Kathyayini Chamaraj – Board Member – Citizens Voluntary Initiative for the City (CIVIC)

Posted December 13, 2019 2:27 pm by

It is one thing for us to be mesmerized by the West and be ashamed of state of affairs in our own country. It is another to be inspired by the West and bring about positive change in our environment by embracing ourselves as we are. This merits courage, determination, patience, passion and focus on the big picture ahead with blinders on!

Meet Ms Kathyayini Chamaraj from CIVIC!

THE WONDER YEARS

I was born and brought up in Mysuru and consider myself a Mysorean although I live in Bangalore now. My initial schooling was at Christ The King Convent School, Mysore. I have had the fortune of being given good education in Christian missionary schools. I was also part of a convent high school at Hubli as well. When we shifted to Bangalore, I was at Baldwin Girls’ High School. 

All these schools laid the foundation of discipline, sincerity and honesty in me. And then, there was my father and his brothers too. They were government service officers, well reputed for their honesty and absolutely free from corruption. Hence, I had firm grounding with respect to values and that is what I pass on to the children I associate with today.

I am lucky that though my father could not afford private education for me, he made sure that we got good education. This is in no way to deride our government schools but the Christian institutions, in our country, have laid strong foundation for education.

I received a Science talent scholarship for my undergraduate studies and did my Honours in Chemistry at the Central College, Bangalore. Later on, I felt that Science was not really my space and I did a course in Bachelors in Education.

THE EXPOSURE

Next, my parents got me married and my husband happened to be working in Germany and so, I began a new chapter of my life in Germany.I couldn’t teach there because I did not know the German language. I did clerical work there.

When in Germany, I saw, heard and imbibed the dignity of labour. Irrespective of the work one does, every human being gets treated with respect. The transformation and the spark that these little observations leave in you are remarkable. The egalitarianism there inspired me.

Another aspect about the European countries that left me mesmerized is the cleanliness and the attention to detail in terms of infrastructure. I yearned for the same in my country.

THE COMING BACK

We came back to Bangalore after 11 years and by then I had 2 children. Once my children began school, I felt like doing something for my country and for my city. With that thought, I went back to University and did a course in journalism.

During that period, I did my internship with Deccan Herald and so, got to write my first article in the Deccan Herald newspaper. My heart felt the plight of workers in India. After being accustomed to the dignity of labour in Germany for a long period of my life, the inequality I saw here in India cried out loud to me – it left me shocked.

DO WHAT YOU HAVE TO

I decided to use the tool I had. I began writing about the state of unorganized labour in our country. Concomitantly, I saw child labour at play, which was totally against any concept of child rights. Hence, my writings reflected child labour as well.

I believed that if only primary education was made a right then we could curb child labour as well. Gratefully, these ideas were backed by Child Society Organizations and we finally got the Right to Education Act in our country.

Likewise, I was also very much bothered about the lack of basic infrastructure in our city which fell behind in providing good services to the citizens. The garbage lying around, broken footpaths, roads etc. drove me to do something that can bring about change. And so, I began voicing our urban civic issues as well through articles.

Around the same time, the Central Government passed the 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendments. Per that, the urban and rural local bodies should be strengthened to empower citizens and encourage their participation in urban governments. Citizen participation should enable greater transparency and accountability in the urban and rural governments.

It so happened that in Bangalore a group of citizens were working on this very concept of enabling citizen participation and they formed a trust called Citizens Voluntary Initiatives for the City (CIVIC).

CIVIC

I began writing about the activities of CIVIC and their initiatives to empower citizens so as to actualize the 74th Amendment in our city. So keen was I on urban issues that I was roped in to become CIVIC trustee. In 2005, I was given the responsibility of being the executive trustee of CIVIC. I have been working as their executive trustee. Earlier CIVIC used to work a lot with the affluent groups in Bangalore who are members of the resident welfare associations.

Once I took up the role of trustee I realised that working with just the affluent groups alone does not help the urban governments. I realised the need to work with the urban poor because that is where the inequalities exist. So, we started working on the Right to Food, Health, Education, Housing and Social Security for the urban poor in about 10 slums in Bangalore.

We enlightened the slum dwellers about their rights. Majority of them being illiterate, they weren’t aware that such things existed. They didn’t know what to demand from a ration storekeeper and would come away listening to whatever they were told by the store keeper. There was power play everywhere and their illiteracy and lack of awareness was taken advantage of.

So, by creating awareness they were empowered to question the ration store keepers. They realized that they could go to ration stores any day and not just two days a week like the store keeper claimed.

Likewise, we worked in schools, hospitals and their social security pensions etc. We would organize these awareness programs and once they knew their rights, we would invite officials responsible for that area to come and address the grievances of the slum dwellers. Most of the citizen charter departments had Agreements Retrieval Systems built into the citizen charter. But, the common men hardly knew all this and hence never demanded the Agreements Redressal. Hence, the officials got away saying people were happy because there aren’t any reported grievances.

When we brought local officials face to face, the slum dwellers voiced their grievances and demanded their entitlements. The food inspector, for instance, would be called to address a Grievance Redressal meeting in the slum and so he would understand and realize the issues that would come under his bracket. For instance, the flaws of the local ration store keepers’ practices like not keeping the shop open, not producing bills, inadequate supply of grains, etc. would get addressed because officials would make commitments in a public meeting to set things right.

There is magic in bringing things out in the open because it would prompt people to take drastic steps against people who didn’t perform their duties, like fining ration store keepers or cancelling their licenses, if required. The local people were thus, empowered to demand their rights and settle their issues locally without having to go the CM or Commissioner with their grievances. That is the very basis of the 74th Amendment.

Very often in hospitals, doctors would be asked to come and address the slum dwellers to understand their grievances in terms of health support. In this forum, issues like bribe requests at hospitals, treatment refusals, maternity benefit refusals, etc. came into the open. 

In the interim, we realised broader systemic issues which needed higher authority levels for correction. We began researching along with NGO networks spread across the city like the Right to Food campaign in Karnataka – we were the conveners for this campaign in Bangalore district. With the findings we would conduct public hearings i.e., bring the highest officials of the department to public meetings wherein we would present our findings about the state of affairs of a specific department – the food department, the health department or the education department.

Openly, we would request policy changes to address these systemic issues. For instance, we found that most people who were genuinely poor were getting above poverty line ration cards when they deserved better. We analysed the entire criteria to determine who was above and below poverty line. These findings were presented to the Chief Minister.We then found that Rs 9 was considered as a limit for someone to be declared as below poverty line in a city like Bangalore, where it is highly popular that nobody could survive on Rs 9/-.

This also shed light on the fact that people who did produce poverty certificates gained them under the influence of bribes. Our demand stated that those who pay income tax or government servants, owning 4 wheelers etc. should be excluded from the Right to Food act. These recommendations were accepted by the Government and hence we could bring about some systemic policy changes for the benefit of the entire state. 

Another area we worked on was old age disability and widow pensions which people struggled to get. We also worked with the Construction Workers’ Welfare Board to make sure all construction workers got registered and got their rights.Working with the unorganized Sector Social Security Board, we found that it totally lacked in service. We produced an alternative bill to provide Universal social security for everybody in the state. This bill, however, is still lying in some Government cupboard and has not yet been brought into effect. 

RIGHT TO EDUCATION – A RIGHT TO LIFE

Another elephant in the room was the issue of out-of-school children. This was one issue bothering me for a long time. Since I wrote extensively on child labour, one Labour Commissioner, in 1999, called me to work with him to develop a state-level action plan on child labour.

The plan was accepted by the government and also released by the Chief Minister. But, of course, there were a lot of loop holes by the time we got to the implementing stage due to which it flawed.

Gratefully, when another labour commissioner came in 2004, I was yet again to work on the action plan. I produced another plan, which also with the government but again it did not get implemented.

No efforts get wasted and my efforts in this front bore fruit in 2013.That year, The Hindu reported that about 54,000 children are out-of-school children in the state of Karnataka.

The then Karnataka Chief Justice, Mr Waghela, happened to read the report and took up a Suo Motu Public Interest Litigation (PIL) with respect to the out-of-school children. He sent a notice to the Chief Secretary the very next day seeking an explanation. When I read about this Suo Motu PIL in the papers, I decided to get involved in this because it seemed to be the light across the tunnel I had been seeking.

I sent an impleading application to Justice Waghela seeking permission to be a party in person in this case. He kindly accepted my request and I was designated as a part in person in the case. As a party in person, I made several submissions to the court and I brought to light that 54,000 was a rather underestimated figure. My research showed that between 2002-2010, among the 78 lakh students that got enrolled in standard 1, and more than 6 lakh children were missing in the rolls of the education department, in standard 2. This has to be justified.

Shocked as he was at seeing these numbers, Justice Waghela instructed the Education Department to conduct a household survey of every household in the state to come up with an actual figure of out of school children’s count. They had to conduct a survey in more than 1 crore households across the state and they observed 6 lakh to be a false figure. The reason being that the same child got enrolled in several schools at the same time! They came up with a 1.67 crores to be the actual drop out figure. This included non-enrolled children as well.

The Chief Justice then asked them to work on it so that the number gets to zero or closest to zero. He also instructed them to heed to my suggestions to get this on track. And hence a high powered committee was set up – an inter-departmental coordination committee headed by the chief secretary who could listen to our suggestions and give us feedback with the suggestions they accepted, reporting how they were going about it. The court ordered this committee to meet every month in order to monitor and review the out of school children data.

We highlighted to the Government that currently, an out-of-school child is defined as a child who did not attend school continuously for 60 days – unexcused absence of 60 days until the end of the academic year. The education department did not have a preventive approach. They only had this curative approach of looking for the child at the end of the year, after being missing for 120 days. But if a child is out of school for more than 120 days or so, the child would have either got into child labour, bad company or even trapped or married off. So, they were giving room for all these social evils to prevail because of the lack of the preventive approach.

So, we suggested a change in the definition for school drop-outs and making someone accountable for every child coming to school. 

According to the Supreme Court, the right to education is part and parcel of the right to life of a child under article 21 A. Per that, if a child is out of school, and that in turn is a deprivation of right to life then someone needs to be held accountable.

The State has to be responsible if any person is deprived of their right to life. So, we got the government to redefine a school drop-out to “a child with an unexcused absence of 7 days”. If the child doesn’t come to school for 7 days itself, the headmaster has to report to a designated official. We got an official to be designated as an attendance authority who would be held responsible for every child that is out of school. This person is expected to follow a protocol to bring the child back to school within a time frame.

He had to make enquiries with the family for the reason behind the child missing school and issue an attendance notice to the child or parent. Despite getting the notice, if the child does not come back to school within 3 days, he had to issue the parents an attendance order and make sure that the parents and child appeared before the Child Welfare Committee at the district level. The Committee would then dig in to understand the reasons behind the child’s absenteeism. It could be socio-economic reasons; it could be the lack of an Anganvadi in the area, etc. The Child Welfare Committee could convert the services of several departments either the social welfare, the labor department or any other department to enable the parents to send the child to school. Despite all the assistance given to parents, if the child is still not sent, then the last resort would be for the Child Welfare Committee to take charge of the child and place the child in a free residential school or a fit institution as per the Juvenile Justice Act. Only the Child Welfare Committee has the authority to take charge of a child. 

This protocol was encompassed in 6A, 6B, 6C and 6D or the rules, for the first time in the country, implementing the United Nations Convention on the Rights of a Child. The provisions of the UNCRC Articles 9, 12, 19, 28 and 32 state that if a parent is unable to fulfil the rights of a child, the State has to assist the parent. In spite of assistance if the parent continues to neglect the child, the state has to take charge of the child. They have the power to separate the child from the parent in the best interest of the child and place the child in an institutional facility so that the rights of the child are fulfilled.

For the first time in this country, these provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of a Child were built into our rules. So the State is the real guardian of a minor and the guardianship of the minor has been given to the parents. If the parents fail to fulfil the rights of the child, the state takes ownership.

We are very proud of this. With the change in rules and the court constantly monitoring the progress of out of school children, 1.5 lakh children were brought back to school. The remaining 16-17000 children could not be brought back because they were migrated out of the State. Hence, the court ordered that a policy on migrated children to be developed by the State. The education department formed a subcommittee where all civil society organizations including CIVIC were involved in preparing a policy for education of migrant children.

It has been more than 2 years now that the State has not implemented this rule and hence the court has started hearing this case again and has given clear instructions.The annual survey shows that more than 16000 children are out of school. The court has again repeated the earlier order saying the rule 6A 6B 6C and 6D should be strictly implemented and has been following up with the State Government every month. It has also asked the State government to implement the policy on education of migrant children that we had developed.

So, that case is still being heard. We hope that with the new Chief Justice, that will turn reality and we will have every child in school. We hope for Karnataka to be a beacon for the rest of the country, very soon.

Amidst all the chaos, we feel proud to have people who fervently work and raise their voices to bring in change. They are aware of hurdles but their focus remains on the bigger picture. We wish CIVIC and Ms Kathyayini all the best for the best of our country!

For more info visit:

Email id: kchamaraj@gmail.com