While the majority of them might not yet be able to legally exercise their voting rights, a group of children from Assam are actively voicing their demands in the run up to the General Elections 2019.
On March 4, two girls 12-year-old Apsana Khatun and 13-year-old Hafija Khatun met with politicians of five major political parties of Assam with a four-paged guhaari or appeal, composed and signed by 20 children, boys and girls both, hailing from different communities in Assam. Their demands? Universal such as facilities for potable drinking water to specific such as uninterrupted education during the annual floods which ravage state.
While 12-year-old Apsana’s request focused on increased safety for women and girls in Assam (“Why is it that girls are not allowed to venture out after dark?”), Hafija’s main concern was education. The two study in local Assamese-medium schools in Guwahati, and are often compelled to skip school during the monsoons, and the floods which come along with it every year. “Many times our school gets flooded too,” says Hafija, “The drains overflow and there is no option for our teachers but to cancel classes.”
For the initiative that led to this move, children were chosen at random from various parts of the state by Assam and the Adolescent and Children Rights Network, Assam (ACRNA), which partnered with UNICEF for the initiative.
“The only thing we were particular about was the age (roughly between 13-19), besides that there was no selection criteria. As a result, the document represents a diversity in voices. We have children from the chars (riverine islands of the Brahmaputra) areas, as well as representation from tea garden community tribes as well as Bodoland Territorial Area Districts ,” says Chiranjeeb Kakoty, Coordinator, ACRNA.
The agenda presented to the politicians of the Congress, BJP as well as regional parties, Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) and Bodoland People’s Front (BPF), is categorised into five areas of focus: health, nutrition, safety, education, and sanitation and hygiene. While some demands are universal such as better educational infrastructure in schools, a key demands takes into account regional complexities such as the annual floods.
During monsoons in Assam, floods claim a huge number of lives every year. In 2017, 151 lost their lives and in 2018, the number was 49. Most affected are children in remote areas whose schools remain inundated — in 2017, 23,000 of the 51,898 schools in Assam were affected.
“This year our school remained closed for a week — the water came right into our classrooms,” recalls Apsana.
“This hinders education and affects development,” says Kakoty. Often children tend to drop out before completing their education. In this regard, the children have mentioned that adequate steps should be taken so that they can lead gainful lives. Apart from education, the agenda emphasises on the need for proper health care especially in remote and inaccessible areas for pregnant women.
The agenda, says Kakoty, is not something the children made overnight— its been conceived over two years, but is presented at crucial time: before the country goes to vote.
In July 2017, ACRN — a platform that works with different issues with regard to children and adolescents — held several workshops from kids in Tezpur, Guwahati, Jorhat, Kokrajhar etc. “About a hundred participated — back then we came out with a booklet of issues and demands. What the kids represented to the politicians earlier this month was a condensed version of the most important demands which they filtered themselves,” says Kakoty, adding that this was not by any stretch an “adult-dictated exercise”. “The children never imagined that their demands would reach a national platform. They are delighted, to say the least — and hope at least some of these make their way into the party manifestoes.”
Assam has 14 Lok Sabha seats and the state will go to vote in three phases —April 11, 18 and 23.
According to reports, there are approximately 1.5 crore children and adolescents (0-19 years) in Assam. It is these voices the appeal is trying to bring out. Says Hafija, “One politician agreed with us and said the issues we raised were extremely important. He has promised us that he will try.”