Today I attended an event that was so close to my heart that I got a bit weepy as I was watching the events. The Concern for Working Children (see my previous blog entry) coordinated an event in which the local children of the city ward came to share their concerns with the chief government officials.
In the words of the official invitation for the event:
“For the first time in India, Children’s Ward Sabha will be conducted by a Metropolitan City, Bangalore,at Ward 81, Vijnana Nagar. Children from migrant Community, school children, childrenfrom marginalised community, children representative of the ward and children’s union will take part in the event.
Main objectives of Children Ward Sabha:
1. To strengthen the child participation in democracy and to provide
practical knowledge and information for them during their childhood
so that they can actively take part democratically in process when they
2. To provide a platform to children for their active participation in metropolitan
3. Local government to listen to information from children regarding
their concerns and issues related to them. To show the accountability
towards children and to create supportive environment for children
uphold their rights.
4. To provide awareness, experience for children to get united and to
know and use their rights.
5. For children to discuss their issues with adults to get solutions, and to give opportunity for children
to express their opinions regarding developments and environment.”
When I entered the event, the children had already marched in and were sitting with their schools on the floor of the grand tent that had been erected on the grounds of a local school. I sat next to a woman who offered to help to translate the events as the entire process occurred in Kanada. The children were holding signs that said, “Information is our right” and “Participation is everyone’s right.” Over 500 children were present.
They also carried ballot boxes that physically demonstrated the data collection that occurred within their schools as the children consolidated the main concerns of each group.
The crowd contained the “mainstream school”—which is the local private school where you send your kids if you can afford to pay.
The government schools, or free schools where you send your kid if you can’t afford the mainstream school
Tent schools—tents erected to school migrant children/children of construction workers.
The group also contained groups representing working children—Beema Sannya
The actual guts of the event did not start for an hour and a half. First they were waiting for the mayor who never showed. Then a child sang a prayer, and then many announcements and introductions were made. Then all of the big government officials present had to receive flower bouquets and shawls placed on shoulders.
Then a song was sung about progress and not taking a step back but always moving forward (click to hear the kids singing the song). This speaker also spoke about this being “one day when adults will listen to the children; children are not tomorrow—they are today’s citizens.”
Then a person spoke to the children with a mini civics lesson of how the democracy works in India, from the federal, to the state level, and all the way down to the local ward level where this sabha is taking place.
Then a lamp was lit to officially begin the program with much fanfare.
After the lamp was lit, then balloons were released much to the delight of the children.
Finally, the child representatives from each school/organization and government officials were seated in a circle on the stage (on the ground—as is custom here, shoes are left off the stage). Three children spoke initially about their concerns.
First a child from a government school spoke about the concerns raised in her school. The girl spoke from her heart so deeply that she was sobbing by the end. She raised the following issues:
-A drain exists along the school property (I am assuming a sewage drain). Balls get lost regularly when the fall into the drain. The drain needs to be covered.
-The roads are dirty and smelly because people urinate on the roads. The government needs to build a public bathroom for the construction workers and other local workers to use so that they don’t urinate on the road.
-The lake is being dumped with raw sewage and the drains lead into the lake. The lake needs to be cleared so that it can be used for swimming and drinking.
Two boys then spoke passionately about their experiences as working children from the organization Beema Sanga. They presented a large map of their community that they developed. They noted in red the dangerous areas in the community. In these areas, they have no protection for girls living in the tents. They need information on how to protect themselves. (I love how in the photo below, this kiddo is a working child. Doesn’t go to school anymore. Lives in a slum. He is very powerfully sharing the problems of his community and the government officials are writing down his words).
The boys also spoke about being taken from their homes to children’s homes because they are working and not in school. They stressed that they would like to attend school but they already have homes and should not be taken from their homes because they need to earn money for their family. The child argued that the burden of education currently lies on families—the families are punished if their children do not attend school. Instead the burden should be on the government to provide quality schools where the children live.
The boys also raised concern about the sewage in the lake. They also spoke of as lack of drinking water and the need to prevent others from dumping their garbage in their community. They also raised the issue that this ward is the only ward with a sabha and that all wards should have a similar process.
I was very moved by the words of these boys. They were forceful and articulate and very moving. I was then very saddened by what happened next. The highest profile official present (in the darker shirt below) then took the microphone, saying that he had to leave early so he needed to share his remarks. He talked for 10 minutes without saying anything of substance. Then finally, his main response to the children’s concerns? He called on the children to encourage the squatters living along the lake to leave. He asked the children to support their efforts to remove these very poor people from their tents and the children cheered. That was the only promise made. No promises about the sewage, the drains, the drinking water or the garbage. Just that they would displace the poor people living along the lake.
Then the man walked off the stage and the press swarmed around him so greatly that the event had to be paused. He could have at least addressed the press off to the side so that the children could continue. I had to leave at this time to get back home. The remaining children spoke on unavailability of drinking water, dumped garbage, lack of electricity and toilets and the need for a better healthcare system.