Seeing Indian cities through the eyes of children

(v.s.anandhakrishna/Shutterstock)

DELHI, India — Urban planning may be for grownups, but planners can do a much better job of accommodating the needs of children in cities.

That was the premise behind a recent conference here by the name of Urban 95. The 95 stands for 95 centimetres — that’s the average height of a healthy 3-year old. City leaders, urban planners, architects, engineers and members of civil society were asked: If you could see the city from the perspective of a child, what would you do differently?

The question is not a hypothetical one. A growing body of scientific literature tells us that early childhood development is shaped by one’s environment. A recent series in The Lancet, the prestigious medical journal, noted that children are most vulnerable to adversity — and most responsive to intervention — in the first 1,000 days after conception. Poverty and deprivation have a bearing on developmental delays. Not only do those delays expand over a lifetime but they also can lead to developmental shortcomings in later generations.

India has particular reason to worry. According to a new report from India’s National Institute of Urban Affairs, 8.1 million children between the ages of 0 and 6 live in slums. These children bear the brunt of cramped living spaces and a lack of play areas, parks, sports facilities and community support structures. Inadequate access to safe drinking water and sanitation services puts children at increased risk of illness, malnutrition and death.

The conference was organized by the National Institute of Urban Affairs, the Confederation of Indian Industry, and two organizations focused on children: the Bernard van Leer Foundation, a Dutch NGO, and Humara Bachpan, a civil society campaign working to groom children into community activists.

But the stars were the children who came from across India and as far as Peru to tell their stories.

Jasmine Nissa, a 16-year old who lives in a slum in the eastern India city of Bhubaneswar, was one of them. She summed up the point of Urban 95 well. “A child‘s brain forms 700 neural connections every second,” she told the audience. “Young children are affected by all aspects of city life, be it housing, healthcare, water and sanitation, recreational spaces and transport.”

Identifying child leaders

Jasmine is part of the Humara Bachpan campaign, which works by setting up clubs for children in cities across India. (Humara Bachpan means “Our Childhood”.) The clubs are both social spaces and vehicles for identifying children who possess leadership qualities. Organizers groom those children, such as Jasmine, into “child leaders” who lobby city authorities for better basic services for children. The movement has mobilized 33,000 child advocates in 330 slums across 11 Indian cities.

[See: How a generation of young leaders is emerging from India’s slums]

Jasmine’s father is an autorickshaw driver; her mother is a homemaker. The teenager has been part of the Humara Bachpan campaign for four years. It started with a child club Humara Bachpan’s field workers helped set up in Jasmine’s neighbourhood.

“In the early days, parents were not encouraging,” Jasmine recalls. “They thought we were wasting time, attending all these weekly meetings. We did not even have a proper place to meet. Finally, we found one in a temple complex. There was no toilet there, no street lights and an open sewer running alongside.”

The first batch of child club members, including Jasmine, went door-to-door in the slum, asking parents to let their children join the club and attend weekly meetings. In 2013, the children presented a charter of demands to the city’s mayor and to local leaders. They asked for street lights to be fixed, drains to be repaired and dustbins to keep trash from piling up. It took some months, but city leaders responded. Since then, these charters have become a tool used by the children to get their voices heard when problems arise with basic civic amenities.

A child club in Bhopal successfully lobbied for improvements to a local childcare centre. (Humara Bachpan)

Interventions by child leaders in other cities, such as Bhopal in central India, have led to improvements of facilities known as “anganwadi centres”. These are early childcare centres, and are part of a long-running national government scheme to improve the nutritional and health status of children in the 0-to-6 age group. Many of these centres are in terrible condition.

In Bhopal, members of a local child club known as Samman, successfully advocated to move the local anganwadi to a more spacious and cleaner building, where bare walls have been adorned with colourful posters. The revamped facility has a washroom with a tap that toddlers can reach. The children also successfully advocated for better-trained teachers who are teaching small children to read and write in ways that are fun and stimulating.

Child-friendly cities

Another speaker was Roopak Gouda, 17, also from Bhubaneswar. Roopak was a child club leader until very recently. Now he has graduated to become a community mobilizer for Humara Bachpan, which means he recruits children to join child clubs and become advocates in their communities.

Roopak’s father runs a tea stall and his mother is a homemaker. He came in touch with Humara Bachpan when the campaign organized a drawing competition in his neighbourhood. That was three years ago. Roopak says with pride that he has met local legislators, the mayor and the boss of the Bhubaneswar Development Authority.

“Our first success as child club members was when we got through to the mayor and managed to persuade him to send cleaners to sweep our locality,” Roopak says. “The important people may not listen to adults but they can’t ignore a group of determined children.”

Recently, Humara Bachpan had a couple of major political breakthroughs. One was the inclusion of the term “child-friendly” in the federal government’s urban development policy.

The other breakthrough was in Bhubaneswar. 

Across India, cities are competing for national funds as part of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Smart Cities Mission. Bhubaneswar’s successful proposal positions the locality as a “child-friendly” smart city. According to a presentation by Krishnan Kumar of the Bhubaneswar Development Authority, this means the city will aim to have at least one playground per ward and place traffic signals near schools.

“Child-friendly smart cities,” a slide in Kumar’s presentation says, “are focused on designing urban spaces from the eyes of a child, building on the premise that what is ‘safe for a child is safe for everyone’.”

[See: In India, debating the meaning of ‘competitive sub-federalism’]

Dharitri Patnaik, senior country representative with the Bernard van Leer Foundation, says Humara Bachpan’s years of work in Bhubaneswar influenced the city’s pitch. “During the presentation of the smart city proposal, Humara Bachpan played a key role … by holding community labs, workshops with children and campaigning for a child-friendly city,” Patnaik says. Bhubaneswar’s child club members are helping city leaders with ideas to design parks in the city.

Jasmine and Roopak have plenty of ideas about what becoming a child-friendly smart city should mean in Bhubaneswar. “We have suggested that the zebra crossings be made colourful and child-friendly, especially near schools, so that everyone is on alert,” says Roopak. “Drinking water taps in public places should be at low heights so that children can reach them.”

“It is good that planners are willing to hear what we have to say.”

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Patralekha Chatterjee is a correspondent for Citiscope based in Delhi. She is an award-winning journalist and columnist who has written extensively on Asian cities. Full bio

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