Role of children as volunteers for sustainable rural development

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Role of children as volunteers for sustainable rural development

A.R.PATIL, Executive Director, BIRDS & Secretary, Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore Foundation, New Delhi

Farmers of Munnyan village in the Belgaum district of Karnataka are a worried lot. The scanty rainfall in the last couple of months has taken away smiles from the faces of poor farmers as they have lost hopes of getting enough food in the coming months. A farmers’ meeting, organized by the children of Gokak Shishu Panchayat at the Mynnyan village, on the eve of the World Food Day in October 2011 , concluded that the it was high time to think of alternative cropping to deal with the food insecurity in the village. Farmers, attending the meeting, confirmed that dependence on a single crop and poor rainfall has led to a situation of food insecurity in the village, coupled with rising prices. The meeting was attended by nearly 40 farmers - big and small farmers.

Most participants agreed the food insecurity was one of the rootcause of their proplems. Taking part in the discussion, Siddaram Chepalkatti, the headmaster of a local school said because of lack of rainfall this year in the months of June to Septemer, the main crop of the area, jowar would not grow.

Story on the initiative of Gokak Shishu Panchayat written by the group members, Seema Basavraj Tadasanapar and Aishwarya Shirvanand Dupalamathi for The Peace Gong, the children’s newspaper.

Children like Seema and Aishwarya who are part of the Gokak Shishu Panchayat are taking the leadership in trying to bring together not only children of their villages but even facilitating discussions amongst adults on critical concerns of their village like on food security. When the children took the initiative to volunteer to organize the interactions on the cause of food insecurity in the backdrop of poor rainfall in the area, their efforts highlights the importance of encouraging young people’s participation in the sustainable development process. The Gokak Shishu Panchayat in Belgaum district of Karnataka is an initiative of Belgaum Integrated Rural Development Society and Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore Foundation.

In fact as we are working together to develop a framework of youth volunteer action and community volunteering for post 2015 development agenda, the efforts of many children like that of Seema and Aishwarya need not only to be recognized but also intertwined in the plan of action.

The UN Secretary General’s report, Realizing the Future we want for all underscores, ‘sustainability implies inter-generational justice and a future world fit for children. This entails safeguarding a sustainable future in which children will be able to grow up healthy, well-nourished, resilient, well-educated, culturally sensitive and protected from violence and neglect’.

What is critical is how to develop capacities of young people to not only develop understanding of their local social concerns but also empower them to contribute to a sustainable development process. Promoting child participation by creating a favorable environment and space for them to volunteer is the key.

The State of the World Children 2003 pertinently points out that ‘promoting meaningful and quality participation of children and adolescents is essential to ensure their growth and development’. It further stresses, “A child whose active engagement with the world has been encouraged from the outset will be a child with the competencies to develop through early childhood, respond to educational opportunities and move into adolescence with confidence, assertiveness and the capacities to contribute to democratic dialogue and practices within the homes, school, community and country.”

The report also states that the values of democracy such as respect for the rights and dignity of all people, for their diversity and their right to participate in the decisions that affect them, are first and best learned in childhood. “Authentic, meaningful participation prepares children for their stake in the future. With all the understanding it brings to the children involved, participation is the keystone of cohesive societies, which in turn; are the keystone for peace in the world,” the report further adds.
In the context of the efforts to analyse the role of youth and children as volunteers for sustainable rural development, this paper while analysing the intervention of the local shishu panchayat will offer argument on the need to mainstream such initiatives in the development agenda. It will try to construct a model of how shishu Panchayats could be important stakeholders in the post 2015 development agenda.
Goal 7 of the MDGs talks of ensuring environmental sustainability. One of the global targets is to halve, by 2015, the proportion of the population without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation. As part of this goal, the children of the Gokak Shishu Panchayat took the initiative with local gram panchayat and the village sanitation committee to create awareness on safe drinking water in Gokak in August-September, 2011. During these months, as a result of heavy rainfall there was serious problem of sanitation and safe drinking water in the villages of Gokak taluk. These led to the emergence of water borne diseases like cholera and typhoid.

As many of them and their family members were affected, the shishu panchayat along with the local village sanitation committee and gram panchayat embarked upon an awareness campaign. The children were trained on how to filter water using local traditional methods. Low cost technology was used as it was to cater to poor people of the area. Later the children of the shishu panchayat along with the members of the village sanitation committee went from house to house to explain the techniques and the importance of safe drinking water.

Earlier in October-November 2009, the area was affected by dengue and malaria. It was a serious situation. There again the Shishu Panchayat took the lead and raised money from local sources and got a fogging machine. This machine was handed over to the local village, Naganur Raksha Samiti. Significantly, now this machine is used by adjoining villages too. This effort by the members of the shishu panchayat reiterates the importance of why it is important to ensure that children and adolescents too needs to be an integral part of any community volunteering efforts for sustainable development.
Another contribution of the Gokak Shishu Panchayat to the sustainable development process is the school nutrition and herbal garden initiative. In Gokak Tehsil, the children for the past two years have taken the lead in 10 schools in creating the nutrition and herbal gardens. Organic vegetables are grown in these gardens and these products are used in the school mid-day meals. Again this is a powerful example how children through their volunteer efforts are instrumental in promoting organic food which are consumed by them in the school itself.

As the children of the Gokak Shishu Panchayat continue to be trained to volunteer for sustainable rural development, it would be pertinent to showcase their efforts as a model of child volunteer participation. The whole process in which they are trained, the leadership they take for critical social concerns of their areas and their concerns for environmental sustainability helps us to capture the dimensions of young people’s contribution for community building if they are given the right training and opportunity. Also what is important to learn from such initiatives is how children are being prepared to take up the leadership in years to come. Surely, children like Seema or Aishwarya would be better leaders at the grassroots if they wish to take part in the democratic process. They would have developed broad perspectives on the issues of their community and possible solutions when they are in a position to take policy decisions.

While we critically look at the different dimensions of initiatives Gokak Shishu Panchayat is taking up, it would be pertinent to outline the aims and objectives of the Shishu Panchayat initiative which has been initiated to further Mahatma Gandhi’s Gram Swaraj. These are:

  1. Promoting active and responsible citizenship.

  2. Contributing to the democratic process

  3. Inculcating and practicing positive values.

  4. Training in peace, non-violence and conflict resolution

  5. Develop critical thinking abilities and facilitate use of communications for social change.

  6. Strengthen communicative skills and better understanding of the media.

  7. Developing skills to organize and manage.

  8. Taking part in decision-making process

  9. Acquiring leadership skills and learning to work as a team

  10. Innovation and creativity

  11. Developing knowledge base on different issues of the society

  12. Knowledge about child rights issues

  13. Sensitivity to issues of concern of the society

Developing capacities, understanding diversities, knowledge of how to use communications for social change, development of critical thinking abilities and becoming active to fight social problems are all essential to evolve a good citizenry. The initiative to promote child participation through Shishu Panchayats is aimed to not only to promote active and responsible citizenship but above all to make the participants better human beings who are bound to all other human beings by ties of recognition and concern. It is in this backdrop the very foundation of the initiative is to inculcate prosocial values amongst the young people.

The UN Secretary General’s report underlines the MDG framework should be reorganized along four key dimensions. These include inclusive social development, inclusive economic development, environmental sustainability and peace and security. In the light of these dimensions and the key challenges pointed out in the report, we could look at how Shishu Panchayats could be an integral part of the framework of action to encourage young people’s participation in enhancement of human development, peace and conflict resolution and sustainable development through volunteer action.
We should try to develop methods and action plans on how to promote Shishu Panchayats in villages of India so that we start sensitizing children on grassroots democratic processes and the sustainable development approaches. The National Policy on Education 2005 advocates on developing an education system which helps children to connect to knowledge even outside their school curriculum. Also education for sustainable development provides the values, skills and knowledge needed for shaping new attitudes and consumption and production patterns conducive to sustainable development. As learnt through the initiatives of Gokak Shishu Panchayat, if we can promote shishu Panchayats and facilitate them with training in sustainable development, we can have a huge cadre of young volunteers who would be committed to work for sustainable rural development.
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