As a nine-year-old in 2014, when Samreen Shah told her parents of her willingness to join an NGO in mapping safe and unsafe spaces for children in Mankhurd’s Lallubhai Compound, they were more than skeptical. The place, home to scores of impoverished housing quarters, was simply not deemed safe enough for girls to venture out alone.
Today, the teenager forms the core of a group of youngsters trained by Mumbai-based civil society organisation YUVA to ensure children growing up in the city’s impoverished quarters do so with dignity.
Tuesday ended YUVA’s five-year engagement in Lallubhai Compound, a Rehabilitation and Resettlement (R&R) colony consisting 70 towers to house families displaced from across Mumbai to make way for urban transport projects. “R&R colonies will keep increasing in Mumbai in the next 20 years and children will be affected the most. While planning these colonies, it is important to ask children what their needs are,” said Pooja Yadav, YUVA’s Mumbai convener, speaking at a ceremony to felicitate individuals key to the project.
Children like Samreen — who was born in Lallubhai Compound — and her friends Sagar Reddy (18) and Omkar Thorat (18), who moved there with their families as toddlers were simply not part of any such consultation process. Growing up, that left them with unusable playgrounds, narrow unlit lanes, and schools that could only be accessed by crossing the railway tracks. The housing colony is located in the BMC’s M-East ward, which reports some of Mumbai’s worst Human Development Index indicators.
“Over the last two years, we met our local MP Rahul Shewale with a plea to build a foot overbridge. He told us that isn’t feasible but had written to the Central Railway to build a skywalk connecting Lallubhai Compound to Mankhurd station so that children don’t get killed while walking to school,” said Omkar.
Also among the interventions of the children who operate under the Bal Adhikar Sangharsh Sangathan (BASS) has been sending over 600 written suggestions to the BMC to mark a space in the area for a playground in its Development Plan 2034. “Part of one ground has been lost to a building project. We have filed RTI applications which show that it has been illegally taken over. We have raised the issue in meetings with our local corporator, Mayor and the CMO,” said Samreen.
Among the speakers at Tuesday’s ceremony were Nitin Bobade, senior inspector, Mankhurd police station, who appealed to the BASS to petition political leaders for a playground. “Lallubhai Compound needs a good playground so that children can realise their dreams of becoming athletes,” he said.
Shimon Patole, another BASS member, said the group meets the local police once a month. “We never had the confidence to even set foot inside the police station before. But as a result of our discussions, the police have increased patrolling in places where girls are harassed and drugs are sold,” he said. “During training, we were taught to be bindaas and not be afraid to speak to any adult. It is our right to speak up for our rights,” added Ormkar.
Yadav feels children in R&R colonies are a lot more aware of lack of infrastructure than youngsters in better-off areas, resulting in terms like RTI, Right to Education Act and DP, among others, slipping easily off their tongues. “They have seen politicians come to their areas and promise water connections and build toilets. More than other children, they know who their local corporators, MLAs and MPs are but they do not know how to improve their situation. We only help them become organised,” she said.
For the children, the biggest difference was simply the fact that girls outnumbered boys in attendance Tuesday. Addressing the crowd, Samreen said, “It is a big thing for a girl from an R&R colony to be speaking on a stage today. I cannot claim our area is 100 per cent safe after five years of work, but it is now safe enough for a bunch of girls to go to a tapri to drink chai.”