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Youth volunteers become elected representatives

© UNICEF/ 2008
Shivaji Gawali, Field Coordinator, SATH, Ujani PHC

Latur district, Maharshtra: Gram Panchayat (local governance) functioning in Birvali village, Latur district in Maharashtra state has undergone tremendous change. Today people’s views are taken into consideration and participatory decision making is followed as a principle. Dnyaneshwar Garad, a youth volunteer who is now a Deputy Sarpanch (village head) says, “Earlier local leaders kept villagers in the dark even on matters related to them. Village meetings were held as a mere formality.” This, however, has changed ever since a youth group headed by Dnyaneshwar got elected during the Gram Panchayat elections in July 2007.

Dnyaneshwar and his friends got a new identity as village volunteers in 2005, when they became part of a participatory planning exercise called Village Planning (VP). Executed by UNICEF in collaboration with a non government organization SATH and Latur district administration, the five-day VP process motivated youth in Biravali to work towards development of their village. Within two years the youth group gained visible leadership in the village and won the trust of people, to become elected representatives.

Like Birwali there are a number of villages where the VP process has triggered youth activism and honed their leadership skills to engage with social as well as governance issues. UNICEF has carried out VP extensively in three integrated districts - Latur, Chandrapur and Nandurbar in Maharashtra.  In the district of Chandrapur, approximately 20 percent of the elected representatives are from the volunteers’ cadre and as expected, these youth have prioritized issues related to children and the weaker sections in their action plan. 

Dnyaneshwar recalls how they took up the problem of village cleanliness in the beginning. “We initiated a sanitation campaign in the village and appealed to people to build soak pits and use toilets” he says. A few people did cooperate but not everyone responded in a positive manner. Some were very reluctant to the extent of opposing youth activity in every possible way.  “A few people deliberately spread their wastewater on roads causing inconvenience to passers by” remember the youth. But they continued their activities, banking on the support they received, which gradually kept growing. 

To garner better support for their activities, the youth group decided to contest the Gram Panchayat elections.  Says Dnyaneshwar “We thought that being in power would help us do our developmental activities more effectively and with greater participation.” The nine-member youth panel got elected in July 2007 and has taken up several local issues, especially those identified in the Village Action Plan prepared in the VP process.

The group identified 16 irregular students in the local school and provided them special coaching to catch up with studies. Now all are attending school regularly.

The newly elected body has also worked to improve people’s response to health services on the one hand, while making service providers accountable and responsive on the other. “Villagers faced problems in getting health services on time since the nurse on duty was not stationed in the sub centre. We resolved her problem of a resident quarter and the centre now functions efficiently.  We also make public announcements about immunization one day prior to the session so that parents remember to bring their children” continues Dnyaneshwar.  

The youth group is equally concerned about quality of health care and timely service. On one occasion the medicines did not reach in time and beneficiaries had to wait for over three hours.  Such incidences are a thing of the past. 

Youth volunteers have also worked to improve the response to services provided by the local Aanganwadi (child care) Centres. By explaining the relevance and importance of regular weighing and nutritious food, the youth have convinced parents of the long term benefits for their young children when they regularly attend the AWC.

Apart from streamlining health services, the young elected representatives have also taken up other critical issues. Eight families in the village had toilets but none were being used. Open defecation was a common practice. The youth group first convinced the owners of these toilets to use them. Subsequently other villagers got motivated and now there are over 80 new toilets built and in use within a span of one year.

Villagers respond positively to various initiatives as they find the present Panchayat members more trustworthy. Women’s participation in village meetings has also increased considerably. Dnyaneshwar and his co-members have recently set up a Village Information Centre in the gram panchayat building to further build capacities of the villagers to participate and contribute to the decisions that affect their lives. The road ahead is long but the journey is well begun.

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