Igniting the energy and commitment of young people to change India
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Igniting the energy and commitment of young people to change India

It is hot and noisy under the huge tent where more than 30,000 thousand young people are gathered to celebrate India’s 60th anniversary of independence. But it is about to get much more raucous.

The near hysteria that you would associate with the arrival of a Bollywood star takes over as India’s diminutive former President, A.P.J. Kalam steps out of his white Ambassador and into the stadium in Sangareddy, the district headquarters of Medak in the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh.

Dr. Kalam is here at the invitation of the organization ‘Lead India’ and District Collector B. Venkatesham to mobilize and inspire others around his vision of a dynamic, prosperous and just Indian society by 2020. And for Dr. Kalam – who vacated his position this summer as India’s first citizen – young people are at the heart of that mission. He walks to the microphone; the pitch from the crowd near deafening; the front of the stage like a mosh pit at a rock concert. Dr. Kalam raises his right hand slightly, quiet descends and he begins to deliver a 10-point oath.

“We will,” he begins. “We will,” the crowd roars back. “Build a nation,” he continues. “Build a nation,” booms the reply.

A nation, Dr. Kalam intones, where young people work with dedication and commitment for the country’s progress, excel in their own education and each person teaches 10 others. A nation where each person plants 10 saplings and is committed to a pollution-free environment. A nation where each person commits to stopping the bad habits of five others, works to provide health care and nutrition for children, and commits to spreading awareness about HIV prevention. In Kalam’s vision for India by 2020, each young person is saving power, managing water resources well, is honest and never accepts a bribe. An India where every Indian celebrates the success of others as their own.

LEAD India has already trained 30,000 youth in Medak with a plan to reach 100,000, and a similar number in all 23 districts in the state. LEAD’s five-day training program focuses on physical education, mental development, and education and skill development, as well as social and spiritual development. This is followed by field work and outreach within their school, in families and neighborhoods around the 10-point agenda promoted by Dr. Kalam.

The choice of Medak for his speech on nation-building is not lost on Dr. Kalam, or District Collector Venkatesham. Despite its close proximity to the booming IT sector in the capital Hyderabad, social indicators in this largely rural, farming-oriented district are poor. Consecutive droughts have resulted into livelihood crises. Poverty has further exacerbated the vulnerability of women and children as reflected in low literacy level and high infant mortality rate. In some ways, Medak captures the dilemma facing India as it strives to achieve growth with equity, and prosperity with opportunity for all its citizens.

In Medak, and 16 other districts in 13 states, UNICEF is working with local administrators to drive for significant improvement in social development. A three-point strategy captures the thrust of the initiative: village planning to empower local people to make decisions about development in their own community; a significant improvement in the delivery and quality of government services and programmes; and a substantial effort through communication and social mobilization to address key behaviours that impact on the survival and well-being of children.

This year, the District Collector with UNICEF support established a Behaviour Change Communication Cell in Medak, creating an institutional mechanism to drive planning, implementation and monitoring of communication activities in the district. In villages where a five-day planning exercise is completed, local youth volunteers are being trained and mobilized to promote change in four key behaviours: ensuring every child is exclusively breastfed during the first six months of life; all family members wash their hands with soap after defecation and before handling food; all girls enroll in school at the right age and complete an elementary education; and young people engaged in risk behaviours take steps to protect themselves from HIV infection.

From the stage at Sangareddy, Dr. Kalam takes time to emphasize the importance of behaviour change communication. And, together with prominent members of the district administration and UNICEF, he unveils a brochure that outlines the role of the BCC Cell in Medak – only the second of its kind at the district level.

The BCC Cell will focus on communication activities in 28 mandals to equip families and caregivers with knowledge and skills to carry out the critical behaviours. To reach families, the Cell will be a driving force in mobilizing 1,000 self-help groups in the district, along with 500 youth groups and 1,600 women health volunteers. The Cell will also use training and other inputs to build the capacity of frontline workers in three departments to reach out to families directly.

Following the success of the Lead India rally in Sangareddy, the BCC Cell will look for ways to collaborate with this deep pool of committed and energetic young people to promote changes in behaviour in their homes and neighbourhood.   

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