Last week's Youth Health Mela was a one-stop affair to learn about what it means to be healthy.

As such, we do not like listen to lectures, more so when it is about our “health and well being”! But if only we would get past our apprehensions about the idea of health awareness and that too in a cultural centre like Valluvar Kottam, the Youth Health Mela would have been a revelation of sorts.

For those who attended the five-day fest on health awareness, the revelation came by way of information available, the way it was presented, the scope of such initiatives and how a little bit of tweaking would go a long way in achieving its purpose.

The Mela was an initiative by the Cancer Institute in association with various other academic and scientific institutions.

There were about 50 stalls dealing with a variety of topics ranging from nutrition and ergonomics to road safety and consumer rights. Talks by experts, demonstrations, competitions and performances added variety to the range of attractions.

Snippets

While the amount of information available was exhaustive, here are a few that caught my attention:

A stall by the students of Sri Venkateswara Dental College drew the visitors' attention to our pearly whites. Their dramatic representation of the teeth doing weights and staying healthy, and dying due to decay and lying in a coffin may not be exaggerated considering what they had to say: teeth can be a source of diseases that affect the heart or brain. Now, who would have thought that these smile-enhancers had a purpose more noble than just grinding food.

The neighbouring stall had students from the same college frankly admitting, “Of course, we do not want to listen when being lectured about junk food and their health hazards. But when we are trying to do the same at the fair, we realise how difficult it is to get the message across.” So they decided to scare the public into listening to them instead. Their demonstration included setting fire to a sample of branded chips and snacks that melted! I could even smell a trace of plastic in them. “That's how they stay fresh for days,” they say proud at having driven home the point.

One of the popular stalls in the mela was one that announced “Diseases for sale!” It owed its popularity as much to its set up as to the curious proclamation. The stall, set up by Tamil magazine Paadam, looked like our local “wine shop”, complete with bottles and a sale counter.

The charts explained the “give and take” in the process of purchasing a bottle of alcohol from the 233 brands available in the market. The “give” is your money, of course, and the “take” is the repercussions like a damaged liver, heart failure, poor motor skills... So, what's the cost of a kidney failure? If you go by the charts, Rs. 150 is all you need.

The mela provided had the opportunity to connect with the youth through someone who spoke their language and understood their psyche. “We use technology in everything, so why not to impart a valuable lesson? That's why we came up with this idea of using audio messages that create the illusion of the organs themselves speaking,” explained Jagan, a II year M.Sc. Electronic media student of Anna University. So with your headphones on and a remote to choose the organ of your choice, you could hear the kidney reprimand you, the stomach lament, the heart get emotional or the lungs plead for better care.

Move over cocaine and heroin. Synthetic drugs are the newest addictive craze. Officers from the Narcotics Control Bureau seemed determined to warn the public of its dangers. “Youngsters are easy victims because they easily give in to temptation, have the money and parental control is less,” felt an intelligence officer at the stall.

Each day at the mela saw experts share their views on health and better living. Dr. Sultan Ismail stressed on the need for consumers to be aware of the ingredients that are now referred through codes ranging from E1 to E1000, in packets.

While a biotechnologist himself who appreciates the scope and viability of the science in various fields, he could not get himself to approve of the tampering of food products by way of genetic modification. “Beautiful food is not always healthy food. Don't go by what you want, but what your body needs,” he opined.

And opposing these genetically modified inclusions in our green spread were a sprightly brinjal and lady's finger. These Green Peace volunteers in costume were campaigning against The Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India Bill being passed in the Parliament. You can show your support by giving a missed call to 08030088425. If you were to measure the success of their campaign at the Youth Health Mela, it would roughly translate to about 800 calls in four days.

For those who thought bottled water was way safer than the water sachets, you are in for a shock. The C.P.R. Environment Education Centre has found that water sachets are chemically safer than certain samples of bottled water. Wonder what is the status of the water we consume at home then. Ever thought of getting it tested? You must.

Meanwhile, Lord Yama took centrestage on one of the afternoons when “Curtain Call”, a street theatre competition, got under way. In one of the skits, the young Lord of Death was happy to learn that he would soon get more people to join him in hell after they end their lives quickly through smoking. And it wasn't just them; even the passive smokers were potential victims. Their music, dance, drum beats and energy, coupled with the message made them crowd favourites.

Connecting

With so much gyan to offer, the Youth Health Mela was a storehouse of information. But what made youngsters like Vaishali and Annamalai admit that they wouldn't have stepped in, if they didn't have something to do with the mela?

For dental student Vaishali, it was the prejudice about health shows being preachy and talking about the same things youngsters know.

“Frankly, I wouldn't have attended the mela if I didn't have to volunteer at my college stall. It was, I thought, going to be boring and we youngsters don't liked being lectured to. But now I realise I was wrong. There is so much to learn and realise. I have come to know about various organisations that work for different causes and in different fields. I am now seriously thinking about joining one,” she said.

MICA graduate Annamalai, however, was critical about the mela not speaking the language of the youth.

“The set up, the stall designs and speeches do not connect with us youngsters. We don't want another lecture outside our classroom. With the amount of technology available, its application here would have attracted a bigger crowd and made the initiative engaging. The liquor stall is proof that information presented creatively is sure to get the point across. But the intent and effort is laudable,” said the theatre artist who had accompanied his young troop to the competition.

With so much information waiting to be shared, platforms like Youth Health Mela prove to be the right way to go about it.

With some changes in its presentation and marketing, maybe next year, it will not just be right, but perfect!

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