When Rohini Richard Marri was 13 or 14 years old, she remembers crossing an area filled with dirty gutter water on her way to school each day in Uttan village, Thane district.
She and the other children contracted rashes on their legs because of the dirty water, and complained to their parents. The gutter water had also merged with the water of a well where people washed clothes and utensils. But no action was taken to clean the area.
Rohini and a group of other children discussed the matter in a children's parliament and in school. They decided to take things in their own hands. With help from a teacher, Rohini penned a letter to the local municipal councillor with the signatures of 50 children. The letter asked the municipal authorities to immediately clean the gutter.
"We also wrote that if no action was taken, the children themselves would clean the gutter, but bore no responsibility if any harm came to them," says Rohini, adding that within three days, workers arrived to clean the area. The children also informed their neighbours that they should not litter the streets and dispose garbage only in designated municipality bins.
Reflecting on her actions, Rohini says that if adults had intervened, the authorities would have still responded. "But since nobody stepped forward, the children decided to do something themselves. We were appreciated for our actions," she says.
However, Rohini's parents were not convinced that the authorities would pay heed to the children. "But they did not stop me either. After some time, they became impressed with my confidence, and that I had become capable of speaking up for justice. They have started sending my younger brother to attend the parliament as well."
Now, Rohini leads the children's parliament which was started by the Centre for Social Action (CSA) in 2010. She joined the group in 2012. She says, "Initially, I thought this was a place to come and play. But in the parliament, we began realising our duties and responsibilities, and that children have a role in bringing about social change."
In comparison to school, Rohini prefers the children's parliament because she feels that only bright and expressive children manage to progress in school, whereas in parliament, everyone is given a chance. "I feel more confident. I also dress neatly and comb my hair before attending the parliament which I would not do earlier."
Two years ago, the parliament tried to take action against an alcoholic man who would beat his wife and children who were also irregular in school. Roshni, her tuition teacher and 30 children of the parliament went to the man's house and warned him not to hit the wife and children; else they would approach the police. According to the teacher, this seems to have worked. "I think the man has stopped beating up his children. And now, they come to school regularly too."
The children's parliament has also conducted awareness visits to a police station, a post office, and an orphanage. Rohini loves to go out with her friends and play. But until recently, her parents would ask her to stay at home and study. "We tell them that as children, it is our right to play," her otherwise serious and thoughtful face breaks into a smile as she says this.
Now that she is an adult, she notices that her mother treats her differently."Earlier, I would be ordered to go to tuition, study, etc. But now, my mother says that I must decide what I want to do," she says, agreeing that the rights of a child and recently turned adult are different. She also thinks that humans are born with intrinsic rights.
Rohini has an aptitude for maths and wants to teach the subject for which she plans to enrol in a teaching course. Are her parents asking her to get married, now that she is 18?
"No. I will marry later. In our community, girls marry at 27-28 years of age," she says.
The views expressed in the above article are that of Urvashi Sarkar of Charkha Development Communication Network.
( With inputs from ANI )