Pooja Gujjar is the consummate politician. She’s quick-witted and outspoken, and, as her every-ready, dimpled smile suggests, always up for a challenge. She has, admittedly, a girlish streak. The first time she stood for election she chose as her symbol a flower. And although she lost, to a boy, she’s proud that all the girls voted for her. Pooja is the deputy “sarpanch” – Hindi for leader – of her school’s Bal Panchayat in the village of Chaudhula, Viratnagar, Rajasthan, and she’s 11 years old. The Bal, or “children’s” Panchayat, is promoted by non-profit organizations across India to encourage children in rural areas to improve their own lives. It is meant to mirror and also work with the Gram Panchayat, a governing institution at the village level, which was created to foster grass-roots democracy. The Gram Panchayat — Panchayat means “Assembly of Five”—includes a leader (sarpanch) and his deputy. All members are elected directly by the villagers, and their responsibilities include overseeing developmental works in the areas of sanitation, water and electricity.
The Bal Panchayat isn’t meant as a mere extra-curricular activity. At its best, it familiarizes children with the political process, and makes them comfortable with the idea of not just voting, but of standing for election themselves. It was conceived, in short, to create a generation of proactive, politically aware young men and women who could be the change they sought. “Before the Bal Panchayat the other students would take their complaints to the headmaster,” Pooja says. “But now they come directly to me.” After Pooja decided to run for Panchayat she had to choose an electoral symbol, draw up a list of campaign promises, and give speeches. She promised to bring more children into school. “Children should study,” she told her peers. “Not graze sheep.” Although students in urban areas are familiar with electoral process, having become used to electing class monitors, for Gujjar and the 129 other students of the rural, Government Upper Primary Sanskriti School situated amidst green fields several hours outside the state capital of Jaipur, the idea was a novelty. Except for four men, all the adults in the village are illiterate. They are of low-caste, and earn their living through agriculture — growing millet, corn, sorghum, and vegetables like tomatoes and peas. Those without land rear buffaloes, goats, and sheep, and also, as is common in this desert region, camels. The women stay at home. Never mind a Bal Panchayat, even the village school was, at its onset, considered new and strange. After the votes were counted, the candidate with the largest number of votes, in this case a 12-year-old boy called Raju Gujjar, was appointed sarpanch. Pooja, with 10 votes, just two behind Raju, became deputy sarpanch. (The number of votes cast was small, said school headmaster Roop Kishore Sharma, because the elections were held during the summer holidays). Sharma had been introduced to the idea of a Bal Panchayat by members of the local branch of the Delhi-based N.G.O., Bachpan Bachao Andolan (B.B.A.). Even before it approached Sharma, however, the B.B.A. spoke with Sarpanch Hardev Gujjar (no relation), asking whether he would, as the village head, give cognizance to the Bal Panchayat’s suggestions. If he hadn’t agreed, says the B.B.A., they wouldn’t have started a Bal Panchayat — on their own, the children have no power to implement real change. The sarpanch said he would, and, what’s more, agreed to allow the Bal Panchayat to sit in on meetings of the Gram Panchayat. It was a huge opportunity, and the children took it. “Our midday meal used to be cooked in the open,” says Pooja. “Insects and leaves would fall into it, and we were afraid pesticides would make us sick.” After several rounds of discussion on how to proceed, Pooja, Raju, and the other members of the Bal Panchayat, drafted a petition requesting the Gram Panchayat for funds to build a kitchen for the school. All the school children signed. They submitted the petition to the Gram Panchayat, which approved of their request, and a month later, their two-room school became a three-room school.
It was a huge achievement for the children, and gave them the confidence to plot other changes. “We want more classrooms,” says Gujjar, firmly. “There are eight classes in this school so we should have at least eight, not just two classrooms. And we need lights. And fans. It gets very hot in summer!” Pooja’s experience in the Bal Panchayat holds real potential. The 73rd Amendment, which was implemented in 1993 to give constitutional mandate to the Panchayat system, requires that no less than one-third of all seats be reserved for scheduled castes, scheduled tribes, and women. The amendment has given women, in particular lower caste women, the impetus and government support to seek power in a patriarchal society, where women have historically played a subservient role, not least of all in politics. This is particularly true of Rajasthan, where the gender ratio, according to the 2011 census, is 926 females for every 1,000 males, and where far fewer women are literate and work professionally than men. But Pooja isn’t sure that politics is for her. “I want to be a teacher,” she says, decidedly. “Or a doctor.” She pauses, “No, wait, a policewoman!”