Home > Archives (2006 on) > 2006 > November 18, 2006 > Children’s Voices : A Wake-Up Call at India Social Forum

Volume XLIV, No.48

Children’s Voices : A Wake-Up Call at India Social Forum

by Razia Ismail Abbasi and the ISF Young Media Team

Tuesday 24 April 2007

The following is a piece on one aspect of the India Social Forum. A detailed overview of the ISF 2006 will be publishd next week. —Editor

The five-day India Social Forum 2006 is over; the dust that swirled in the three crowded meeting grounds has settled into the trodden grass, and the calls for justice have quieted. The people who came in their tens of thousands to march, sing, shout, and confer have left for the countless villages and towns from which they make their way to Delhi.

But an echo remains. It is the voices of the children who came in strength to take part in the Forum. Some two thousand of them, from all over the country. Fired with their own vision of what India should be like—for them and for everyone now denied a fair deal—they made their mark.
Many had worked in State level processes, invited and facilitated by NGOs and activists working for rights and development. In state capitals and district towns across 14 States, the children learnt together about the World Social Forum dream of ‘another world,’ and prepared their own case. And they chose their delegates for Delhi.

Among the many tents rigged up to house the spate of conferences, seminars and workshops that was the ISF 2006, stood one large un-numbered structure. A huge banner proclaimed what it was : ‘Bal Chaupal’—the children’s space. There the children assembled to finalise their arguments, to craft a draft declaration of their demands and aspirations, and to cross the bridges of language and culture to make common cause with other children. There too, they engaged in drama and song, development games and unorganised fun. Many had played truant from their schools to come to the ISF; the Forum taught them much that a classroom never could. On November 11 morning, they had their peak moment when the WSF India organisers hosting the Forum held a plenary conference on ‘Faces and Vision of Children’. Four children spoke out as panelists, taking their place along with Swami Agnivesh, Mira Shiva, Apoorva Anand and others. Ten others presented the declaration they wanted the Forum to support. It was the first fruit of all the State processes of consultation.

That was not all the children did at the Forum. They were everywhere on the Forum campus, asking questions, distributing their demands, watching the drum-beating processions go by, and joining with the marchers, and some of them operating as cub reporters, prowling the grounds for interviews. They asked tough questions. Like “what is this Forum going to achieve for you? Why are you here? Are you supporting us as well?” Working alongside them, and gradually with them as older partners in fact-finding were college students of journalism and political science. For them too, the Forum and its calls for change emerged as a site of hope.

But as in every Forum in the worldwide process, the ISF 2006 has revived the core question that the WSF raises: if ‘another world’ is indeed possible, who is building it? In the days of the Forum, many came forward to try and answer this, for children’s sake. One key conference asked : How will India deliver on children’s entitlements? It framed the question in the context of obligations and accountability. Children filled the hall to hear what the eminent speakers could fund to say.

What they heard was sincere concern, but even more, some controlled anger. Harsh Mander led the panel of experienced development experts calling for the Indian state to acknowledge its answerability. “The biggest problem,” said Mander, “is that there is no outrage at the situation of children; that is what we need to build.”

Clearly, he was right. But clearly, there is so much to do, and India is such a slow learner. Dr Umakant of the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights put the case squarely: “With this pervasive discrimination, what kind of a world are we talking about? If smaller countries can do better than us, we need to think what is wrong with us. Society and government have both failed the Dalit children.” Vidya Reddy of Tulir spoke of sexual abuse of children, in homes and institutions across the country: “There is no safe place for children; why are there no voices on this issue?” Former IAS officer C.P. Sujaya, known for her attempts to improve government services and standards, renewed a call for decentralizing planning and responsibility: “Someone is responsible - then why are they not accountable?” she asked.
It fell to UNICEF’s Cecilio Adorna, a veteran of advocacy and development programming, to ask why there is not more indignation about the present situation of children and their everyday settings of want and denial. “I wonder, when one woman dies every five minutes during childbirth, why is there no indignation? “ He called for monitoring of outcomes, a genuine development of social audit—and an honest commitment to deadlines for change. “The indignation that is evident in the Social Forum should be there in all of India, and that should be our aspiration,” said Adorna.

Anger and indignation indeed, but of what kind? As the Forum began to fold its tents, children and youth met on the final morning to take stock. Interestingly, it was the eve of Children’s Day, with its annual invitation to leaders and citizens to recognise children as the nation’s supreme asset. A single question was posed to those who assembled: What was the message of the India Social Forum? Child after child, youth after youth said what moved them, what they carry forward from the five tempestuous days. Many passersby came into the tent and added their testimonies. Many admitted that they had not only learnt much—but had spoken out for the first time in their lives. Not quite what the newspapers were reporting on the ISF—that it was a sort of carnival. In its own way, the Forum did act as a site of inspiration.

The testimonies of the young, and the wayfarers, speak for themselves:
“ One cannot get solutions while sitting at home. We should work together to solve the problems.”

“This experience will stay with me for the rest of my life. I understood that we should boycott all kinds of discrimination prevailing in the country.”
“Development - together we can proceed, Equality in religion, Awareness for all.”

“I came here with very simple thoughts. I got to learn many things. If we want to act, everything is possible. But hard work is required. Integrity, hard work, respect for diversity, the protection of childhood.”

“ The Forum has taught me that life is not only about partying, going to college or having fun, its definitely more than that. Now I have a clear picture of the people of our country and I have realized that one needs to contribute to society. I have decided that I want to work for the underprivileged or should I call them ‘the children of a Lesser God’ Finally, I am proud to be an Indian.”

“I hope we can build a better world in peace and without fear of war. It has been an unforgettable experience.”
“We all are one.”

“The five words from the Forum are Development, Unity, Liberty, Awareness and Hope. It is no credit to change with time, It is creditable if we change the time in our favour.”

“This Forum taught the true meaning of equality.”

“It ignited a desire to build another world, to do something new.”
“Different languages, different cultures and different communities—India under one roof”.

In the end, with the people at the meeting, looking at each other with awareness of common resolve, a second question: was there a slogan with which to go forward? A young woman who had toiled through the five days as an overworked volunteer spoke up; “Jaage hain, jaagana hai! (We have awoken, we must awaken others!)” They marched out of the tent calling it out. Far off, in the main ISF ground, the closing ceremonies were getting under way. For these hundred people, it did not matter that they were missing the big speeches. They had begun their own journey. It is fitting to acknowledge that they took their first steps at the India Social Forum.

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