Ministers with pester power

Shriya Mohan | Updated on July 05, 2019 Published on July 05, 2019

Swarna Lakshmi (centre), the first visually impaired prime minister of the children’s parliament, addresses the United Nations. - Anna Kersting

A documentary film on the hundreds of children’s parliaments around the country that are bringing about social change at the micro, local and family levels

Nila had just turned 15 when her marriage was fixed with a boy from a neighbouring village. Having lost both parents, she was raised by her grandmother in Nagadasampatti village in Tamil Nadu’s Dharmapuri district. A week before the wedding, Nila panicked and confided to her best friend that she wanted out. Her friend approached the neighbourhood children’s parliament (NCP) for help. The NCP’s elected ministers, all aged between 10 and 16, met under a tree and discussed the rescue plan in hushed tones. “We worked in hiding, like culprits,” one of them, Gnanasekar, recalls over phone the events that unfolded in his village seven years ago. The village’s elders couldn’t know.

The youngsters finally decided to dial 1098 and register a complaint with the Tamil Nadu Childline. A day before the wedding, village panchayat officials and social workers from Childline knocked on Nila’s door. The marriage was stopped. Nila went back to school.

Gnanasekar and his troupe have stopped 250-odd child marriages in and around their village since then. Across Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, a growing tribe of child parliamentarians is bringing about social change in various spheres, whether environmental, behavioural, governance, or law and order.

Power to the Children, a documentary by German film-maker Anna Kersting, captures the impact made by NCPs through the work of two neighbourhood committees in TN’s Dharmapuri and Tiruvannamalai districts. While in one the children ended the menace of plastic pollution, in the other they worked to reduce the incidence of alcoholism and domestic violence in their neighbourhood.

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world, the American cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead famously said. In Power to the Children, screened in May at the International Children’s Film Festival Kerala in Thiruvananthapuram, we see this in action.

The beginnings

It was in 1978 that Father Edwin John, a social worker and pastor from Nagercoil, first mooted the idea of forming NCPs through church-based groups. He had always believed in the power of small groups, drawing inspiration from the Dutch entrepreneur Gerard Endenburg’s idea of sociocracy or governance for the benefit of society as a whole.

Through his organisation Neighbourhood Community Network (NCN), Father John initially set up NCPs in Nagercoil and Kanyakumari. By 1994, looking at their success, he decided to build it into a wider secular movement. Father John believes that it even inspired the Kerala Government’s highly successful Kudumbashree movement for women’s empowerment.

Each NCP is constituted at a neighbourhood level, usually comprising children from 30 families. With the help of a local non-governmental organisation, the children learn about child rights, human rights and democracy. They also learn how a children’s parliament works and are helped to elect a prime minister, deputy prime minister and ministers for health, education, culture, finance, environment, water, and so on. The ministries, in fact, span the gamut of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Similar elections are held at the panchayat, block, district, state, national and international levels.

There are an estimated 3.5 lakh NCPs across India, with a majority in the South. Funded by groups such as Save the Children and Every Child India, the movement has even spread to parts of Africa, Latin America and Europe.

By focusing on micro, local and family-level issues, the NCP differs from youth parliaments and mock parliaments, which are made up of high school and college students and deal with macro issues such as unemployment.

“We are protecting a political system,” Father John, now 74, says over the phone from Nagercoil. The children’s parliaments adhere to sociocratic principles such as having small groups and a uniform number of representatives at all levels. “When people are consulted they feel they are being taken seriously. Then they won’t need to buy jewellery or big flashy cars to be recognised,” says the pastor.

The children take pride in the fact that the NCP won’t move forward without consensus. “Every last voice needs to be convinced. Until then, we hear each other out to fit in all concerns,” says Gnanasekar, who was the NCP’s national-level deputy prime minister during 2016-19 and is currently a second year BA student at Loyola college, Chennai.

A space for every concern

Kersting, who has been visiting India for over two decades, heard about the children’s parliament during a visit to Chennai some years ago. Intrigued, she attended one of their state-level meetings. “I saw 300 children sitting under the shade of trees in groups, discussing their issues, making action plans. I was impressed by the power of the children. I wanted to find out what they changed,” she tells BLink over a WhatsApp voice call from Berlin.

One of the touching stories in her film is of 15-year-old Shaktivel, a culture minister, who is a victim of domestic abuse. His father came home drunk every night and violently assaulted him and his mother. Another story is of Jayanthi, 14, who attempted suicide along with her mother to escape her father’s physical and verbal abuse. At their village Nagadasampatti, where domestic abuse and alcoholism is seen as every man’s birthright, the children’s parliament managed to convince the panchayat officials to open rehab centres for their parents.

The children eagerly share the many other stories of change they have wrought. Did you hear of the library we set up and the 6,500 books we received through donations? Or the bridge over flooded plains that we got approval for within 24 hours of writing to the collector? Or the electricity connections we got for remote villages? Or street lights installed in unsafe dark alleys? Did you hear about the kids we rescued from child labour? Or the boy with a neurological condition whom everyone mistook to be mentally retarded, until we found a way to understand and help him? Today he goes to school and teaches the grown-ups chess. What is it about children and their demands that get unruly grown-ups to listen?

“When we children speak we have no ulterior motives. Our voices can be trusted,” says 18-year-old Swarna Lakshmi, who is visually impaired. She was NCP’s national-level prime minister and has addressed the UN General Assembly four times, since the age of 13, on issues ranging from the status of women to living with disability.

“Children have this ability to pester,” laughs the pastor. That can get things done.

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Published on July 05, 2019
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