Children, youth and adults clambered into the Shaishav bus, faces aglow with excitement. Standing on the outside, I could hear laughter and Gujarati gabbing trickle out the windows. A microphone was activated, two youth volunteers began chanting “End child labour! Sharm karo, sharm karo! (shame, shame!).” Two buses, a mobile health van from the blood bank, and three motorcycles later, the procession began with the wave of a green flag.
This is how Child Rights Week began. Shaishav, the NGO I work for, is a completely participatory organization working for child rights in the slums of Bhavnagar. The entire team spent a week marching into communities shouting slogans against child labour, performing street dramas about the Right to Education Act, handing out flyers about government schemes and Shaishav programs, and facilitating educational activities for children living in the slums. I can give you numbers: 30 slum areas, 41 street plays, 2,500 observers, 29,000 flyers distributed, 1,763 children participated in educational activities in 36 points. Funders want these numbers. INGOs want these numbers. These numbers are accurate (or as accurate as any number could be). I watched a man from the communities team meticulously walk around making tally marks with a clip board.
But do these numbers translate to an impact?
Over half of Shaishav’s staff members reside in Bhavnagar’s slums. They are directly from the community in which they work. These staff members aren’t all adults. They also include members from our children’s collective, Balsena, and our youth collective, Tarunsena. Nobody is forcing them to be here. They volunteer each day because they choose to come. They believe in what we do as an organization.
I was able to step away from my desk for a day to join the team. Drashti, Balsena’s previous president, led the march into each and every slum community. A bright, happy girl in her last year of high school, Drashti’s small and powerful voice projected loudly over the microphone. As we marched into each community, faces peeked out of homes. We motioned for people to join, many trickled behind us.
Once we stopped within a community, team members took turns acting out well-rehearsed parts of a play about the Right to Education Act. Children were engaged in a separate area, making paper hats and watching simple science demonstrations from a volunteer community member. The plays drew large crowds. After each play, the communities team distributed pamphlets. Many people asked follow up questions. Several times, I watched residents of the slums take out their mobile phones and input “1098,” the number for Child Line, a national first responder hotline for vulnerable children.
Child Rights Week culminated with a press conference. The District Collector was invited as our “chief guest,” and several “Bal Dosts” (friends of children) spoke about their experiences advocating for child rights. As a result of this press conference, Shaishav’s message was spread over two state level news channels, all of the local news channels in Bhavnagar as well as three local newspapers.
Buzzwords such as “grassroots development” are thrown around lNGOs and corporate CSR offices without a grasp of how grassroots development works. Shaishav is a perfect example of a grassroots organization. Their staff come straight from the communities in which they work, and they work on an individual level. I fully acknowledge that many grassroots-level NGOs would not exist without funding from these INGOs and corporate CSR offices. However, big offices only see their numbers. But on the ground, the person-to-person education is the real change. The community is taking ownership. They are standing up for what they believe, and fighting for it. These are the change-makers. This is grassroots development.