Ms. Sheelu Francis, the director of Women’s Collective, had eagerly spoken of the ‘Children’s Panchayat’. This was derived from the Gram Panchayat system which is a type of local-level government which villages operate under. The Children’s Panchayat was established to involve the younger generations of Tamil Nadu’s villages into discussions of awareness, responsibility and welfare. These Panchayats’ have a voted-in president who is a very active senior member. Ms. Francis detailed the workings of these groups with energy and optimism after forlornly describing the difficulty in manoeuvring social shifts with adults. She noted how the effectiveness of these youth forums was immediately evident and impressive. These groups, in their respective villages, meet weekly to analyze local problems, raise money, sing, and dance. Upon hearing the nature of these unions an image of an organized, structured youth parliament was brought to mind; when we went to the Children’s Panchayat of Punnupakkam this presumptuous image dissolved and quite a bit of time was spent dancing.
Within three kilometres of Tiruvallur in the Kanchipuram district of Tamil Nadu you will find the village of Punnupakkam. Never before have I been welcomed with such warmth and enthusiasm than when I had entered this small, agricultural hamlet which had pockets of tiny houses made of varying materials and different colours. We had ventured some hour and a half out of Chennai and had met with the Children’s Panchayat coordinator, Ms. Sagaya Mary, at a welfare building in Tiruvallur. Sagaya Mary wears a wide smile of warmth and speaks in a manner which gains one’s trust instantly. She directed the driver on narrow dirt roads to reach the community nestled between green fields. The pronounced scent of manure hit me in the face as I exited the AC vehicle and entered the uncompromising heat; goats, chickens, and dogs wandered freely, and the girls that had crowded around my sister and I giggled, pointed and smacked each other. Our first encounter with the Punnupakkam Panchayat was punctuated with impromptu dance routines performed in between recollections of the work the group has done. The group has been active in advocating for better construction around the village, appropriate sanitation facilities for the schools, and has been involved in local fundraising to ease the financial stress of tuition and textbooks. The tremendous effort and work put in by the Panchayat was thoroughly understated in their easy-going explanations and constant joking. The meetings generally have no rigid structure, and the group seemed to give off an air of more leisure than focus. However, after passing by the school washrooms they had petitioned for, and observing the saplings they had recently planted, their effectiveness as a youth organization for change became more and more apparent.
When we were taken around the township we were shown the classrooms, the library and were introduced to the few boys who could not make it to the meeting but assured us they would be there next time. The girls who showed us around were between the ages of five and eighteen and were all confident, bold and self-assured. They spoke with clarity and conviction and, without blatantly stating as such, had revealed the enabling capacity of their Panchayat.
Our departure from the village was met with dramatic goodbyes and a slurry of picture taking; they made us promise to return and perform for them, to eat at their houses, and even to stay there. An organic, emotional connection was established between ourselves and the primary members of the Panchayat. Our first encounter with the Children’s Panchayat clearly demonstrated how progress manifests itself in ways which are not altogether explicit, are unfamiliar, but helpful and hopeful nevertheless. The youth from Punnupakkam rekindled a spark of optimism in my seemingly diminishing modern soul: I have seen these villages before, but to interact in and with these conditions added dimensions and a humanism to what I had seen. These people do not need or want my sympathy, they live in a world of contentment: they are satisfied with what they have and are eager to expand what they know. These children are sensitive, capable, and have the potential to become the agents of change we are looking for; they have the perspective and the eagerness, what they need from us is the information.
Our first visit to Punnupakkam initiated a new sort of dialogue on gender and awareness with the Panchayat. Alongside this, these young folk have made quite an impression on us.