When the Little Ones Run the Show

By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, May 14, 2009

VARANASI, India, May 13 -- As one of the most popular political figures in this impoverished northeastern Indian city, Tazim Ali fields round-the-clock cellphone calls about such everyday problems as child hunger, domestic violence and caste discrimination.

The only thing that's unusual is that Tazim is 9.

He's the 4-foot-tall president of the Varanasi children's parliament, the first body of its kind in India, which -- with 75 percent of its population younger than 35 -- is one of the world's most youthful nations. Tazim keeps his cellphone by his side all night and listens to reports of problems such as children falling down uncovered manholes, forced early marriages and sexual abuse by relatives and teachers.

"I was called recently because a 2-year-old girl didn't have enough food. She ended up dying," said the fourth-grader, who appears grave beyond his years with his neatly parted, wavy brown hair and ramrod-straight posture. "We can get people to pay attention to us. We brought the case to the police. They saw we were serious and didn't want to turn children away. I think any kid who has a problem should call me."

With its passionate leaders and reputation for prompt action, the four-member children's parliament is not just a cute idea. It has become an example of honest, functional politics, and the excitement it inspires contrasts sharply with the disillusionment that many adults here say they feel about their politicians. Turnout in India's month-long elections hovered below 60 percent, surprising many pundits, who had predicted that text-message campaigns, campus rallies and voter drives by Bollywood stars would propel more people to the polls.

Analysts say that many Indians deeply mistrust their political representatives, who are often referred to as bahubalis -- strongmen. Nearly a quarter of the 543 elected members of Parliament have been charged with crimes, including rape and murder, according to the New Delhi-based Association for Democratic Reforms.

Although 880 million Indians struggle to get by on less than $2 a day, members of Parliament running for reelection this year have grown almost 300 percent richer on average since the previous poll, in 2004, according to a study of lawmakers' assets released this week by National Election Watch, a coalition of nongovernmental organizations. The staggered voting ended Wednesday, and election results are due this weekend.

Meanwhile, the Varanasi children's parliament drew a turnout of 95 percent in June in its first-ever elections. With its strict campaign rules, it is also a shining model of clean politics. Candy and cookies are banned. Candidates can spend only about $10 on posters. There's a minimum voting age: 6. And a maximum: 13. Winners are limited to a single term in office.

The children's parliament promotes social diversity, as well. Last year, Tazim, who is from a Muslim family of sari weavers, was elected along with an 8-year-old Hindu girl who worked as a ragpicker. The members meet every Sunday and hold monthly meetings at which thousands of children often show up. They hope to replicate their effort across India in coming months.

"Doctors go to medical school. Engineers study science. But in India, politicians don't get any training," said Rajeev Srivastava of Vishal Bharat Sansthan, the nonprofit organization that founded the children's parliament. "We wanted to create training for the next generation so they can learn to be honest political leaders."

Srivastava came up with the idea of a platform where children could voice their problems after he spent time with child ragpickers and saw a girl being sexually abused.

"Sometimes children can't always go to their parents with a problem," said Srivastava, who sat with the children on a recent evening as they watched the news and cartoons on TV. "It was a crime not to figure out a way to give them a voice."

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