In a city where impoverished adults barely get their voices heard, who is listening to Mumbai’s children?
‘Mera naam Firoz hai, aur me bahar footpath pe rehta hoon’
(My name is Firoz and I live on the footpath outside)
Firoz loves watching films and has been selected for a film studies course after he finishes his Class 10 exams. Currently enrolled in the day learning centre run by the Salaam Baalak Trust for street children, he enjoys studying there and believes that it helps him, not just in studies but other aspects of life as well.
Firoz is one among the 37,059 street children, as estimated by the first ever census of street children conducted by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) and voluntary organization Action Aid India, living in Mumbai. As Salaam Balak Trust’s (SBT) chairperson Zarin Gupta explains, “We did this mapping of two zones in Mumbai, just on the issue of Right to Education and we found that 1,300 odd children we interviewed were not going to school. Our aim is to put every child of Mumbai city in school and it is a herculean task!”
The concept of the rights of the child is of relatively recent origin. A ‘child,’ according to the United Nation’s Convention on the Rights of the Child, refers to ‘every human being below the age of 18 years unless, under the law applicable to the child, majority is attained earlier’. Child rights work for the fundamental freedoms and the inherent rights for all the children, the way human rights work for all human beings.
“How will a child go to school if he has to wait and collect water at eleven in the morning and if both the parents are daily wage labourers? This is the only supply that they will have to use for the whole day. In such situations, which school will they go to?” says Door Step School secretary Bina Sheth Lashkari. The institution is one of the Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) working in the field of child rights.
According to Lashkari, child policies or any change with respect to children cannot be brought by only involving the elders or making the adults take all the decisions for them. Children, through Bal Samuha, one of the community based educational programmes, engage in discussions of their community and speak on what they believe in. Lashkari adds, “The children come forward to demand better water facilities, playgrounds, education and because they speak out, even adults listen to them.”
“In our community, people are married off when they turn 18, but luckily in my family there is no pressure to get married. And this has happened because of the parents’ meeting conducted by the Akanksha centre,” says Sana Ansari. Sana, a student of Akanksha’s education centre, is now working with the organisation to encourage others to come forward and use education as an empowering tool.
Chitra Pandit, the marketing director at Akanksha, says that the NGO believes in every child’s right to an excellent education and focuses on the promotion of education. “At Akanksha, children come with huge learning gaps and in order to fill those gaps, it becomes imperative to support the child not just as a teacher but also as a surrogate parent. So our teachers work harder, take extra classes and make interesting lesson plans to enable fruitful learning,” says Pandit. They say that one of their biggest challenges is to give quality education at par with the best schools in the city.
The Maharashtra State Child Policy is being prepared jointly by United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), Yashwantrao Chavan Academy of Development Administration (YASHDA), which is the state government’s administrative training wing, and the State Commission for the Protection of Child Rights. It invited suggestions from the citizens and is expected to mould future policies on the rights of children in the state.
“Government inaction and ignorance about the child rights in the city are the biggest challenges faced by us,” says Don Bosco Balprafulta’s Sister Jacinta. The organisation works to generate awareness of child rights in society and ensure their fulfilment through State and civil participation. “It should be understood that this is not just an NGO’s problem. It is a global issue and we need more participation from government bodies and also the intellectuals,” says Sister Jacinta.
Mumbai Mobile Crèches is an institution which works towards providing care and education for children at building construction sites. As programme co-ordinator Vrushali Naik says, “Most of these children are an invisible lot. They are all made to work in closed walls, rarely seen outside. Also, the government as well as the construction industry is not sensitive to the needs of these children. If this indifferent attitude towards the welfare of children continues, won’t a child be denied of her or his rights?”
‘Ghar walo ne mana kiya tha padne ke liye, lekin mere aandar padne ki ichha thi’.(My family did not want me to study but it is my desire to educate myself)
Avdesh Chouhan left Kasiram Nagar, Uttar Pradesh, to come to Mumbai when he was in Class 8 to earn money and support his parents. He studied till Class 10 through open school. He shares his experience, “In the beginning, there was no place to stay and no food to eat. Then finally, I got job in the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) canteen. I used to work and cook food in the morning and then study at night till two in the morning on the stairs of the hostel. Everyone who stayed in the hostel used to help me in my studies. Then I passed my Class 10 and tried to get admitted here [in Mumbai], but in vain. So I went back to my village and took admission in the science stream.”
Chouhan recollects his first memories of Mumbai, “I was angry at myself for being poor, and often wondered why my parents are poor. I wanted to learn more and earn money. So that when I go back to my village with my earnings, I am happy. But I go there only once in two years because I cannot stand looking at my parents’ present condition.” He has just turned 19 and wants to become a lawyer. He has only ten minutes to spare, and as our short interview gets over, he concludes, “I spare no effort in whatever I do. I don’t leave anything midway and I don’t back away from hard work.” He is definitely a child of the city, a dreamer and fighter, one who never gives up.
Photos & Design: Rajashree Gandhi & Fareeda Muhammed