Being change makers

MAKING IT POSSIBLE: Time for action.   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement.

A defunct school is given a new lease of life with teachers, attendants and brand-new playground equipment in Delhi's Dakshinpuri slums. From nowhere-to-go to two fully functional anganwadis for Bangalore's pre-schoolers. An ‘obstacle race' called the Kolkata Metro to barrier-free access across an entire section of the underground subway. CRY volunteers make change happen by taking up new challenges and pushing the boundaries for children's rights across the four metros.

Young, trendy, professional... any of these could be used to describe 26-year-old Sharmistha Biswas. But there is another side to this young IT professional. Every other weekend, Sharmistha hauls her heavy SLR camera into an auto and sets off to a dusty construction site, spending hours talking to and photographing children of construction workers .“The irony of construction work is that you can help build some of Mumbai's poshest buildings, but your children will grow up uneducated and poor, like you.” The perception of such ironies, and several sessions in how to handle the camera, powered Sharmistha to live out a new identity; as a CRY volunteer. Under the aegis of a group of amateur photographers called Click Rights, people like Sharmistha received professional training through ‘Child Rights and You' to explore the metropolis of Mumbai from the point of view of the neglected children. Two experienced photographers, Tui and Nathan Sigman, took the group through sessions to develop their skills.

The results were startling. “We collected photos of children playing, making friends, talking, but they had an important difference: they were all struggling to eke out a living, while others of their age are cared for and go to school,” says Alpesh Kandoi, one of Sharmishtha's groupmates. “In Mumbai, we are used to sights like kids selling gajras at the traffic signals, but it doesn't strike us that those kid ought to be in school,” he says. This change in perspective is because Alpesh and four others went through two months of orientation under CRY's volunteer programme. “Photographs speak volumes without being preachy,” says Kreanne Rabadi, CRY's Regional Director. “This is why, after absorbing just how grim the situation of children is, the Click Rights group decided their way of advocating for child rights will be through photography.”

Collective power

What led to the idea of pulling people together to work on child rights was the realisation that the urban middle classes, a growing segment, are a reservoir of energy and the power to influence others. To tap into their potential, CRY creates public action groups around a theme to take up any issue close to them and use the collective power to pitch for a better and more caring environment for the city's children. In the process, people find new facets of their identities by pushing their personal boundaries; because of the insights they gain into the world around them. Alpesh, for example, made friends with and followed 12-year-old Sachin, a street child, with a camera. The photos that he and the group took were exhibited at a most unlikely place: the busy VT station in Mumbai, where hurrying commuters were treated to large black-and-white photographs of the children they don't really notice: the shoe polishers, toy sellers and children of construction workers. The idea as well as its execution would not have worked out were it not for the power of many that the group used, bringing together trainers, child rights experts and the amateur photographers themselves.

The entire exhibition was as much of an eye opener for CRY as for the volunteers. “Because of the ‘aam junta' nature of the venue, we managed to meaningfully engage 100 people, and conveyed the fact that street children too deserve to be in school; that being poor does not discount the fact that they, too, have rights,” says Sharmishtha. Pulling together an interest group to do something not usually done, in their free time, using their own resources, is a small team in CRY who make up for their few numbers by the sheer energy and commitment they bring to their mission. A small team in CRY specialises in tapping what the team leader, Soha Moitra, laughingly calls ‘the changemaker gene' that they believe is lying dormant in most of us. “What we do is constantly engage with people. What we involve them in is the nature and scale of the crisis that children in India are grappling with today.” Over a period of weekly meets and dialogue, volunteers are gradually mentored to seek solutions to real life, serious problems that children in their city live with.

Diya is the central node for a Kolkata-based group that is called Campaigners for Inclusion, who, in the past three years, can be said to be behind some very significant government decisions on making schools and public spaces friendly for persons with disabilities. “The basic

ideas behind the campaign came up form the volunteers themselves,” says Diya. The group has organised college campaigns, written and performed plays on the streets of Kolkata, conducted audits on how accessible the city's schools are: basically done all they could to draw attention to the fact that the otherwise developed city is not quite easy to live in if you have a disability. Diya's work included finding the group an anchor. “We have a highly motivated activist working on disability rights, Shampa Sengupta from the Sruti Disability Center, who now anchors the initiative,” she says. “Shampa herself is a CRY research Fellow. This way, we make sure initiatives like this spread and grow and are not limited by CRY's own limited resources and time.”

In the process, of course, the first set of hearts and minds that changes are those of the volunteers themselves.

“After my first interactions with CRY on the issue, I happened to be in Germany, and one thing that immediately struck me was how many more persons with disabilities I was seeing in public spaces. I Googled the issue and found what I'd guessed already: that it's not that Germany has more persons with disabilities than India, in fact the ratio of those with disabilities to those without is 1:10 in both countries. The difference is in the environment and attitudes. My six weeks in CRY had changed the way I look at the world around me forever: from not noticing issues that are not to do with me directly to not just noticing, but engaging with the issue. We realized that the Kolkata local subway was an obstacle race for anyone with a disability.” This is from 25-year-old Saptak Mohanto, a student of Geophysics, who helped organize a campaign on inclusive education at his alma mater, IITKharagpur.

Along with others, the group of disability rights activists, as they have now become, also succeeded in making their voice heard at the Government bodies such as Social Justice Ministry. After sustained dialogues with the Kolkata Metro, the authorities decided that its new platforms from Tollygunge to Garia should be barrier-free and have ramps in them. A private school revamped their whole campus to make access easy. The Campaigners for Inclusion joined a nation-wide campaign to demand amendments in the new Right to Education Act so that children with disabilities are able to access education. Taking the ‘im' out of ‘impossible' Most people feel things like ‘changing outlooks' and ‘ policy implementation' are too complicated and give up on their involvement even before starting. This is where Diya's expertise comes in, in helping volunteers walk out on their assumptions and usher in new ways of thinking about problems, towards envisioning alternatives that work.

Three years ago, if you'd asked me, would I be able to get a group of citizens to organize a sustained campaign to get the city of Kolkata to sit up and take notice of persons with disabilities as individuals with rights, I'd say, not likely. But today, this dissimilar group have done what activists and experts would consider a challenge: got a dialogue going starting from current assumptions and myths gradually pushing the boundaries of what's possible to take the ‘im' out of ‘impossible'.” In the process, volunteers end up living out roles that go way beyond their current ones. Take Soni Bhatnagar's case. Till a few years ago, this thirty four year old was a homemaker in Delhi. The sight of children roaming the streets around her home in Dakshinpuri, while her own kids went to school, enraged her. But she did not think she, or anyone else for that matter, could do much about it. Then one day she heard about this local CRY Volunteer programme. She contacted the programme and was pleasantly surprised to find ten others like herself. Dakshinpuri is a ‘ resettlement colony', technically one rung above the ‘slum' tag, but government facilities did not work very well in the area.

Joining the cause

“Dakshinpuri was like any of Delhi's other resettlement colonies, where facilities were merely on paper. When I joined the volunteer programme, I brought with me the desire to see the children of the area assured better lives than what their parents had lived through. We called ourselves ‘ Manorath', which roughly translates as ‘desire', this one for better childhoods. Over the next few months, we were constantly in the gullies of Dakshinpuri, trying to understand what was going on,” Soni recalls. The complex interplay of bureaucratic neglect and local apathy that pushed Dakshinpuri's children out of school made itself gradually apparent to the volunteers. By then they had, over the course of a few hundred meetings and conversations with locals and the teachers, acquired the necessary savoir-fair to glean opportunities from the many obstacles.They started by talking to the schoolteachers first.

Initially resented for this perceived intrusion, the group got its first real breakthrough when the teachers let them into their daily anxiety – the high levels of hostility teachers had to contend with form the surrounding neighbourhood. “Be fore we knew it, I was suddenly the negotiator between the schoolteachers and the community,” reminisces Soni. “We pushed the experiences of the children at the forefront of the discussions, compelling both sides had resolved to work together, keeping thechildren's interests first.”

Thanks to the groups efforts, today, the dilapidated-looking MCD school in Dakshinpuri stands fully revived, with five more full-time teachers taking regular classes, a sweeper (not students!) taking care of the premises, a security guard and an attendant to make sure school is truly a safe space (especially important for the girl students). A garden has replaced the garbage-strewn yard, swings and slides creak cheerfully as the school's 100 odd wards take turns on them: the first term of the academic year is in full swing.” That was the beginning. Today, I know that ‘sahyog se samaadhan ayega zaroor ‘ (with cooperation, solutions will certainly come up),” says a smiling Soni. Manorath has now expanded to try revive all 10 schools in the Dakshinpuri area.

Everything starts with a simple mass invitation that CRY sends to its supporters. “When I first received an email inviting me to be part of CRY's public action group, I wasn't really prepared to volunteer anywhere,” recalls Naga Yashodhar Kattula, who works for the Citigroup. “But this invitation talked about something specific - the sorry state of anganwadis in Bangalore. I went to the meeting out of curiosity. I was quite shocked to see we couldn't say the same about that India's IT hub and pride,Bangalore.”Naga chose to join the public action group because he wanted to be part of the changing story of Bangalore's anganwadis.

Anganwadis in India are the primary delivery mechanism for India's ambitious scheme to end infant and maternal malnourishment, which currently stands at a shaming 46% of the child population. “I know that at that age, toddlers and pre-schoolers really need their daily nutrition and some educational inputs, otherwise their minds and bodies will not grow well.” The public action group surveyed selected anganwadis in the city and formed a list of demands. They took these demands to the officers in charge.

“We put the people in charge in the shoes of the toddlers. They understood for themselves what it was like in these anganwadis, with no educational materials, no space, no teachers, no midday meals. We also took public functionaries on visits to the delapidated one-room structures to see things for themselves.” The change happened over a period of months, but the slow, patient approach paid off when a two-storied structure came up in December 2009 in place of an old, broken-down room. The structure could now house not one, but two anganwadis, a boon for the area's pre-schoolers.

For volunteers like Naga, the knowledge that they are actually making a dent in India's monstrous child deprivation statistics gives a high like nothing else. “I am not among those who will sit back and let the country deteriorate. What our public action groups did for me was put my faith back in what I can do,” says Naga. What an individual would consider impractical to attempt even, the public action groups show as doable. “Idealism's back in fashion,” laughs Sharmistha. “Because it's lethal for the country if citizens believe we can do nothing about the state of the nation.”

To know more about CRY log onto http://www.cry.org/volunteer/index.html. or contact soha.moitra@crymail.org .

The author is the Director of CRY.

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Printable version | Jan 25, 2022 5:30:10 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/nxg/Being-change-makers/article15681605.ece

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