More than 300 children exercised their franchise by lining up at a hall near Idar in Sabarkantha on Sunday to vote for taluka and district level child leaders who will represent them and voice their demands before panchayats,block-level officials and even the collector.
Sundays vote was part of a four-year-old initiative wherein rural pressure groups comprised entirely of 12 to 15 children each in a village have been working with sarpanchs and Child Protection Committees (CPCs) to stop child labour,corporal punishment in schools and to bring water,via taps,to village households.
Polling booths manned by child returning-officers issuing colourful ballot papers saw 320 children all either presidents or vice-presidents of the village childrens groups in Idar and Vadali talukas cast their votes in favour of candidates who,earlier in the day,emphatically told their peers why they should be elected. All the voters were marked on their fingers with black ink,just like a real poll.
Going by what child leaders said at impromptu interviews to this newspaper through the day,the pressure groups appear to have performed remarkably well at the village level.
The teacher in our villages school used to beat students on the head,so some of them did not come to school regularly. We told the sarpanch and the CPC about it,and they told him not to do it any more. Now,he does not beat anyone,and children come to school regularly, said Vidhi Patel,12,from Kopada village.
Her friend from the same village,Payal Prajapati,13,said she and other children complained to the sarpanch that it was very tiring for them to walk to a far-off pump to fetch water everyday. We now get water through taps in our houses, said Payal.
A girl named Phuli dropped out in the 6th standard because she had to work in the farm with her parents. We went and met her father with the CPC members and our sarpanch and convinced them that Phuli should go to school. She has returned to school now, said Kirit Chouja,14,from Kanpur village.
There were many children working in the cotton farms around our village. Many of them were from Rajasthan. We met our sarpanch and the CPC members and all the farmers pledged they will not employ children any more. This year so far,there are no child labourers near our village, said Nameera Memon,13,of Rampur village.
The initiative is being implemented by a consortium of nine child-rights groups in 882 villages of Sabarkantha,Bharuch,Ahmedabad and Surendranagar,and is largely an anti-child labour campaign although child pressure groups formed through it have taken on other roles as well.
The idea is to instil a sense of democratic values among children. They are now most probably more aware of their political and democratic rights than some adults at their villages, said Rajan Mohanty,state program manager of Save the Children,the main financier,who was present at the vote.
We are going to see a very young set of legislators,if you can call it that, chuckled Ashwini Singh,program manager for DISHA,one of the partner agencies,as he pointed to a list of candidates pasted on a wall at the polling booth,whose ages were 12,13,and 14.