Skewing priorities: what do we give up, what do we gain?

Saba Khan

Many major cities in India are undergoing massive expensive changes under the Smart City projects*. Bhopal is one of the cities in the first phase. There are huge expenditures for ‘beautification’ of the city, even as one can see how the rights of the urban deprived, Dalit, Adivasi, and Muslim children are being withheld and abused. Between 25-30 per cent of Bhopal’s population lives in slums, which are constituted primarily by Dalits, tribals, denotified tribes and Muslims. Yet, Smart City Projects do not recognize this for sector-wise planning. Child rights need to be seen in the light of the living conditions of deprived and marginalized people. We will try and shed light on the condition of the oppressed children in a rapidly urbanizing city that is fast evolving into a smart city in the context of Bhopal – the capital of Madhya Pradesh, with a population of over 20 lakhs.

It is known that the urban poor are constituted to a large extent by the migration of rural labour or marginalized farmers. Most readers of this magazine will be from middle or upper middle class backgrounds. A large section of us believes that the urban poor are better off in cities than they were in villages – they have lost nothing in migration – only gained (we only look at monetary incomes, which are usually more in the city than in the village). Many of us maybe unaware of the travails of the urban poor. This article brings to light the constant struggle of the urban poor and particularly of their children.

Looking at urban deprivation, we see Dalits, Muslims, and Adivasis migrated and displaced from villages, their lives disrupted constantly by displacement – from the heart of the city to its peripheries 20 kilometres away, to the banks of drains, their children facing constant harassment and oppression. In their struggle for a living, their identities are stifled.

Uprooted from their homes, such deprived communities do not find space to celebrate their culture, language, identity, joys and sorrows. In search of belonging, the youth and children from Dalit and Adivasi communities look at the majoritarian festivals in a fractured manner in the way the politics of the city and political parties project them. They try to find their existence and identity in the fast vulgarising and violent culture of flags, sticks, loud and aggressive slogans and even show of arms used in religious gatherings and rallies. In these conditions, the children live in constant danger of their identities lost or co-opted by the gathering crescendo of verbal nation building, giving rise to forms of identity crises.

All the rights outlined in the Convention of the Rights of the Child are challenged or abrogated in these circumstances – first to go is their right to safety and to education.

Displacement of bastis and schools and its impact
When people from Ehsaan Nagar, Kajrikheda, Gehukheda, Barkhedi, Bagh Mughalia and IIFM (Mandva) were displaced from their homes, people were shifted without any prior preparations or provisions for basic needs like vaccinations for pregnant women, anganwadi, primary and secondary schools, local transport, primary healthcare centre, electricity or even water. Even today these places lack basic facilities and this directly violates children’s basic rights.

It is not just the homes but also their amenities that suffer. Their schools are shifted without any notice. Can we imagine that to ever happen to the schools of our children? In the year 2018-19, about 10,000 children were affected due to the Smart City Project in Bhopal because of the shifting of 11 government schools. Samrat Ashok School in T.T. Nagar was displaced and shifted to Baba Nagar, about 14 kilometers away, while the bastis where the children studying in this school were staying remained where they were. This affected the education of the children from these bastis.

One morning when the teachers and children of Nutan Subhash School reached their school, they found a notice stuck on the door, which said that the school had been shifted. Neither the school nor the D.E.O. had been given any prior intimation. This clearly indicates the level of sensitivity and awareness towards concerns centered around children. The spaces left behind during earlier urban plans are being converted into markets, megamalls and parking spaces.

Identity in question – no documents – no identity: Getting displaced again and again creates serious problems in children’s education and family income. It also deprives a lot of people of the right to their identity and citizenship, even to the right to their own family as the case below shows! When their homes are being broken, people are more concerned with saving the building materials so that they can build another house; collecting documents is the least of their worries. Though they do attempt to get these documents, the process of procuring them leaves the people dejected and sometimes makes them abandon their attempts. The result of not having proper documents reflects directly on children being deprived of fee waivers, exemptions and reservations.

Recently, a family belonging to the Muslim Madari community from Mandwa basti was living on the roadside near Jawahar Chowk because they had lost their jhuggi (hut) in the floods. But the two sons, ages 10 and 12, were living in a public latrine in Mandwa so that they could keep an eye on what was left of their home. During this time, the two boys were caught by the police driving a Scooty stolen by another man. Because the family lost their home every year in the floods, their documents were either wet or spoiled. The children were sent to a juvenile observation home. Due to lack of documents, the parents could not prove that the two young boys were their own sons. They could not even give the sons new clothes for Eid, because of this! They were released after Eid by the efforts of child rights activists.

Loss of family occupation: Minimum wages of adult unorganized labour are not ensured. Children of the poor often have to work. The children of Mochis learnt footwear repair, the Madaris’ children entertainment, the Gond Adivasis had knowledge of herbs so would sell them, the Pardhi children learnt hunting and making totems. But now the space for these occupations has shrunk. Cobbler shops in the city are being displaced to give space to the shops of big commercial companies and the Municipal Corporation is not allowing communities like the Pardhis to set up shops in markets at prime locations; opportunities of these communities to practise their ancestral skills and earn from them are diminishing. And so the adults and children of these communities are left with no other option but to sell newspapers, pens, toys, and balloons made by big companies, on the roads. Here, the children become exposed and vulnerable to vices like drugs and exploitation by drug dealers, brothels, etc.

Gyaan (name changed), used to sell newspapers with the children of his basti after school. Here he got addicted to sniffing ‘solution’ glue, whiteners, adhesives for repairing punctures, etc., which have intoxicants. Sniffing solution also got him into theft and crime. In the end, Gyaan left both home and school.

Hiding children and their poverty in the shadow of Smart City: It is clear from the above that the rights of poor and deprived basti children are constantly in grave danger, and often actually violated. It is impossible to ensure the rights of every urban child while ignoring urban poverty. Until parents are given sufficient employment and adequate wages, child labour as a fallback in times of increasing financial crises will continue to grow. Two children were ‘rescued’ – taken away – from their home in Gautam Nagar because there was no one to take care of them in the house. The mother used to sell scrap collected by their father. Getting the children back was a big challenge, as the parents were asked to give in writing that the mother wouldn’t go to work and that only the father would earn. This statement, made by an institution supposedly sympathetic to children, shows that we see economic poverty to be distant from children.

Many examples of multidimensional discrimination and violence towards deprived and marginalized communities can be seen around us. Children from the denotified, nomadic and Adivasi communities see, in their daily lives, open discrimination, police brutality, and undignified lives the people in their families have to live. How can such children harbour positivity towards the world and the system when they have seen their families for generations being disrespected and living in fear?

Children and education: Three-fourth of the children from marginalized communities are forced to leave school even before they complete their primary education. The educational curriculum and the school system do not include any subject matter connected to an Adivasi child’s environment. There is no place in literature for the lives of Adivasi children or for the stories of people from the deprived sections of the society. Caste discrimination and violence is rampant in schools. All these factors force children to quit school, or they quit school because they don’t fit in school. The school expects the children to be well-behaved. It does not take cognizance of the context of the urban poor children. Instead of recognizing and encouraging children’s hidden skills, the school highlights their shortcomings, thus crushing their self confidence and pushing them out of school. If education has to be universalized, the school needs to understand and be sensitive to the rights of the poor and socially deprived child.

As long as child right discourses do not include the different contexts of underprivileged children and provide total acceptance to these children, child rights of a third of the population will remain a chimera for children from underprivileged communities.

*Smart City Projects envisage large expenditures for retrofitting spaces of 500 acres in sets of cities. They talk of the city and its citizens as a whole ignoring the socio economic hierarchies and the issues of the urban poor.

Note: This article has been translated from Hindi by Aaloka Kanhere.

Saba Khan is a rights activist working with the organization Muskaan in Bhopal. She works with children of denotified tribes and Muslim minority in Bhopal. She can be reached at [email protected].

Aaloka Kanhere is a mathematics educator, who has worked with maths curriculum development and teacher education at Eklavya and is currently working with HBCSE. She can be reached at [email protected].

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