Jess Lair, an author, once said, ‘Children are not things to be molded, but are people to be unfolded’.
No other words hold truer for the children residing at Lallubhai Compound, a nearly two-decade-old rehabiliation and resettlement colony in Mankhurd, Mumbai. It’s day one of the summer camp on 13 May 2019 and the children are ready to get their creative cells off and running. Their young leaders have divided them into groups by age, handed them a sheet of paper each, some pencils, sketch pens and crayons. Dressed in loose summer clothes and immersed in the goings-on of their respective groups, some of them are right on the threshold of teenage. Older as they are, they must think about the future —how do they see Lallubhai Compound in the next five years? This image they must transfer into colourful works of art.
As they delve into this unknown, there is but one constant reality they have known forever — the inadequacy of the living conditions in this colony. The younger children, perhaps hovering around their eighth or ninth years, have to draw this reality, the reality of the places that scare them in their localities. Nevertheless, bubbling with energy on a hot May afternoon, they get rolling. At the Child Resource Centre set up under YUVA, about thirty-five to forty children from Lallubhai Compound and Annabhau Sathe Nagar create a cacophony of child-chatter as they draw and quarrel, giggle and create art. Their conversations are anything but pointless, as any uninformed adult would imagine them to be.
When asked what places worry and scare them the most, almost unanimously the younger ones talk about playgrounds and gardens infested with drug addicts, lightless and narrow streets teeming with catcallers and physically unsafe routes they are forced to take to school. While most of them are enrolled in local public schools, the quality of education they receive is often below standard levels, leave alone ideal conditions, and their cramped houses are a reflection of forces holding them back from progress — abusive and/or drunk family members, poor access to basic amenities like adequate water, sunlight and hygiene and, more importantly, the social stigma they face on a daily basis within and outside the compound. Simply speaking, they are deprived of all the tools and mechanisms that a child needs and is legally entitled to so as to develop in a holistic and wholesome manner.
Of safe spaces, stages, and more
Fortunately, this dearth of child rights implementation is far removed from the children’s awareness of the same. The Bal Adhikar Sangharsh Sangathan (BASS), a children’s collective, was set up in the compound (and in separate city localities) several years ago, functioning as a platform for children to participate in inclusive community and city-building processes. The BASS children’s voices are not just heard, they are accepted and considered as valuable insights. BASS has seen almost three generations of child leaders grow into well-rounded young adults and the current leadership is no less courageous, outspoken and well-informed about their rights, be it on areas such as recreation, privacy, education, safety or other important concerns. A group of around 200 children are led by 40 core group members, where pairs of girls and boys each handle 10 members and hold regular group-level meetings.
At BASS, the children regularly voice the concerns that affect them deeply. They take collective action in the form of demonstrations and rallies in their localities, door-to-door conversations, events, action to claim spaces, letters and manifesto contributions to local municipal leaders, informational pamphlets and meetings with children and also build bridges with the police. In all these engagements, they maintain crisp records of their activities, and minutes of meetings which help them reflect on their journey and plan for the road ahead. BASS functions democratically, with elections held for leadership, and the group provides an equal opportunity to children to express their opinions. Although facilitated by YUVA in its early years, BASS is now functioning independently and members even aim to get it registered as a separate unit of action and change.
Why the summer camp?
Now in its fourth year, the summer camp is one pivotal initiative of the BASS, held over the course of a week in the summer season. Beginning with an inauguration ceremony that involved the screening of an organically shot film on the BASS, the summer camp had a packed scheduled with a wide array of indoor and outdoor activities planned for the attending children. During this week, at any given time, the Child Resource Centre (CRC) was populated by at least twenty children attending workshops by external resource people attached to the cause or even simply spending time with their mates.
After the day dedicated to arts and crafts, there was a sports day at a local playground that the children had claimed for play for themselves earlier, followed by a film-screening of Hitchki (2018), Bollywood’s take on education and child rights in bastis. Next, the children were introduced to the classical art form of Bharatanatyam and how they can use the performing arts for social change, considering the BASS’ frequent street plays and other performative awareness campaigns. Last, a captivating magic show culminated into a cultural event organised entirely by the children, for the children, involving dances, rap performances, plays and speeches. The children learnt skills, felt entertained, gained confidence and displayed their innermost talents — all overlain subtly on the issue of children’s rights.
But why is the summer camp such a crucial event in the BASS’ meticulous monthly plans? Says Sagar Reddy, a BASS leader, ‘It was all about participation and to encourage children to get out of their houses during the summer and get involved in exciting activities’. It is the real-life embodiment of the right to play and recreation, something that is a rare occurrence for many of these children. Additionally, BASS makes it a point to invite local leaders, police officers, aanganwadi sevikas and other stakeholders to their events, such as the cultural event, so as to increase their engagement with the cause as well as to allow children to interact with the authorities that hold the power and resources to make actual, on-ground changes to their living conditions.
The summer camp also functions as an induction programme for newer children joining the BASS. It brings together the whole community of children in Lallubhai Compound and Annabhau Sathe Nagar, helping them let their hair down and simultaneously affect change in the lives of more and more of their contemporaries. They also get an opportunity and the right stage to express their respective talents. Most importantly, the young leaders learn how to think critically, work on ideas and create plans after in-depth discussions and to operate in an egalitarian, responsible and participatory manner. The children place into action the life skills they learnt in YUVA’s workshops, as a result of which the BASS has gained independent capabilities.
Ultimately, as Samreen, another BASS leader tells us, the activities of this summer week are the perfect tableau to encourage external visitors to contribute in whatever form and capacity they can to the cause of the children in the basti. They are also proof that with guidance, conceptual and social education and with opportunity, each child can rise up to the occasion and become an accountable, creative and sensible citizen of the society, community and the country.
What happens when the summer ends?
BASS’ young citizens dream far and dream large. The summer camp has been a successful venture for them, a venture that aided them to create a safe and fun space for children to grow and shine. 2019 has been a year of many firsts for them, given that they have become fairly independent in their functioning with support from YUVA. And they hope to take the legacy forward and do better what only they can do best, given their proximity with the community at large and with first-hand experience of the challenges they want to overcome and the will to do so with informed action.
Another important module of their work involves networking with local stakeholders, resource persons and public outreach. The young leaders already have a vast existing network, meant to support and even actively get involved in their activities, but their efforts are endless in this regard. At the core, they function with a deep understanding of group-learning, teamwork and cooperation, as can be seen in their tech-savviness, detailed monthly plans and coordination meetings but it is their spirit for growth, for change and their social consciousness that sets the BASS apart. When asked where they hope to take their operations, Mahalaxmi, a young member of the core group said, ‘I want that the processes of the BASS move faster and that we are able to spread operations all over Mumbai and beyond so that issues like child labour, child harassment, and more can be tackled quickly’.
When the summer ends, so will the summer camp, but the children’s hopes, dreams, aims and goals remain intact. They’re all prepared to convert the midsummer night’s dream into a whole reality, to create for themselves a new, warm and safe reality.
Khushi Desai, intern, TYBA – St Xavier’s College Mumbai