The small village of Thazhaiyattam in Gudiyattam panchayat in Tamil Nadu’s parched district of Vellore is likely to be overlooked as yet another nondescript rural hamlet that dot the state. But an intriguing political initiative is taking shape here, giving a new spin to the term ‘grassroots politics’.
A group of young women have come together to spread the message of democracy and rights in Thazhaiyattam and its neighboring villages like Ananganallur, Melallattur and Gudanagaram, among others. They get young people to speak about the promises they want their political leaders to fulfill, initiate lively discussions on the various social and governance problems they are up against, and even motivate them to come forward and join local panchayat bodies.
Undertaking such interactive public service hasn’t been easy for these girls, considering that their conservative, patriarchal families expect them to remain unseen and unheard. But they have been drawing inspiration from Dinesh Gajendran, a young social activist, who hails from Gudiyattam village and heads the Audacious Dreams Foundation (ADF), that is engaging, enabling and empowering the youth for sustainable development. The organization works on many issues, including education, rural development, policy making, adolescent health, environment, women’s empowerment, social entrepreneurship and vocational training, in addition to running professional and vocational training institutes in the district.
It was through a vocational training centre ADF runs in Thazhaiyattam that these rural girls first began to get a hang of the concept of participatory democracy. They have learnt how the panchayat council functions, the processes involved in policy making at the village level, and what the UN Millennium Development Goals are about. Today, all this knowledge is enabling them to contribute towards the creation of a national crowd sourced youth manifesto, as part of the ‘My Space My unManifesto’ campaign that is underway in 15 states across India. As a partner in the movement, 60 ADF girl volunteers, in the age group of 17 and 25 years, are spearheading the campaign in their villages, collecting ‘promises’ – on paper and on camera – about what the youth would like to see in the manifestos prepared by the political parties in the run up to the 2014 general elections.
Suganya, 19, is the face of the movement in her Agarancheri village. Currently studying to become a nurse, she leaves home every day at 7 am to reach the Narayani Hospital and Research Institute at Vellore where she is doing her internship and is never back before 9 pm. Yet, come the weekends and this gritty young woman is out on door-to-door rounds collecting promises for the youth manifesto, in addition to conducting out-of-classroom sessions with local school children and youth on public interest issues.
Popularly called an ‘activist’ in her village, she is also a member of the Village Education Council. But Suganya was not always so outgoing or well informed. She says, “These days, our village councillor is very supportive of my initiative and even my parents are proud of me. But I have changed after I joined the ADF centre. Earlier, I had no idea about politics or the world outside my home.”
According to this vocal young citizen, the promise she would like to see in manifestos is an impetus to agriculture. Suganya elaborates, “Like elsewhere in the country, unemployment as well as underemployment are major challenges for village youth. Farming is the mainstay of the rural economy although we all know it does not provide enough to sustain families. So, in addition to providing a boost to that sector, I would like to see more self employment opportunities being created for young people within the village. After all, many are running their homes by tilling the land as well as doing odd jobs.”
Though Suganya does have her political ambitions, she’s not quite sure how she will break into this sector and hopes her “public service” will make a difference. G. Vijitha, 22, who lives in Gudiyattam, however, has definite plans to become a Ward member of her panchayat before she turns 25. Her life has had its share of struggles. After she completed high school she was forced to sit at home for four years because financial problems prevented her from pursuing her higher education. Not one to take things lying down, she worked at the local Primary Health Centre and managed to save enough money to enroll in the Audacious Dream’s Nursing Institute in 2012.
In her second year of nursing now, she is also an active member of the Village Education Council and the local School Management Committee. “I tell high school and higher secondary school children about the unManifesto campaign and through them I get to meet their families and spread the word on how a democracy works and what are their rights and duties as voters. Politics has become a personal concern now and I regard it as much of an issue as my household finances. I aspire to become a member of Gudiyattam panchayat as I want to work for the people. I would like install street lights and ensure a toilet in every home,” she says.
Of course, for these women discussing politics with random strangers or even neighbors is challenging. “As I broach the subject of governance and voting and talk about the unManifesto campaign, many people raise their eyebrows at first. Yet, once they understand the idea behind it, most get enthused and become very responsive,” elaborates Vijitha.
From the promises she has collected so far, she infers that primary demand on the wish list of village youth is the provision of compulsory and accessible higher education. Not everybody can go to a town and live alone to study further. As Vijitha puts it, “Loans to fund higher education are not a feasible option for many of us either, because we don’t have the property to show as collateral.”
Like Vijitha and Suganya, E. Mohanapriya, 20, a member of Ponnampatti village’s Village Education Council and School Management Committee, is keen to see that as many youth voices as possible get included in the manifesto. She says, “Some people try to shut us up when we talk about how the young need to have a say in local government. But, in my experience, as the dialogue continues, most people do recognize the importance of our activism.”
ADF’s Dinesh Gajendran, who has been encouraging these girls in this campaign, is convinced that as more and more youngsters realize the need to enter politics, the times will change. “We need power to create change in our society. Politics gives you that power. I decided that I could at least begin at the grassroots level, making use of whatever opportunities that I get,” he says. Incidentally, Gajendran is a ward councilor in the Gudiyattam panchayat after beating candidates from established political parties in the 2011 panchayat elections. Since then, he has been strengthening women’s self help groups in the area and has established two vocational training institutes for adolescent girls and school dropouts.
Ask him about the aspirations that rural youth harbor and Gajendran will reveal many insights. Says he, “If you speak with girls and women they are concerned about early marriage that is still prevalent in these areas. They talk about gender equality and want to see an end to child labor.” In Vellore district, the beedi, lungi and leather industries still employ many children to work in their units despite the law.
The 2014 elections might turn out to be a watershed moment in the history of Indian democracy. Nearly 50 per cent of the population is below 25 years of age and. obviously, this unprecedented number of young voters will play a crucial role in the outcome. Ignoring their voices is no longer an option.
By arrangement with WFS