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Thumbs up for this Caste Panchayat

By Nairita Das

Jalore (Rajasthan), Dec 27 (ANI): In Jalore district, Western Rajasthan, the Caste Panchayat which in the region goes by the name of 'Jati panchayat' is active. It sees itself as a body which by virtue of its influence on the local villagers can impose its views on social issues, on what is moral and yes in a sense lead the way for what it defines as 'common good'.

All of this may sound like a familiar strain to those watching the developments of other such panchayats in the country, which have not just ostracized young boys and girls for daring to love and marry outside the strict definitions of 'gotra' or ' family ties' but pronounced violent judgments within their arena of power, however disputed in strict legal terms.

Mercifully there is difference. Across 16 villages of Aahor block of Jalore, a "Mumkin Hai Committee" has been formed under a local NGO, VIKALP. This has brought together local women, school teachers, Anganwadi workers, ASHA workers and youth of these villages on a common platform with the core objective of making the district "free from domestic violence and girl foeticide".

In Rajasthan, the going for such a platform is bound to be difficult. In many of the rural areas, there is an entrenched mind-set and worse a heinous practice of female foeticide . Child marriage is rampant and girl children are the ones that traditionally denied schooling and kept tied to domesticity.

Amidst this, rather to challenge this, over a period of 16 days, this motley group took out a "Padyatra" across several villages like Kotda, Jethpura, Nosra and Gudarma to raise the issues of child marriage and girl foeticide.

What is interesting is that the change of mindset became apparent from quarters, which have been part of the entrenched system believing in and upholding social practices that infact weigh the girl child down.

Ukaram Dewasi, 50 years old belonging to village Dudiyan in Aahore tehsil in Jalore is a 'Panch'. Over the last one and half months, he had been drawn into the activities and discussions of this Committee, much of which questioned what he had believed, the social mores that were handed down over generations, those he simply did not question. Child marriage for instance, was an accepted part of life in the region and Ukaram did not really have a problem with it. During discussion with the others, all these issues opened up.

For Ukaram, it was a journey into the unknown. His perspective coming the full circle to see the reason why early marriage should be discouraged. The discussions which he was hesitant to join in initially, made him see how the growth and development of the region's girl child depended on her getting an education and the opportunities that arise from it.

The practice of early marriage was in direct confrontation with this growth and effectively obstructed the girls getting an access to education. Over time, Ukaram could see this clearly and on his own raised it at one of the meetings with 'Dewasi' community, where the MLA of Sirohi region Odharam Ji Dewasi and Panch from other communities.

Here Ukaram presented his case which he now completely believed in, in support of girls education and voiced his opposition to child marriage. What was heartening is that he was not parroting any jargon by any NGO group or otherwise. His words sprung deep from his own conviction and a realization of how wrong his views had previously been. Ukaram stated categorically that Child Marriage adversely affects the lives of both the boy and the girl, preventing them from pursuing their education. This break in education affects the girls' life more adversely. Then Ukaram took a quantum leap forward and called for a complete prohibition on Child Marriage, indeed a revolutionary statement given the context and social practices that prevailed.

As expected, it was not well received initially but the power of his own conviction and the dint of his argument helped Ukaram carry the day. What is laudable is that the others in the group also took the step forward to not only question social mores but actually transform their own outlook and come out not only with a statement of support but a commitment to carry it forward.

After what was an expectedly prolonged debate, all members came to a common understanding and accepted the proposal of Ukaram Ji.

They took the step to pass a resolution, which stated, "no parent would encourage child marriage in his own family". "If any family allows the girl's marriage before 18 years of age and boy's marriage before 21 years of age, the Dewasi community would impose a fine worth Rs 50,000 on the concerned family". In what is clearly of importance in the region, the resolution goes on to add "The guilty family will also have to make available at least two jute bags of wheat for pigeons food".

In the case of Jalore district, it is one man who could see light, who transformed himself to open the way to a larger social transformation. The efforts of Vikalp in the region, the local forum ' Mumkin Hai' which came together to first visualize and then take action towards a better deal for its girl children came to a fruition with this one man.

If this can be done in one region, changing the perceptions of one person, surely the light can spread, according to the Charkha Development Communication Network. It is perhaps this transformation, which is more enduring than any top-down programmes, which seek to impose rather than co-opt the local people in social change.

Ukaram himself is a happy man, a man at peace with his conscience. He is grateful for the platform he got and says that opened his eyes and made him aware of the "darker side of the child marriage" He is quite clear that he would put his energy in ensuring that no parent encourages what he terms as a " social evil which spoils the life of tender-aged boys and girl in the region". By Usha Chowdhary (ANI)

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