The Bal Mitra Gram initiative is helping children in Indian villages become aware of their rights. 10-year-old Laxman Yadav is acutely aware of his rights, and successfully fought for them when he faced unfair treatment in his Jharkhand village.
Laxman Yadav, 10, walked away from his school, stinging with pain and humiliation. The blood on his forehead had crusted over, but the wound on his palm refused to close. That’s where Kumar ji (name changed), his teacher, had struck his reed stick a few minutes ago. Little Yadav had been prepared for an earful from his looming and foul-mouthed teacher. But this ruthless beating in front of his entire class came as an ugly shock to him.
It was all about an egg. A burnt half-egg, to be precise. Yadav, a student of Class VI in the government middle school at Kakni village, Jharkhand, had refused to eat that burnt half-egg given by the school teacher at lunch. He knew that the Government sponsors midday meals in all schools, and each child was to be provided two eggs daily.
However, Kumar ji, the government-appointed teacher, saw the money meant for his students as an extra penny meant to be pocketed. Day after day, he would buy half the eggs rationed for the class, and also distribute them among his favourite students, giving little to the other children.
Yadav, a quiet but confident youngster, had had enough of this daily discrimination. He came from a poor family like most of his fellow students, and had to walk a long distance to reach the school. He deserved a nutritious meal as much as anyone else. That day he protested; in return, he earned the wrath of his teacher. Kumar ji beat him up with his infamous reed stick till he cried out and begged Kumar ji to stop.
Kumar ji warned him never to demand food again and asked him to leave the class.
A tearful Yadav reached his one-room thatched home and shared everything with his mother. Both mother and son decided to not take this lying down. They walked 15 km. to the BBA district office in Teesri, Jharkhand, to report the incident. Yadav bravely retold his experience of the day to the BBA activists, and agreed to formally complain to the Block District Officer (BDO). Because of Yadav’s conviction, the BDO had the teacher transferred out of the area. He also warned the teacher with immediate termination of his job in case of any further complaints.
Yadav’s Kakni village, surrounded by streams in the hilly terrain of Jharkhand and 250 kms. from Ranchi, is not just an ordinary village. It is one of BBA’s 500 Bal Mitra Grams (BMGs, or Child-Friendly Villages) in India.
Here, BBA’s activists overcome poor roads, bad connectivity, and patchy electricity supply to empower the village’s 400-odd children by making them aware about their rights.
Every BMG has a democratically-elected Bal Panchayat (Children’s Council) that is recognised by the Gram Panchayat (Village Council). The aim of the Bal Panchayat is clear—no child in the village should labour, every child should be in school, and every child gets a free, fair, and safe childhood.
Village children participate passionately in the annual elections of the 11-member Bal Panchayat. After spirited campaigning and discussions by the child candidates, other children cast their votes. The elected Mukhiya (head) and the Up-Mukhiya (sub-head) of the elected Panchayat, together with the sports, health, sanitation, and education ministers and other members, form the Bal Panchayat.
After all, they shoulder the charge in solving issues faced by the children for the year to come, and become child leaders in the region.
What happened that day in Yadav’s school was not an isolated incident. Before BBA’s intervention in Kakni village, children like Yadav either helped their parents at the farm or with domestic chores, or whiled away their time. To worsen the situation, the education in the village school was neither regular nor of any quality. Teachers skipped classes often, and taught poorly. Others, like Kumar ji, were infamous for being foul-mouthed and partisan.
Even though he is not an elected Bal Panchayat member, Yadav was deeply conscious about his rights as a child. This was because Yadav voluntarily attended community meetings held by the Bal Panchayat. He did not let the economically weak position of his family stand in the way for demanding his rights. Since the incident, the story of Yadav’s courage set off an upward spiral of empowerment among children in Kakni. Today, with relentless efforts, the attendance of teachers has been regularised.
Children themselves ensure the availability of mid-day meals, books, uniforms, and bicycles to all children.
In a nutshell, within just a year, Kakni’s landscape has had an overhaul. Back in December 2015, Kakni village was specifically chosen for the implementation of the BMG model among other villages in the Giridih district of Jharkhand. Kakni has a population of almost 250 families, who thrive mostly on agriculture and labour or construction work in surrounding villages.
People also work in collecting Mica, which is used all over the world for lending a metallic shine to cosmetics and car paints. This is an extremely hazardous job as the mines carry an ever-present risk of collapsing. Because of this, hundreds of miners, including children, have lost their lives under the debris in the past. There are no other opportunities of employment.
Even a visit to a government clinic requires a 15 km. tread over unpaved paths.
Through the efforts of the empowered children of the Bal Panchayat and strengthened civil society organisations (CSOs), Kakni is now a child-friendly village. This is a small but very significant step towards making a child-friendly India. As a result, girls from families whose women had never been to school are now going to the neighbouring village to pursue higher education. Children are regularly championing campaigns and marches against alcohol abuse, sanitation, and child marriages in their village, while also enjoying complete support of the Gram Panchayat.
Now, every morning, the government middle school at Kakni buzzes with the voices of excited school children, with the aroma of fresh breakfast hanging over the premises. Children dress in their neat uniforms, and attendants pass around the meal of eggs and khichdi (rice and lentils). Laxman Yadav digs into the two warm eggs on his plate, a naughty smile playing on his lips. The fruit of courage sure tastes delicious.