: It’s Sunday. Children play cricket on the village green. But inside the community hall at Sambakudi, a Children’s Parliament is in session.
Pudukulam Panchayat President, P. Muthuramalingam, is the chief guest. He fields questions thrown at him by students drawn from villages – Pudukulam, Sambakudi and Velchamy Nagar — that fall under his panchayat. The panchayat president is distinctly uncomfortable. The students have put him in the dock. A student from Velchamy Nagar asked why he promised to carry out mosquito repellent spraying provided the students paid the workforce.
Mr. Muthuramalingam was taken aback. Until that moment he had been lulled by appreciation for his efforts to clear the garbage from public spaces. With scores of children from Vellaripatti, Sittampatti, Othakadai and Narasingampatti packing the spectators’ gallery, the panchayat president reached for the microphone.
Addressing the Prime Minister, S. Aravind, he asked, “Did you not volunteer to pay the wages. Did I ask for money? It was you who said that you could spare some money for the wages. But now I am accused as if I demanded the money.”
He added nervously, “Don’t worry. Whether the mosquitoes die or not, I will ensure that the repellent is sprayed by next week.” There was amusement among the students.
The President of Nagamalai Pudukottai Panchayat, K.C.P. Jayakumar, joined them. A part of Sambakudi village falls under his panchayat. The students raised the issue of a TASMAC liquor shop that was located close to a school and the nuisance posed by “drunkards”.
The Prime Ministers of the three villages made a formal representation to Mr. Jayakumar with a plea to relocate the shop. The students also expressed fear that one more liquor shop was proposed to come up near the school.
Mr. Jayakumar promised them that he would stall the proposal of bringing the second liquor shop at Tiruvalluvar Street, and to take steps to shift the existing one.
This is an example of participative democracy at the grassroots and it is bridging change in the villages. Ever since the Children’s Parliament was formed, children have emerged as the agents of change. This is largely due to the efforts of the members of a Children’s Club promoted by Arogya Welfare Trust, an NGO.
“We have been working with these children for the last one year. Initially, we provided basic training on life skills such as creative and critical thinking, team-building, leadership qualities, trust building and problem solving and so on. Once the children picked up these skills we formed the Children’s Parliament,” said S. Rajesh, the coordinator.
The Parliament is formed with a Prime Minister, a Deputy Prime Minister, Ministers for Home, Health, Information and Sports.
Every member of the Parliament is a member in one of the teams under the Ministers and work on selected areas in the village. The Parliament meets once a week. The students take up voluntary work in the village such as clearing the streets of garbage. Every detail of the sessions and work taken up is recorded in separate registers and reviewed by the coordinator once a month.
“We have made these children realise their potential. They now know their rights,” Mr. Rajesh said. The students run two tuition centres to assist children in the two panchayat union schools.
At one of the sessions, Anusuya, a student, has words of advice for fellow students preparing for an examination.
“Have confidence in yourself that you have prepared well for the examinations. Never try to learn new chapters after you enter the hall. Be cool and composed,” she tells them.
The training has emboldened the students to become conscientious objectors. For example, P. Pandithurai and his team at Pudukulam stopped the marriage of a minor girl.
“When we came to know about the marriage, we spoke to her grandmother, who has brought up the girl. She was adamant. But, when we threatened to go to the police, she relented,” he said.
The girl has now completed her 12th examinations.
S. Sabareesh of Sambakudi claims that his team members were able to persuade a dropout to return to school. They also rehabilitated a girl forced by poverty to work as a mill hand.
The boys from Velchamy Nagar intervened when bad odour emanated from the water dispensed from a reverse osmosis plant put up at Vadivelkarai.
“When we found that a dead rodent in the tank was the reason, we immediately stopped the water supply and took up the issue with the officials,” S. Aravind said.
These boys take centre stage at the gram sabha meetings, Mr. Rajesh proudly proclaims. Sports Minister R. Krishnan has been providing training to students in various sporting activities. His team was instrumental in clearing garbage to form a play ground where a kabbadi match was recently held.
Students also learn deportment and personal grooming at the club.
Their anti-dengue campaign drew praise from the panchayat. “The people who did not bother to take our advice, listened when these children spoke to them,” Mr. Muthuramalingam said. Supplementing the students efforts, Arogya Welfare Trust has donated two tri-cycles to the panchayats to help clear garbage.
The Children’s Parliament could well emerge as the role model for its adult counterpart.