Turade, a village about 20 kilometers away from Mumbai, has fought hard for a school. The local Zilla Parishad School was built in the village in the last 4 years after the villagers collectivized and demanded it.
That’s perhaps why the school is so dear to Ganesh. Ganesh Katkari studies in the 9th standard of the Turade Zilla Parishad school and is the son of a single mother. He belongs to the first generation of children from the Katkari community who have ever taken up formal education. Katkaris are an indigenous Adivasi community of Maharashtra whose main source of livelihood used to be forest produce. Today, with the non-implementation of the Forest Rights Act and dwindling forest cover in the Western Ghats, they’ve now turned to extensive migration for daily wage work for sustenance. Ironically, while roads, temples, and mobiles have reached this village a while back, children getting married at the age of 13 or 14 is fairly common, even today.
Ganesh, however, dreams to be different. In 2018, Ganesh noticed that his school premises were always littered with broken beer bottles and food parcels in the morning. As the children walked to school and played around it, they would often cut themselves. The school premise smelled of rancid food even after the parcels were thrown away by the children themselves. “It was especially bad after festivals,” Ganesh says. “Since we clean our school premises ourselves, we used to feel disgusted picking up this litter. It was dangerous too.” Ganesh was determined to change this.
Ganesh is a part of Centre for Social Action’s supplementary classes and Bal Sansads. CSA is a non-profit working on livelihood, education and child marriage in the area. While supplementary classes are early morning classes that help curb dropout rates in the Adivasi areas by providing support with language and local contexts, Bal Sansads are a platform for children to collectivize and realize their rights. As a member of the Bal Sansads, Ganesh learnt about his rights to education, right to life, right to development and right to participate.
Knowing his rights and keeping the rogue villagers from dirtying the school campus seemed like an uphill task. Ganesh sought help from Mrs Pratiksha Chavan, his supplementary class teacher and Wadi Sevika who works with CSA’s implementation partner, Prerna in Turade. She suggested that the children approach the Gram Panchayat. He spoke to 15 to 20 of his friends, and convinced them about the need for an action. After seeking a meeting, the Panchayat Members listened to the children, but did nothing about the matter. Not discouraged, but only more determined, they approached the village elders. However, even after sharing the problem, the village elders proved to be unhelpful.
Around this time, Mrs Pratiksha Chavan decided to take them to the local police station. “Children fear the police. So we thought we’ll organize an exposure visit,” she says. 22nd March, 2018 was the day of the exposure visit. Ganesh was scared and in two minds about his complaint. However, at the police station, the local police inspector proved to be approachable and friendly. He walked the children around the station, showing them lock-ups, explaining how to file complaints, and giving the excited children a peek at guns and rifles in the police station. “Once I felt comfortable around the police officer, I decided to let go of my doubts and speak up.” But what if the villagers got to know who complained? Ganesh feared backlash. However, the police officer reassured him that all the children’s names and identities would remain confidential.
Two days later, the police inspectors landed up at the village. They held a meeting with the villagers and reprimanded them. “The school is a house of knowledge. It’s everyone’s responsibility in the village to keep it clean and safe.” They warned the villagers of strict action if the school premises was littered again.
Ganesh’s school is now clean again. The children can play and roam around without fear. Since then, he’s taken up the practice of keeping the public spaces in the village free of waste too. Along with his friends, he’s taken out rallies to urge his villagers to keep their village free of plastic waste, bottles and packets. He dreams of studying in the city and coming back to work for the betterment of his village. “Our village is our own responsibility. Don’t fear and speak up for your rights,” is an appeal that Ganesh wants to make to other children world over.
– Rucha Satoor