Children spoke out; but did anyone listen?

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I had the opportunity to attend a Children’s Ward Sabha in Vijnana Nagar on February 23rd. It was organised by CWC (The Concerned for Working Children), an NGO for child rights.

A Ward Sabha in urban areas is similar to a Gram Sabha in rural areas, wherein citizens of a village come together to voice their demands from elected representatives; these demands are supposed to be incorporated in the development package for that area.

In 2006, based on the experience of other countries which have such children’s sabhas, the Karnataka government took the initiative of making children’s gram sabhas mandatory in the state. The Children’s Ward Sabha organised in a school in Vijnana Nagar ward was the first of its kind in the city.

Children and elected representatives at the ward sabha. Pic: BBMP

Children from over 12 schools participated in the function which was also attended by local MLA Nandish Reddy N S, Vijnana Nagar Corporator Geetha Vivekanad, the Deputy Mayor S Harish, and other officials. The format of the discussion was that a few of the children would voice their problems, after which the officials would respond. A few students chosen from some schools were given the opportunity to voice problems which they had encountered.

Students took this opportunity to voice their own problems, neighbourhood issues and other general concerns. Some children talked about the lack of drainages, non-existent/leaky/smelly toilets, lack of access to schools and lack of tables at their schools. One student talked about the need to reclaim a lake which had been ‘encroached’.

Interestingly, while replying to some questions, MLA Nandish Reddy specifically addressed the lake encroachment issue and told children that the lake could be restored to its original area, but that settlements along the ‘encroached’ areas will have to be removed for this; they (children) should support it wholeheartedly and not complain if someone they knew was going be affected. Innocently, the children shouted in agreement with the MLA.

Sometime later, one of the organisers spoke to the audience and seemed to suggest that an opinion voiced by students about restoring ecology should not become a vehicle for evicting people from their settlements.

Another student seemed to suggest that widening a road in his area would bring an end to traffic problems there; seated next to this student was Deputy Mayor Harish who was seen as the ‘champion’ of Sankey Tank road widening. Most students were articulate and confident about the subjects they talked about, and it was good to see officials from different strata (corporators, MLA) share the stage – although the MLA did leave after making his speech.

While I could not stay for the entire programme, the general sense was that the initiative was much welcome. Children’s Sabhas have been recognised as spaces which nurture and deepen democracy and citizenship. It not only gives children an opportunity to voice their own concerns, but also that of their families and neighbourhood, for which other spaces might not exist. A continued engagement with citizens right from a young age prepares them to ask questions, and makes government officials more responsive.

I am sure that a question on many people’s minds was when BBMP will have Nagar Sabhas for the general public. That question remains unanswered. Also, as the question on lakes and the subsequent statement by the MLA showed, a simple problematic statement by students can be used by certain elements to further their own agenda.

Of course, such issues might occur not only in a children’s Sabha; it happens at other interactions as well, where a certain logical demand can result in convoluted actions by certain individuals. That is something citizens should be aware of while stating their demands.