Nurturing decision-makers

Ankitha Cheerakathil

The campus of Rajkiya Pratibha Vikas Vidyalaya in Hari Nagar, New Delhi is usually buzzing with energy and activity. There are students playing in the grounds, students grouped around their teacher with books, students enjoying the outdoors. RPVV Hari Nagar is touted to be one of the best model public schools in the capital. Its Principal, Mr. Ajay Kumar Choubey is an exemplary educationist. Upon learning about the idea of school participatory budgeting, he insisted on the participation of his students in this exercise.

It is immediately obvious that the students and the school administration possess a great sense of belonging and purpose. But their infrastructure was incomplete. There was a basketball court, but it was cracked and in need of repair. Since the court was in no condition for playing basketball, students were using it for playing cricket and practicing yoga. A part of the ground was marked off with a sign that read ‘Botanical Garden’, but there were no plants. Inside the building was a well-ventilated courtyard that didn’t seem to have any real purpose.

The school had been gradually improving its infrastructure, utilizing the VKS fund (Vidyalaya Kalyan Samiti) from the Delhi government which amounts to Rs. 4 lakhs every year. The basic necessities were provided for by this point and now the school administration had to prioritize its needs carefully so as to decide where the funds could best be allocated. Did the students need a functional basketball court or was a botanical garden more important to them?

Interestingly, the school also has a functional child parliament (Bal Sansad). A brief conversation with one of the Bal Sansad representatives proved that the students had the ability to assess the needs of the school even better than the administration. Principal Choubey agreed wholeheartedly to this assessment, which is one of the reasons why he was enthusiastic about conducting a participatory budgeting exercise in his school.

School Participatory Budgeting (School PB) was developed as a practical concept by the Prague based social enterprise D21 in cooperation with the think-tank Institute for Democracy 21. It has already been piloted in the Czech Republic and Zambia. It is a process (modeled on nominal group techniques of decision-making) of allowing students to deliberate and vote on projects for their school’s budget.

At RPVV, the exercise began in November 2017 and lasted for three weeks. All students initially came up with ideas at the level of their classroom. Then representatives were chosen from each class, who gathered together to form a diverse group and put all ideas to vote. Then a final list of ideas was voted on again by all students (a total of 525 from classes 6 to 11). This ensured that every student received an opportunity to participate and everybody’s voice was heard, not just that of the loudest and smartest among them. Through the various stages of this exercise, the students were made to realize that all voices are relevant, which was an important lesson for when they would become adults. It is certainly possible to shorten the duration of this exercise by eliminating one or more phases. But all pilots have so far demonstrated that the best results come out of making the exercise comprehensive in nature.

Initially, the teachers found the exercise slightly burdensome. This was understandable, considering that government school teachers are usually overburdened with both administrative and curriculum related work. The students who were participating in the exercise often approached their teachers for help in estimating the cost of their ideas to make sure that it came within the school budget. The class teachers also allowed their students to use one teaching period for discussing project ideas and voting on the same. All this caused a change in their routine and added pressure on the teachers. However, when their students proposed intelligent and pragmatic ideas, the teachers realized the impact of this exercise and the true potential of their students.

Prior to beginning the exercise, the students had been instructed to keep the needs of the school in mind, rather than their individual preferences. They were also told to carefully estimate the cost of their project ideas to make sure that it was in accordance with the school’s budget. The kind of project proposals that the students finally came up with were remarkable in their astute assessment of the school’s needs and deficiencies. The final list of ideas included a small Campaigning before voting Project ideas with cost estimates football ground with equipment (which gained the most votes), a botanical garden, solar panels, a common lounge (for the unused courtyard inside the building), a school cafeteria, a waste management system, an Internet consulting system (wi-fi enabled tablets that students could use for research) and renovation of the school’s cycle stand.

Principal Choubey was very pleased with the ideas. To the gratification of the students, he announced that the VKS fund from the school year 2018-19 would also be used so that as many as seven of the most popular ideas could be implemented. He organized a ceremony in the school auditorium to announce the winning projects.

School PB helped the students of RPVV build practical knowledge and skills in public speaking and leadership. It empowered them and made them feel valued, which is a relevant problem in large and populous countries. In India, the voices of smaller communities usually go unheard and are not taken into account; this results in a state of disillusionment with the establishment. Young people should not remain in this state of disillusionment, because it will prevent them from working towards a sustainable and inclusive future.

The students of RPVV Hari Nagar, Delhi, were lucky to have had the VKS fund opened up to them for the School PB process. But it is not always necessary to have such a large sum of money for a school to conduct this exercise. This is because School PB should be viewed as a natural extension of the social sciences curriculum, which is usually very abstract and theoretical in nature. School PB turns social science lessons into something raw and practical which will ensure that young people actually understand how
their society works, what the challenges of their society are and how they can deliberate to arrive at a peaceful consensus.

Such exercises should be treated as a continuity of the theory that students learn in their social science or civics classes. These participatory skills should become part of a student’s DNA, so that it’s normal for them to come together and arrive at solutions as a community. The main objective for the school should be towards promoting creativity and leadership in students by allowing them to think carefully about how to improve their environment. Therefore, it is certainly possible to achieve the same results of School PB for students even without their school spending a large sum of money.

At RPVV Hari Nagar, School PB was conducted using an online voting platform that generates results in real time. This meant that 525 students could vote quickly and easily in their computer lab. Using digital tools adds to the vision of a country like India, which hopes to become a digital democracy and a more digitally connected nation in the future. School PB is thus the most basic foundational form of public participation. The demographic category of youth is the largest in India, potentially full of creativity and leadership. School PB prepares this critical demographic for a more inclusive future.

The author works with The ‘Institute for Democracy 21’, an international research organization that explores and innovates inclusive voting systems to endorse democratic consensus. Headquartered in Prague (the Czech Republic), the Institute is actively researching diverse methods of civic participation that exist in communities around the world. The Institute collaborates with D21, an international social enterprise designed to help communities make better decisions and to improve public participation in decision-making processes. In India, the Institute currently focuses on working with educational institutions for its flagship initiative ‘School Participatory Budgeting’. She can be reached at ankitha.cheerakathil@ifd21.org.