The city of Mumbai’s well kept secret, opens up like a can of worms when you step into the M-East Ward, Mumbai. It reveals how little it fulfils the dreams of people, who have to busy themselves with making real their most basic rights, quite contrary to its epithet of ‘city of dreams’.
A 2 km walk to the toilet on the other side of the road, or finding a corner to defecate at the dumping ground, boys doing nasha and ganja in shady by lanes, young girls preyed upon at every crossroad, overflowing gutters and heaps of waste making their way into every home, dirty drinking water, diarhhoea, malnutrition, and a recurrent cycle of illnesses, inadequate medical facilities, slums, settlements, 100 sq ft homes and the looming threat of eviction, school drop outs, low literacy rates and no avenues for secondary education, labourers, drivers, tailors and dismal livelihood opportunities, a place where child marriage, gender inequality and everyday struggle is the norm.
Buried in a cycle of poverty, M East ward confesses the poor picture of Mumbai’s unequal development.
“M East ward has been a place where people don’t demand their rights. They have resigned to their realities and make no attempts to change it,” says Hasina Shaikh who has spent her childhood at M-East Ward and is now a field officer for Apnalaya. “But things are changing,” she adds and looks rather optimistically at the little humans in the room.
At the Apnalaya Centre in Shivaji Nagar, a common space where children of the community gather, a group of 10 boys and girls sit ready to meet with us. These children are part of different Bal Panchayats, an age-old concept created across societies to encourage participation, involvement, self governance and their own development. This democratic platform allows children to engage directly with duty bearers in order to elicit their attention and action on issues that concern them.
Ranked 24th – the last among the 24 municipal wards in Mumbai – M-East Ward lies at the bottom in terms of Human Development Index (HDI), leaving upto the Bal Panchayats of M-East ward to address a multitude of issues. Comprising 73 adolescent children, each member of the 2 Bal Panchayat has an equal say in selecting issues of priority and planning action towards it. They maintain records through charts, and dated notes in their dairies, tick marking as they move forward in each task. What makes these Bal Panchayat’s stand apart is the enormity of problems they deal with, the perspective they lend to handling each problem and the ripple effect they create by their enthusiasm and zest, in changing mindsets and not giving up until they see results. ‘Shayad hume bhi karna chahiye,’ say parents and community members who see the younger citizens of M-East Ward leading the way to a better life.
Today, the strength of the Bal Panchayat have grown from 30 to 73 members, making it the go-to place for any issues to be solved. Today, it stands for much more than a children’s parliament encouraging their participation, but for galvanzing the most precious resources of this community and making them self-assured, thinking and contributing members of society, something they had never imagined. While some issues in this community have seen success, and many remain unresolved, the spirit of these young Mumbaikar’s remains unbroken.
Meet the bandwagon of 17 year olds, at the cusp of their adulthood, serving the poorest and most under-served Municipal Ward in India’s wealthiest city and building hope in a once hopeless place.
Mission 24 is a civic initiative, aimed at bringing basic amenities to people in M-East ward – amenities without which a life with dignity and self-respect is unthinkable. As we know, of the total 24 wards in Mumbai, M-East ward is 24th, right at the bottom, with regard to all human development indices.