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    Children's parliament.

    Quite funny. But seriously speaking, I wish adult parliament in India was equally sincere. I dont know original source. I picked it from chowk.


    by Lotte Hughes, pictures by Dario Mitidieri

    She must be the only prime minister on earth in an Alice band, flip-flops and frock, wielding an axe that doubles as a cattle rod. Laxmi Devi, aged 13, interrupts her interview with the foreign press to scamper off across the fields in pursuit of her goats and cows. Minutes later she's back, breathless, sitting cross-legged in the stubble of her father's cornfield and eager to tell me more about the extraordinary children's parliament she heads in India's Rajasthan desert. "Don't the children in England have a parliament? They should do!" she says.

    It's a wonderfully upside down world in the villages around
    Tilonia, two hours' drive west from the fabled 'pink city' of Jaipur. The feudal maharajahs have fled and children hold court in a ruined fort where the Rajput landlords once lived. The children here run their own parliament, the first of its kind in the world. The adults take a back seat as civil servants to the child MPs, who are aged 11 to 14. Parents happily give up power to their offspring, many of whom work all day and go to school by night - because they are poor shepherds and farm labourers who work for their families, and the free night schools are their only chance of an education. In another reversal of roles, the pupils keep a register of teachers' attendance and report truant teachers to their parliament.

    The children's parliament (or Bal Sansad in Hindi) came about through the 60 night schools in Silora block of Ajmer district. The schools (total pupils 2,500, mostly aged 6 to 14 though some younger and older children also attend) were set up by a local voluntary organisation, the Social Work and Research Centre (SWRC) at Tilonia. Britain's Save the Children supports 17 of them, including the school at Kalipal which Laxmi Devi attends.

    SWRC - aka The Barefoot College, well-known in development circles for promoting rural people's power and
    the principle of learning by doing - launched the parliament as an experiment in teaching children about politics and the electoral process. The experiment seems to be a success - and has inspired similar ventures in nine other states across India.



    The child MPs, voted into office by other children in a totally pukka election, have the power to help govern their schools, fire teachers who are not up to scratch, push for practical improvements in their villages (like water pumps and solar-powered lighting), organise children's festivals and make sure children have a say in every aspect of village life. They are about to launch their own magazine, to keep the children of the desert informed about their rights and local politics.

    Sceptical of the claim that they have the power to fire teachers, I asked 12-year-old Chief Minister Prem Devi - a shepherd girl from Sargaon village night school - if there was any truth in it. "In the last parliament I was transport minister and I got rid of a teacher from Sargaon!" she retorted. Why? "The teacher was not very good - he didn't pay attention to the children, he'd sleep, and sit and chat with other people in the village, that sort of thing. So we got rid of him." MPs must make regular inspections of night schools to check that everything is working well; that is how this teacher's errant behaviour was picked up.

    Equally, the MPs report back on errant children - noting attendance and truancy.

    Amazingly, in a patriarchal society which outsiders may see as 'traditional' and 'backward', parents, teachers and local officials have taken their hands off the tiller and given up much of their power to children - many of them girls. It would be hard to imagine adults in Britain feeling sufficiently unthreatened by children to do the same. And before anyone shouts 'no rights without responsibilities': the young politicians behave in an exemplary fashion, seem to take their responsibilities very seriously, and would put many adult politicians to shame.

    Child focus


    "The children's parliament is one way of showing the community - the parents and other adults - what children are capable of doing, and the extent to which they can participate in their own society," says Tejaram, SWRC's development coordinator and a former night school teacher. He aims to ensure there's a children's focus to everything SWRC does. "We would like to see children interfering in ALL our activities! Through working with children for the last 20 years, we know that children are capable of taking their own decisions. We hope that adults will come to understand and accept this."

    In the early days, there was understandable opposition from adults to the night schools and parliament. "It's all very well saying you should listen to what children have to say, you should give them space. But when children begin to challenge you, adults get uptight about that. We feel insecure and threatened. Adults could construe what happens in the parliament - children's challenging behaviour - as a sign of a lack of respect." This has not happened so far, but the issue needs sensitive handling. The hierarchy of Indian society is based upon the concept of respect. This binds people together, but the downside is that it threatens free expression of ideas and opinions, especially by children.

    Changing attitudes


    Yet attitudes are changing. Adult villagers are not feeling left out - they are involved in the night schools (and by association, with the parliament) through Village Education Committees which are responsible for the schools' day-to-day management. These include parents, teachers, a representative from the village women's group if there is one, maybe a midwife or creche worker.

    "The first hurdle to overcome is the teachers themselves," says Tejaram. "Involving children in decision-making takes a lot of time and effort. And some teachers don't like the fact that children can mark them down as absent.

    "From the community itself, there was opposition to our focus on girls and their education. There is much less now but, for example, we're working with the former prime minister Kaushalya Devi and her parents can't understand it - they feel uneasy about this. They're asking:'OK, haven't you finished with her? Now let her go to her in-laws' house!'" Children here are usually married off when they are very young, but girls do not join their husband's family until they are 15 or 16.

    Vocal girls


    Will that marriage pattern change? Unusually, Laxmi is not yet married - though her mother Badam is quick to say she hopes she will find a husband in the next year. The parliament is designed to teach children that democracy should be above gender, caste and creed. Under its influence these girls, in particular the ministers and members of the shadow cabinet are challenging received ideas about female accomplishment. They are the most vociferous members of parliament - at the session I attended, a sharp exchange between Laxmi Devi and Madhu Devi, an opposition MP, was the classic stuff of Commons Question Time. "Earlier, I made the same suggestion as the prime minister has just done and nobody agreed with me!" cried Madhu. "How come? Does the opposition have no standing?"

    These girls may not have travelled far from the village - Laxmi has never even been as far as Jaipur - but they are already in a different league to their illiterate mothers, who work at home and on the land. Former night school girls have gone on to vocational training in non-traditional subjects like electrical motor repair, again run by the SWRC. Yet the mothers seem pleased, not defensive, about their daughters' advancement. Laxmi's mother says she admires Laxmi's learning and the surprising career she is carving out for herself.

    "Laxmi says what she thinks," says Badam, who has four other children. "I'm happy that she knows how things work at such a young age - how things happen, how decisions are taken. She has more confidence since she became involved in the Bal Sansad. The way she speaks, the way she conducts herself - there's a big difference. She has become more mature."

    Two-party system


    Laxmi has been in power since June 1995 and heads a ten-strong cabinet, whose portfolios range from finance and education through to water resources and women's development. Her party is called Ujala, which means light; the opposition is called Gauval, or shepherd.

    "My parliamentary work takes up about five or six days a month," she says, brushing some straw from her frock. "I organise meetings, inspect night schools, look at the budget and take to task any ministers who have not been attending to their duties." She has a fearsome reputation for discipline, and for putting down adults who displease her. I was nervous - but she gave me a farewell gift of two bunches of home-grown carrots; I reckoned I had passed the Laxmi test.

    "I also get a lot of letters which I have to respond to - people write to say something or other is not happening, the lights are not working at a night school, that kind of thing. The letters are mostly about the night schools. I must see that they are run properly - that's my biggest worry."

    Night schools are clearly dear to her heart - she's a prime example of a working kid who has gained from evening classes. "If we are working during the day we can't study," she explains. "We can only study at night and these schools give us an opportunity. How can our families send us to day schools when there's so much work to do at home?"

    She is not complaining. Though her working day starts at 6am with household chores and may not end till midnight after a night sitting of parliament, she says she enjoys her work. What about time to play? "There's plenty of time to play with the cattle," she says, clearly puzzled by the question. "You run around and play with them! And your friends do the same."

    Like all the children I spoke to, Laxmi says she wants to carry on being a shepherd once she leaves school. This puts a different spin on the issue of child labour, in a country which has the largest number of child workers in the world - 44 million according to figures from the International Labour Organisation. But in this rural setting, where children are not wage labourers and are not coerced into working for outside employers, should we call this contribution to the family economy child exploitation - or is it participation by young stake-holders in their own community?

    Concepts of childhood


    Everyone I spoke to - including the children themselves - told me (without using the jargon) that they think it's participation, and something to be welcomed so long as the children can exert some control over events. There is a different concept of childhood in Rajasthan society - children are not seen as a separate and lesser category of person, with a cut-off point at 18. Age itself is meaningless - most people don't know their exact age. Maybe an outsider's surprise at the maturity of these children playing 'adult' roles - in work and politics - says more about western prejudices against children and their capabilities than it does about the grassroots reality of desert life.

    Life is a cycle in Indian philosophy, governed by the laws of karma. In the West, it is seen as a straight line from cradle to grave. So attitudes to childhood are shaped by the Indian psyche - instead of a linear continuum, with people at one end failing to connect with those at the other, different stages of life form a passage to the next phase. Each step of the ladder is a preparation for the next, with certain duties attached. From this angle, childhood is just a phase in the life of a human being - it is not absolute.

    In another part of the so-called developing world, among the Maasai of East Africa, you also see stock-herders as young as five guarding cattle against lions with the aid of a little stick and a lot of bottle. Their responsibilities and outlook are not 'child-like'. After talking to the shepherds of Rajasthan, and the street children of Calcutta and Delhi - incredibly spunky, articulate survivors earning adult wages while scorning adult intervention in their lives -I couldn't help revise my opinions. Westerners may feel sympathy or pity for children who seem to have missed out on childhood; to their fellow countrymen, it is just a way of life.

    In the ruined fort at Chhota Naraina village, the sun is going down on another meeting of the children's parliament. Everyone is seated on the ground before the flood-lit ramparts, with scores of barefoot village children in the 'public gallery' in front. Seated at a respectful distance behind the cabinet and shadow cabinet are the adult civil servants. "It's democracy in the cradle of feudalism!" quips Susan Abraham, another SWRC worker who is closely involved with the children.

    The discussion is sophisticated. It spans everything from the copyright of photos and drawings in the planned magazine, to the sort of stories the children want to read in it ("Should they include obits?"), school inspections and solar lighting (not enough of either, say the kids), the principle of charging for medicines (night school pupils get them free), and why a promised hand pump has not been installed in one village. An argument breaks out over an old teacher who can't keep control of his class. "The children are all over the place, swinging on swings in the middle of the night!" cries an indignant Laxmi. "What the hell are the children swinging for? They have just three hours for lessons and they can swing anytime they like to!"

    Dev Karan the speaker is dropping off. Laxmi Devi is just getting into her stride; it is, after all, only 11.30pm. "We like the way you've photographed us," says Laxmi. But why have you come? Do you like our meeting?"

    I like it very much, thank you. So might children the world over.

    Lotte Hughes


    Also read: the profile of Dev Karan, parliamentary speaker

    Since this story was written, prime minister Laxmi Devi has been replaced by another girl - Ram Kanya. Dev Karan, the shepherd boy, is still parliament speaker. Ram Kanya used to work in a carpet factory with other night school girls, in the village of Morda. The Social Work and Research Centre managed to get all the girls out of the factory, which was forced to close for a while.