By Charuta Puranik, Vindhya Jyoti, and Alicia Tauro
Every person has the right to a clean, safe and healthy environment and equally a responsibility to safeguard it. Children and young people across the world are demanding climate justice and urging countries to take urgent action for the earth and the environment.
As part of the Global Action Month campaign in November initiated by Terre des Hommes (TDH), Germany, children, and youth in select communities where the non-profit Youth for Unity and Voluntary Action (YUVA) works participated in the campaign ‘My Planet My Rights’. The children and young people took the campaign to their streets to spread awareness about environmental degradation and the need for its restoration, and to demand policymakers for a clean environment. The rights of children to a clean environment have been acknowledged by the United Nations Human Rights Council through a report by the Special Rapporteur in its resolution 28/11.
This article presents a quick overview of the initiatives led by the children and youth from the communities of Behrampada, Bandra, and Malwani, Malad, Mumbai.
The UN body recognizes the right of children and youth to an environment that is conducive for healthy growth, which provides enough opportunity for comprehensive development through cultural and biological diversity and has the potential of providing them positive prospects. Based on these themes, the children led the following activities.
An awareness rally on My Planet My Rights was organized wherein children pasted stickers with messages promoting the campaign and its goals in public places (such as walls, doors, shutters, etc) across their community.
The children and youth performed street plays across communities, spreading awareness on the issues of waste dumping, water contamination, air pollution, cutting of trees, and lack of open spaces. Children reported how they themselves learned lessons from the street plays organised. Sara (name changed) said the street plays helped her realize how she must stop littering her surroundings. She shared, ‘Many people initially criticized and tried to discourage us. They said, you are wasting your time on unimportant things, but later they were willing to support us’.
The children also prepared best-out-of-waste models to demonstrate recycling and encouraged the people in the settlements to separate wet and dry waste at their homes. The children and youth, during the social audit, noticed that some residents who don’t have separate bins for each type of waste using two separate plastic bags but don’t refrain from segregating the waste. The residents responded positively to the activity to segregate waste, but they pointed out that despite their efforts, the waste collector was taking it away in the same compartment without segregation.
‘Littering is a major issue in our locality. People dump waste in the nearby lakes and open spaces. The waste collectors should come twice a day. There are some remote locations around us where the waste-collecting vehicles don’t even reach. Even the dumping bins near our bastis are insufficient in number. More needs to be done! Even in these times of the pandemic, the hygiene is not maintained properly’ said a child.
One youth member shared, ‘We have sent letters to our MLA. But have not received any response, either in the form of any verbal assurance or action’. Another youth said, ‘We don’t think this impact will last long in our locality. There are many remote places in the community that we also find difficult to reach, nor are they interested to come forward and watch our street play performance. On the other hand, there are some chawls/localities who have joined us or, at the least, show some positive response towards our initiatives’. There is a sense of hope that slowly and steadily things can change.
Wall paintings and murals were done by children and youth in public spaces and community walls to promote the campaign further. The children, in collaboration with the residents in their area, painted attractive art with catchy slogans on the walls of and near the bastis focused on ‘My Planet My Rights’ to spread awareness about protecting the forest, prevent the cutting of trees, and support the planting of new trees.
‘We even initiated tree planting for awareness. People were initially critical about a few trees like banyan (barged) and sacred fig (peepal), because of their belief about the potential of those trees of housing demons.’ says Ruksana. ‘But when we told them about their utility to life and humans, like providing ample amounts of oxygen, shade, and so on, they supported us. One of them even took the tools out of our hands and started digging and planting the trees.’
‘We also had some negative experiences. A few of our plants were pulled out by the rickshaw drivers claiming it to be a rickshaw stand. We had some arguments there trying to seek support,’ said a child representative.
Plastic, rubber, metal, and numerous non-biodegradable and ecologically hazardous substances have become a common part of our daily lifestyle, so much so that we bypass the thought of its impact on the environment, let alone think of any eco-friendly alternatives. Children and youth shared the value of eco-friendly alternatives such as reusable-mask painting, paper bag making, etc. that can be of great value as well as be sustainable for the environment. Workshops were held in the community about cost-effective and eco-friendly alternatives.
Children and young people initiated kitchen gardening by planting edible varieties in the available space, which can be used in the daily cooking at their homes. Children were trained with the basti residents on kitchen gardening by a youth member, and later many of them shared how they have taken it up as a hobby with their family members.
Children, through workshops, learned how they could make paper bags from available newspapers around them, which they can use in their daily life. Trained children and youth took the initiative further, talking about the harmful effects of plastic. They are encouraging community members to use more cloth-based and paper bags.
To spread awareness on wearing masks and encourage the use of reusable masks, awareness demos were presented on the streets. A short play was staged in which the children and young people shared how masks are often unaffordable or people are unwilling to spend on them. The children suggested making home-made masks. They collected handkerchiefs from the localities and returned them to the people in the form of home-made masks.
The youth participated in a mangrove walk where they understood the crucial importance of conserving this habitat, the history of their settlement around the mangroves, and more. ‘We didn’t know what mangroves were, although they were there in our own area.’ says Ruksana. ‘We learned how they protect us during floods, by preventing the water from entering our bastis.’
Ruksana mentions how she and her friends are so determined on creating change that they have decided to work on waste management till the problem is eradicated, ‘only then will we think about any other issue’ she says.
Recognizing that a clean environment is a right and a responsibility of each person, children and youth plan to lead the initiative towards making their community more clean, healthy, and environmentally sustainable, be it via regularly engaging in cleaning activities, by collaborating with waste management officials, helping in waste segregation at the household level, or by driving awareness on the conservation of mangroves.
The children and youth are very vocal about the issues they face in and around their areas, and keen to act on them. They are optimistic that despite the frequent challenges faced, their regular efforts will pay off. They feel empowered by their knowledge and actions and are keen to take this ahead further with the people’s support.