It's a wonderfully upside-down world in the villages around Tilonia, two hours' drive west from the fabled "pink city" of Jaipur. The feudal maharajahs have fled, and the children hold court in a ruined fort where the Rajput landlords once lived. Their parliament is the first of its kind anywhere. The adults function as civil servants; their children, aged 11 to 14, are MPs. The parents seem happy to cede power to their offspring, many of whom work all day and go to school at night, since the free night schools are the only chance of an education for most shepherds and farm labourers. In another reversal of roles, the pupils keep a register of their teachers' attendance and report truant teachers to their parliament.
The parliament, Bal Sansad in Hindi, is a development of the 60 night schools established in the district of Ajmer. The schools, which number 2,500 pupils, aged six to 14, were set up by a local voluntary organisation, the Social Work and Research Centre (SWRC), at Tilonia. Britain's Save the Children supports 15 of them, including the school at Kalipal which Laxmi Devi attends.
SWRC, or "The Barefoot College", is well-known for promoting self-help among rural people, and the principle of learning by doing. It launched the parliament as an experiment in teaching children about politics and the electoral process. The experiment seems to be a success: it has inspired similar ventures in nine other states across India.
The young MPs, from two parties, Ujala, which means "Light", and Gauval, meaning "Shepherd", are voted into office by other children in a totally pukka election. They have the power to help govern their schools, fire teachers who are not up to scratch, push for village improvements such as water pumps and solar-powered lighting, organise special children's festivals - as light relief from farm work - and generally make sure that children have a say in every aspect of village life. They are about to launch their own magazine, to keep the children of the desert informed about their rights and about local politics.
I was sceptical of the claim that they can fire teachers, but Prem Devi, the 12-year-old Chief Minister of the ruling Ujala party and a shepherd girl from Sargaon village night school - told me that she had got rid of a teacher from Sargaon when she was Transport Minister in the last parliament. "The teacher was not very good - he didn't pay attention to the children; he'd sleep, and sit and chat with other people in the village, that sort of thing. So we got rid of him." MPs must make regular inspections of night schools to check that everything is working well; that is how this teacher's errant behaviour was picked up. Equally, the MPs report back on any misbehaviour by the children.
What is amazing is that, in a patriarchal society which outsiders may see as "traditional" and "backward", parents, teachers and local officials have relinquished so much of their power to children, many of them girls. It would be hard to imagine adults in Britain feeling so unthreatened. Tejaram, the development coordinator of SWRC, who once taught at night school, says: "Through working with children for the past 20 years, we know they're capable of taking their own decisions. We hope that adults will come to understand and accept this."
But, in the early days, there was undoubted opposition, especially from the teachers themselves, who didn't like the fact that children could mark them down as absent: "When children begin to challenge you, adults get uptight. We feel insecure and threatened. Adults could construe what happens in the parliament - children's challenging behaviour - as a sign of lack of respect." The hierarchy of Indian society is based upon respect, which binds people together but also threatens free expression, especially by children.
There was also initial hostility to the focus on educating girls. "We're working, for example, with the former Prime Minister, Kaushalya Devi," says Tejaram, "and her parents feel uneasy. They're asking: 'OK, haven't you finished with her? Now let her go to her in-laws' house.'" Children in Rajasthan are usually married off when they're very young, but a girl does not join her husband's family until she is 15 or 16.
The parliament is designed to teach children that democracy should be above gender, caste and creed. Under its influence, these girls, in particular the government ministers and members of the Shadow Cabinet, are challenging received ideas about female accomplishment. At the session I attended, a sharp exchange between the Prime Minister Laxmi Devi and Madhu Devi, an opposition MP, was the classic stuff of Commons Question Time. "Earlier, I made the same suggestions as the Prime Minister has just done and nobody agreed with me!" cried Madhu. "How come? Does the opposition have no standing?"
These girls may not have travelled far from the village - Laxmi has never even been to Jaipur - but they are already in a different league to their illiterate mothers who work at home and on the land. Former night school girls have gone on to vocational training in non-traditional subjects such as motor repair mechanics. The mothers seem pleased about their daughters' advancement. Badam, Laxmi's mother, says: "I'm happy that she knows how things work at such a young age. The way she speaks now, the way she conducts herself - there's a big difference. She has become more mature."
Laxmi has been in power since June 1995, and heads a nine-strong Cabinet, whose portfolios range from finance and education through to water resources and women's development.
"My parliamentary work takes up about five or six days a month," says Laxmi, brushing straw from her frock. "I organise meetings, inspect night schools, look at the budget and take to task any ministers who have not been attending to their duties." She has a fearsome reputation for discipline, and for putting down adults who displease her, which made me nervous; when she gave me a goodbye gift of two bunches of home-grown carrots, I reckoned I had passed a test.
Night schools are clearly dear to her heart. "We can only study at night, and these schools give us an opportunity." Her working day begins at 6am with household chores, and may not end till midnight after a night sitting in parliament. What about time to play? "There's plenty of time to play with the cattle," she replies, clearly puzzled by the question. "You run around and play with them. And your friends do the same."
Like all the children I spoke to, she says she wants to carry on being a shepherd once she leaves school. This puts a different spin on the issue of child labour, in a country which has the largest number of child workers in the world - 44 million, according to figures from the International Labour Organisation. But in this setting, where children are not coerced into working for outside employers, should we call this contribution to the family economy child exploitation - or is it participation by young stake-holders in their own community?
In the West, life is seen as a straight line from cradle to grave; in Indian philosophy, it is a cycle governed by the laws of karma. Thus, in Rajasthan society, children are not seen as a separate or lesser category of person. The Western concept of coming of age at 18 is meaningless: most people don't know how old they are. Maybe an outsider's surprise at the maturity of these children playing "adult" roles in work and politics says more about Western prejudices, against children and their capabilities, than it does about the grass-roots reality of desert life.
Among the Masai of East Africa, you also see stock-herders as young as five guarding cattle against lions with the aid of a little stick and a lot of bottle: their responsibilities and outlook are not "childlike". In Calcutta and Delhi, there are street children, incredibly spunky, articulate survivors, earning adult wages while scorning adult intervention in their lives. We in the West may feel sympathy for the shepherds of Rajasthan; to their country men, it is just a way of life.
In the ruined fort at the village of Chota Naraina, the sun is going down on another meeting of the children's parliament. Everyone is seated on the ground before the floodlit ramparts, with scores of barefoot village children in the "public gallery" in front. Seated at a respectful distance behind the Cabinet and Shadow Cabinet, are the adults, the civil servants. "It's democracy in the cradle of feudalism," quips Susan Abraham, another SWRC worker involved with the children.
The discussion includes a debate about whether to include obituaries in the magazine they are planning; a debate about the principle of charging for medicines (night school pupils are given them free); and an enquiry into why a promised hand pump has not been installed in one village. An argument breaks out over an old teacher who can't control his class. "The children are all over the place, swinging on swings in the middle of the night," cries an indignant Laxmi. "What the hell are the children swinging for? They have just three hours for lessons - they can swing any time they like to."
Dev Karan, the Speaker, is already dropping off, but Laxmi Devi is just getting into her stride; it is, after all, only 11.30pm.
Decked out in turban, gold necklaces and earrings, Dev Karan (above), a shy 12-year-old, is Speaker of the children's parliament at Tilonia, when not minding his father's flocks. Being a good Speaker, he says, means giving other children the chance to address parliament and generally air an opinion without adults butting in. "Only children should speak. If you start speaking, what will we learn?
"There was a meeting last year where we had a workshop, and we were also doing the parliamentary budgets. Adults talked a lot; they didn't give us a chance to speak. I don't think that should be allowed."
His father, Panchu Lal - a bigger version, a larger turban - smiles indulgently. Panchu Lal is a subsistence farmer and night school teacher in the village of Sargaon. Like the shepherd children who study after dark, he and his colleagues also work round the clock. The school is held in his home because there is no other suitable building available. Thus his son is also his pupil.
In his fields at sundown, tending his father's sheep and goats, Dev Karan is like any other tongue-tied youngster on the brink of adolescence. But when you see him in action in parliament, the child is transformed, giving orders - "Please raise your hand when you speak" - and calling adult civil servants to account. When a row breaks out, he rebukes a young minister: "This discussion is becoming totally illogical. I will send the Prime Minister to meet your parents, but after that I will not stand any indifference or uncooperativeness on your part."
Is the Prime Minister powerful enough to make changes? "What we decide is what happens," says Dev Karan firmly. "We want to see that our schools are well equipped and that all children are attending. And, if the school is well equipped but the children are not studying, then there's something wrong.
"Sometimes a teacher is a tyrant and doesn't handle children well, or even beats them. We report things like this to Hanuman Singh, our education coordinator."
Being Speaker can't be all rosy. I ask if children hassle him for help. "There are no problems," he says instantly. Prem Devi, the Chief Minister, disagrees: "That's not true. We need a clock in our school. We told Dev Karan, 'You are such a big man now. Why don't you get us one?' We've also criticised him for not doing something about the roof - we have to make do with plastic."
Mr Speaker looks sheepish, and changes the subject. He'll go far in politics. Surprisingly, though, like most children here, he lacks great ambition. "I want to study to Class Five," he says; "then I'm going to go back to what I was doing anyway, looking after the sheep and goats." Prem Devi, too, lists her ambitions as "fields, goats, my home".
So what is the point in studying if they only want to be shepherds? "So people like Tejaram [the development coordinator of SWRC] don't cheat us out of our money," jokes Dev Karan.
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