Why the Bal Bandhus mattered

They helped prevent children’s recruitment by Naxals,ensured enrolment in schools. Should their work come to naught?

Written by Usha Rai | Published: June 22, 2013 5:59:26 am

They helped prevent children’s recruitment by Naxals,ensured enrolment in schools. Should their work come to naught?

As Maoists continue to cause mayhem in Chhattisgarh,Bihar and Maharashtra’s Gadchiroli,it would be useful to recall the wonderful work of a dedicated and handpicked group of young people,with leadership qualities,for child rights in nine blocks of five states where red terror had crippled these rights.

They were called Bal Bandhus or friends of children and worked in Khammam in Andhra Pradesh,Kokrajhar and Chirang in Assam,East Chamaparan,Jamui,Rohtas and Sheohar in Bihar,Sukma in Chhattisgarh and Gadchiroli in Maharashtra for three years under a pilot project of the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR),supported by the Prime Minister’s Fund. Beginning cautiously,the programme mobilised the community on child rights,and gave it confidence to access institutions and entitlements for children such as healthcare,anganwadi facilities,schools and ashramshalas. With vigilance and tracking of every child in the block,they prevented children’s recruitment to the Bal Sanghams,the youth cadre of the insurgents.

The pilot project began when the NCPCR found child rights violated and families unstable while migrating to escape violence. Security forces had occupied schools,leading to retaliation by the insurgents who targeted schools for harbouring security personnel.

Despite the success of the programme and the efforts of the commission,it ended in April. The programme was under the ministry of women and child development and needed to be scaled up and extended to other insurgency-affected areas. Since the WCD ministry does not want the programme,some other ministry will have to take ownership. The home ministry is eager to accommodate it. District collectors too wish to continue it.

Why it is worth recalling the work of the Bal Bandhus is the manner in which they had won the confidence of the insurgents. Though the Naxals watched the movements of these young grassroots leaders of 18 to 30 years closely — some were taken away,held captive and questioned — they realised the good they were doing for the most deprived groups of children and allowed them to work. By disbanding the 200 Bal Bandhus and their 20 mentors,the country has lost a specially trained cadre of young people with proven leadership qualities and the courage to work in difficult areas. Considering the spread of Naxalism and the children’s ability to work quietly,in consonance with the community,it seems a shame to lose their support. Good social sector projects that ensure equity in backward,terrorist-affected areas need support.

Each Bal Bandhu epitomised courage. Take the case of Savitri,a graduate who did labour work until recruited as a Bal Bandhu in the Naxal-affected Cherla block of Andhra. She replaced her brother whom the underground movement vetoed. There were several restrictions on her movements and use of mobile phone. Since vehicular movement was forbidden,Savitri had to cover the panchayat allotted to her on foot.

The Naxals’ ability to recruit bright children scares parents from sending them to school. Savitri was not afraid of confrontation. She succeeded in bringing children to school,and girls who had never been to one,to the special facility of the Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalaya.

In Sukma block of Chhattisgarh,Naxals tried to recruit Bal Bandhus Anil and Reena,forcing Reena to shift from Badisetti gram panchayat to another. Reena,with the support of other Bal Bandhus,managed to trace six children who went missing on their way to the ashram school after a vacation. Investigations showed the children were terrified of the stick-wielding school warden. He was reprimanded but they were adamant on not going back. So Reena got their transfer certificates and moved them to another school. Bal Bandhu Sunila Hazda was the first Santhal girl in her community in Khaira Block of Jamui district of Bihar to reach Class 11. Having struggled to get an education,this daughter of a woodcutter helped other underprivileged children access education.

Working with the community,Bal Bandhus ensured schools and anganwadis functioned and teachers and health workers delivered. Misappropriation of food meant for children was stopped. They ensured children received their books and uniforms,schools started on time and parent-teacher meetings were institutionalised. Teachers were charging admission and exam fees and asking for bribes to release transfer certificates. Bal Bandhus ensured return of such money.

With support from mahila samoohs,they brought back to education children sent to work or trafficked because of poverty. They were able to check child marriages. In Naxal areas,if a girl is not in school,parents feel compelled to marry her off. In Patahi block in East Champaran alone,38 child marriages were averted.

In their nine blocks,between December 2010 and March 2012,they were able to get 14,889 children enrolled in schools,made 963 schools and 931 anganwadi centres functional. Some 13,257 children were provided support during exams and the police and armed forces were compelled to vacate seven schools. Should all this good work come to naught?

The writer is a veteran journalist,formerly with ‘The Indian Express’,who writes on development issues. She has documented the work of Bal Bandhus for the NCPCR

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