Published: 23rd December 2019
Meet the youngsters behind Makkala Grama Sabhas that're driving social change in rural Karnataka
In times such as these, making children learn about citizenship, rights and duties has become important. And that is why Makkala Grama Sabhas conducted by Grama Panchayats play a key role
Do you think only elected representatives can speak in the parliament about various issues and find solutions? If yes, then you have probably not heard of Makkala Grama Sabhas (Children's Village Meetings) that take place at least once a year at the Gram Panchayat level in Karnataka. Here, it is children between the ages of 5-15 years who speak about their issues and seek solutions from the Gram Panchayat President, members and government officials. The fact that such a forum has been brought to life is to the credit of several individuals who have been working 24/7 for the past few years to ensure that these meetings take place, prepare children to speak and follow up with the issues until they are solved.
But what kind of problems do teenagers have? You'd be surprised. Unlike kids in the West, their counterparts in rural Karnataka are way more basic in what they wish for. Here's a rundown.
A student representative is selected without any bias to speak at the Makkala Grama Sabhas
Shailaja's toilet crusade
B Shailaja Kumar from Bagalkot has been working for more than three years in the interest of children. This year, she has been able to make six meetings happen at different panchayats in Bagalkot. A Commerce graduate, she was always interested in social work. Explaining how she began her career, she says, "My career started with the childline's service centre where we used to address several issues including child abuse, child marriage and so on. As I spent time understanding child rights, I realised that there is something called the Makkala Grama Sabha that has to take place every year. Like any other individual, I also underwent training to understand the process of conducting these meetings."
After the training, she has not only helped children bring these issues to the notice of the Gram Sabha members but also get them solved. Now, she has a long list of success stories that can be shared with the generations to come. Sharing one of her success stories, she says, "Though all the problems discussed in the Makkala Grama Sabhas might not be solved completely, some of them get solved based on the allocation of the budget. In one of the schools in the village of Kaladgi, girl students did not have a separate toilet and there was no sanitary napkin incinerator. When one of the girls raised this issue in a meeting, I made it a point to follow up. Thus, the government school was able to get a separate toilet for girls and a machine to burn sanitary napkins. Such changes motivate us to go ahead and do our best for children in rural areas."
Shailaja Kumar from Bagalkot conducted six meetings of Makkala Grama Sabhas in November 2019
A letter to the officer makes all the difference
Not just make these meetings happen, there are several others who believe that children should be taught to speak at these meetings to identify the work done by the Gram Panchayat and appreciate them. Venkatesh Konaghatt from Anekal is one such person who believes in this principle. He has been working with Mantra Social Services, a non-profit organisation for four years and has been a part of these sabhas. Explaining why it is important to appreciate the work done by officials, he says, "Though most of our teachers have completed their graduation, they lack the skills of approaching officials for work or appreciating them. Hence, when I started working for the Makkala Grama Sabhas, I conducted a workshop for teachers as well as students on how to write a letter to the officials. Now, whenever there is something to be communicated to the Panchayat Development Officer (PDO), they write it systematically in a letter and send it to them. Letters ultimately serve as documents and have greater importance. Even students write letters to officials thanking them for the work done."
Aside from this, Venkatesh thinks that while meetings happen every year, it is important for children to ensure that whatever was promised in the previous year has been completed — or otherwise. He explains, "Fifteen days before we head for the meeting, we select the kids who can speak at the Makkala Grama Sabha. This selection is also done without any partiality. This year, when we selected a kid from a government school to speak at the meeting, he had tears of joy and thanked me profusely — because he never knew considered himself someone who could speak well and this gave him a platform to explore his talent. Similarly, we take them throughout the village to check if the projects have been executed by the GP members. Before the kids could speak about their issues, they acknowledge the work done and then discuss the problems. This motivates the officials and GP members to do better work for the sake of children."
Venkatesh believes in writing letters to the officials whether it is solving the issues or thanking them for solving it (Pic: Pandarinath)
Venkatesh who has been working to conduct these meetings for three years has documented several before and after photographs of success stories. "These photographs will be the proof and help in documentation," he says happily.
Just a few days old for Makkala Grama Sabha
Sharanappa Dollina is pursuing a Masters in Social Work degree from the Karnataka State Rural Development and Panchayat Raj University in Gadag. He is only 23 years old but has taken up the responsibility of travelling to different places to conduct Makkala Grama Sabhas. In a few months he has been able to conduct two meetings in two different places. He explains, "While one meeting happened in Harlapura taluk in Gadag on November 27, another meeting happened in Yadgiri taluk on December 11. Since child marriage and child labour are prevalent in this region, children spoke about these issues to the Gram Panchayat president. When villagers harvest cotton, they forcefully take children to work in the fields instead of sending them to schools. Therefore, it was important for us to bring it to the notice of higher officials as well as create awareness among villagers. Similarly, when child marriages happen, the girls are aged below 18 and boys are below 21. We told children about the right age to marry and the complications of marrying when they are still in school."
After the meetings got over, he has been following up with the Gram Panchayat to know their actions and also see that such incidents don't happen again. He aims to conduct more such meetings so that children get proper facilities.
Sharanappa Dollina was able to conduct two Makkala Grama Sabhas after being trained by UNICEF workers in Karnataka
Of brown rice and lunch meals
A few years ago, children from one of the government schools in Puttur asked if the Gram Panchayat can provide them with brown rice instead of white rice because the people in Dakshina Kannada are used to eating brown rice. While the GP members took time to discuss this with the officials in charge of the mid-day meals, they ensured that the children get brown rice at their schools. From then on, most schools in this particular region serve brown rice in mid-day meals. What better way to make children happy and keep them hooked to schools?
In another important incident that happened in one of the government schools in Belthangady, the children were successfully able to remove the tobacco shop close to their school compound. Thanks to Renny D'Souza, who has been working for more than a decade, these meetings have yielded a good result in Mangaluru. "I have been working in the Makkala Grama Sabhas from the time it was initiated in Karnataka in 2006. When I look back, I feel happy to notice various changes. Due to the fear of being questioned by children during MGS, the PDOs and GP members make doubly sure that they have data of the number of children attending school, immunisation records, malnutrition numbers and much more. Now, what I expect is that more children participate in these meetings and not just the one who speaks or represents the group. In fact, even the school drop-outs can come and attend these meetings. That's how you can bring the attention of the Labour Department towards child labour issues, " says Renny who wants to implement the Makkala Grama Sabhas in urban areas at the ward level.
It is a open platform for students in rural areas to share all kind of problems about their school and surroundings (Pic: Raghavendra Bhat)
When we asked Renny if Makkala Grama Sabhas has been successful in Dakshina Kannada, he says, "Not 100 per cent," and goes on to add, "But in a lot of places where the normal Gram Panchayat meetings or Mahila Grama Sabhas don't happen, Makkala Grama Sabhas happen without fail. This means it has been successfully implemented."
How and why Makkala Grama Sabhas were implemented in Karnataka
In 2002, Child Right Trust (CRT), a not-for-profit organisation that works with children and women, surveyed 15 villages for data on the number of children, populations of boys and girls, number of infants, pregnant women, lactating mothers and so on. However, none of the 15 panchayats had this data with them. This survey was spearheaded by Vasudeva Sharma, Executive Director and Trustee of CRT. Narrating what happened in the past few years, he says, "When we asked the grama panchayats to provide this data, they either rejected or said that they are not supposed to have all this data. Until 2000, the grama panchayats thought that providing infrastructure in the village and its maintenance was their only work. But with continuous interventions and meetings, we told them that having the necessary data is their duty. Because it is numbers that indicate development in these areas."
Vasudeva and his team prepared a sheet and distributed it among the grama panchayats. This sheet was meant to fill the necessary information including child marriages, number of missing children, infants and so on. That's when their first plan of collecting data became successful. Next, convincing the villagers as well as the Rural Development and Panchayat Raj Department (RDPR) to conduct Makkala Grama Sabhas atleast once a year was the main challenge. "It is their duty to conduct these meetings to know and understand the actual problems faced by children in their villages. But until 2006, no one had told them about this. When we insisted on them conducting a meeting for children at the Gram Panchayat Level, they asked us these questions: 'What will children speak or discuss? Do they even understand the laws and regulations?' The RDPR officials clearly told us that this work belongs to the WCD. Despite all this, we were successfully able to convince them and in 2006, the Karnataka government sent a circular to all the GPs across the states to conduct these meetings. Today, there are over 5,000 grama panchayats in Karnataka but only 1,500 grama panchayats conducts meetings."
Makkala Grama Sabhas are open for school dropouts also to participate
So, what is the way forward to make this happen in all the villages? Vasudeva thinks that all the GPs should take these meetings seriously and conduct them without fail. "We want villagers to question GPs if these meetings don't happen. Only then can rural areas watch the development in micro and macro level," he concludes.
There are certain hard and fast rules that every Grama Panchayat must follow when they conduct these meetings:
The issues at schools or outside schools should be asked and learnt from children only. In case of asking teachers or principals, there are chances that they might not share issues due to vested interest or biased opinions
A notice has to be sent to all the schools in the rural areas about Makkala Grama Sabhas — issues that will be discussed, date, venue and time
Two days prior to the meeting, the Grama Panchayats must announce this meeting through loud speakers and pamphlets
After the meeting is completed, the minutes of meeting must be discussed in the general grama panchayat meeting that happen every month. This is to see that the works taken up in the interest of children are completed before the next year's MGS
Every year, when the MGS happen, every GM must record it in a CD and send it to the concerned officials. These days, people prefer to make this available through Facebook Live
Who should be part of these meetings?
Gram Panchayat president, members, Panchayat Development Officer, police official, doctors, anganwadi workers, school teachers and principals have to be part of this meeting