for the whole of humanity. The Village Swaraj as conceived by Gandhiji is man-centred unlike the Western economy which is wealth-centred.
Laying down the duties of the village worker who naturally occupies the pivotal position in the planning of village swaraj of Gandhiji’s conception, Gandhiji says that the village worker will organize the villages so as to make them self-contained and self-supporting through agriculture and handicrafts, will educate the village folk in sanitation and hygiene and will take all measures to prevent ill-health and disease among them and will organize the education of the village folk.
In fact Gandhiji says, “Independence must begin at the bottom. Thus every village will be a republic of panchayat having full powers. It follows that every village has to be self-sustained and capable of managing its affairs even to the extent of defending itself against the whole world. It will be trained and prepared to perish in the attempt to defend itself against any onslaught from without. Thus ultimately it is the individual who is the unit. To Gandhiji self-government means continuous effort to be independent of government control whether it is foreign government or whether it is national. In village swaraj, the ultimate power will rest with the individual. In this context, the village worker will have to focus his attention first on the true education. According to Gandhiji, village swaraj is man-centred non-exploiting decentralized, simple village economy providing for full employment to each one of its citizens on the basis of voluntary co-operation and working for achieving self-sufficiency in its basic requirements of food, clothing and other necessities of life.
In short, Gandhiji says, “My idea of village swaraj is that it is a complete republic, independent of its neighbours for its own vital wants, and yet interdependent for many others in which dependence is a necessity. Thus every village’s concern will be to grow its own food crops and cotton for its cloth. It should have a reserve for its cattle, recreation and playground for adults and children.”
Panchayati Raj since Independence
The passage of the Constitution (73rd Amendment) Act, 1992, marks a new era in the federal democratic set up of the country and provides constitutional status to the Panchayati Raj institutions. The main features of this Act are – a) a 3-tier system of Panchayati Raj for all States having population of over 20 lakh; b) Panchayat elections to be regularly held every five years; c) reservation of seats for SC, ST and women(not less than one-third of seats); d) appointment of State Finance Commission to make recommendations as regards the financial powers of the Panchayats; e) Constitution of District Planning Committees to prepare development plans for the district as a whole and Gram Sabha at the village level. As per the 73rd Amendment Act, the Panchayati Raj Institutions have been empowered and authorized to function as institutions of self-government. The Act also contains provision of devolving powers and responsibilities upon Panchayats at the appropriate level with reference to – a) the preparation of plans for economic development and social justice; and b) implementation of such schemes as many be entrusted to them.
Article 243-G of the Constitution of India provides that the states and union territories may, by law, endow the Panchayats with such powers and authority as may be necessary to enable them to function as institutions of self-government and to prepare plans for economic development and social justice and their implementation.
As per Article 243-H of the Constitution, State legislatures have been empowered to enact laws:
a) to authorise a panchayat to levy, collect and appropriate some taxes, duties, tolls and fees;
b) to assign to the Panchayat some taxes, duties, tolls levied and collected by the State Government;
c) to provide for making grants-in-aid to the Panchayats from the Consolidated Fund of the state; and
d) to provide for constitution of such funds for Panchayats for crediting all money received by or on behalf of Panchayats and also the withdrawal of such money thereform.
In order to ensure that Panchayati Raj Institutions function as instruments of local government, it is important that their functional and financial autonomy is guaranteed and transparency in their functioning ensured. The role of Gram Sabhas is, perhaps, the most important in ensuring the success of Panchayati Raj institutions at the village level. The role of local people in conducting social audit and fixing responsibility on Panchayat functionaries will also be effectively ensured with the Gram Sabha becoming active. It is therefore essential that the village community perceives meetings of the Gram Sabha as useful and the most important factor for this is the empowerment of the Gram Sabha.
Another important factor for the success of the Panchayati Raj system is the need for transparency in the functioning of these bodies. Panchayats being closer to the people, their right to information and accessibility to the Panchayats must be ensured.
As mentioned one of the goals of the Shishu Panchayats are to understand the nuances of grassroots democracy and the functioning of local self-government institutions. It is in this regard it is envisaged that the programme will try to involve the local self-government institutions. Efforts need to be made to ensure recognition of the Shishu Panchayats by the local self-government institutions.
To conclude it would be apt to quote Nobel Laureate Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore’s poem on what can be the vision of the initiative to promote Shishu Panchayats:
Where the mind is without fear
And the head is held high,
Where knowledge is free;
Where the world has not been broken
Up into fragments by narrow domestic wall,
Where words come out from the depth of truth;
Where tireless striving
Stretches its arms towards perfection;
Where the clear stream of reason,
Has not lost its way into the
Dreary desert sand of dead habit;
Where the mind is led forward
By thee into ever-widening
Thought and action-
Into that heaven of freedom;
Let my country awake.