#UprootedChildhoods – Claiming Spaces For Play: Mumbai’s Children & Youth Lead A Promising Movement

Children at play in Lallubhai Compound, Mankhurd

Children’s right to an adequate home comprises of not just the four walls of a home, but the environment they grow up in, and the basic amenities and facilities made available to them. Within this framework, the right to play is an inalienable requirement as accorded within Article 31 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC, 1992). No discussion on right to housing is complete if the right to play is not addressed, as the latter helps children and young people (CYP) explore and interact with their surroundings, helping in their physical, mental and social development.

However, discussions on the right to play invariably need to take into account not only need for access to play spaces, but also the existence of such spaces in and around their homes, and the free use of such spaces without any discrimination, bullying, or risk of harm. In recent years, however, access to play, both in and outside the house, is increasingly under threat. Against these circumstances, CYP collectives across the city of Mumbai have been leading a powerful moment to claim their rights.

Changing city realities
Over the past few decades, homes are becoming more cramped and open spaces are shrinking at a rapid pace in Mumbai. With the increasing concretisation of the city, space has become a luxury. In fact, a recent study calculated Mumbai’s open space per person at just 1.1 square metre, 31x lower than in London and 26x lower than in New York.

In the absence of physical space, the city’s real estate developers have been wooing customers by developing spaces vertically with amenities such as swimming pools, gyms and squash courts in plush gated societies. While these services may offer an outlet to explore physical activity in accessible open spaces, they are only enjoyed by a small minority who can afford them. India’s vulnerable children (estimated to be 40% of the total child population) are not so lucky.

No room for play
In informal settlements (bastis) and resettlement sites, children are most vulnerable, exposed to a host of dangers. They spend hours indoors, either glued to their mobile phone screens, watching television, or helping their parents with chores. There is hardly any space for play within the confines of a small house where family members are cramped together. Play in spaces outdoors exposes children to more threats – bullying from miscreants, exposure to hazardous substances, fear of accidents and so on. Parents prefer, therefore, that children remain home but are unable to offer them any alternate play opportunities. This stunts the child’s growth, adversely affecting health and well-being. Girls are most affected. Even in areas where children have some opportunity for play, a study discovered how boys continue playing till they are 20, while girls stop when they are around 12-years-old.

‘All the UNCRC signatory nations, including India, have obligations to recognise children’s right to play and provide safe and adequate spaces for children to play,’ says Sampat Mandave, Programme Coordinator, Terre des hommes Germany – India Programme. Implementation of this has been far from ideal. However, in Mumbai, there has been a budding movement to claim spaces for play by CYP who are seeing this as an essential part of their growing up years. They are demanding accessible spaces for play near their homes, and connecting it with their adequate housing requirements.

Resistance begins
In Jogeshwari, a neighbourhood in west Mumbai, there used to be six grounds for play at one time. As real-estate activities expanded, one space after another was wiped out. Finally, the Ismail Yusuf College ground was the only one remaining. In due course, it was also up for redevelopment into a manicured garden, a space that would only welcome certain sections of people. To protect this space CYP joined hands. They invoked their right to play here and organised a long march in 2016 all the way up to the local administrator’s office in Jogeshwari. Different sports groups, local organisations and networks extended their support. The collective voices lent strength to the movement. As CYP associated with this resistance in larger numbers, they also articulated their demands for other requirements, such as a meeting space, library, community centres, gymnasium, and these were gradually set up in the community in due course. The persevering efforts of CYP paid off, when the administrator accepted their demands to leave this space free for their use. This was a huge confidence boost for all the people associated with this movement. Currently, over 500 of them regularly play on these grounds.

Let’s shift our attention to the Malwani (Malad) ground in Block III now. This space was rampantly used by drug abusers. It was not a safe space for children. The open ground in the area was dirty, with garbage piled high. At first, CYP helped clean this area. The youth were even beaten up by the drug abusers once for trying to claim this space. They lodged complaints against the miscreants, and ensured that the police recorded the complaints instead of brushing it off. A long march to the police station was organised to place demands. Finally, a public meeting took place with the police, who demonstrated their support for CYP. This ground started being used by them for their play henceforth.

Children enjoy a race at the space claimed in Malwani, Malad

At first, the community offered no support to these youngsters. But once they saw the impact of the movement, they started using these spaces too. Cultural programmes started getting organised in this space. Currently, about 40–50 CYP regularly play on these grounds. Volleyball, cricket and badminton are some of the games played. In this way, spaces that were lying waste earlier, functioning as hubs of crime and addiction, have been integrated within the community and are being used for play and other recreational activities.

Claiming a place, play and much more
In 2017, youth groups across bastis through their city-wide forum facilitated by YUVA got together and decided to launch a ‘claiming spaces campaign’ that would run through the year. Some of the new spaces identified by CYP included Anand Nagar in Jogeshwari, and spaces under the Western Express Highway.
The success in Malwani helped ideate on how to claim the Moina Masjid ground in Ambujwadi (Malad). In a similar way, the youth cleaned the area and converted it to a kabaddi ground with their efforts. Girls who had no opportunity to leave their houses earlier also started playing on these grounds. In 2016-17, the children started kickboxing lessons in this space too. The youth have scouted for coaches to train them on various sports. The space is inclusive, being used by CYP, both girls and boys from minority communities too. A few of the children who have excelled at sports have also started training to play professionally. The families do not have the money to send these children for expensive training sessions. Girls from minority communities are being trained in football (12-16 years in age) and are playing at the state under-16 level.

The Malwani model also prompted the youth from other areas to place their demands before relevant authorities. In Lallubhai Compound, Mankhurd, a rehabilitation and resettlement (R&R) ‘vertical slum’ where children have no space for play, the Cement Maidan, formerly a dumping area, started being cleaned up and was used as a space to play cricket and football. Both boys and girls participated in the games. In a cricket tournament organised, policemen from Shivaji Najar, Mankhurd and Govandi also participated to show their support for the children.

In Vile Parle, near the airport, there was no space for playing. Mentored by the youth, children started playing under the Western Express Flyover. Nowadays, women also use this space for their yoga and exercise, and CYP play here in the evenings. In Dharavi youth started asking for spaces. In Santacruz, the need for spaces to study and play in were highlighted. When couples started getting driven off from spaces, the youth protested about it and even took it to the city-level.

In this way, vulnerable children across the city have invoked their right to play and taken active steps to protect and uphold it, even when denied these spaces indoors. Their resilience has inspired others to join their movements. The demand for play spaces has expanded to include all needs connected to those for adequate housing, for instance the growth of safe spaces, community resource centres, garbage-free communities and so on. The movement seeks to empower not just CYP but the entire community. Inclusive spaces are developing in different areas, which can be freely used by all.

#UprootedChildhoods is a collaboration between Leher and YUVA (Youth for Unity and Voluntary Action), attempting to spark dialogue on a critical yet oft invisibilised concern—the views of children on housing. The campaign draws from YUVA’s in-depth interventions with children over the years across cities, and Leher’s focus and commitment to child rights, with a preventive approach towards child protection. Through the different blogs, photo essays, video stories, infographics and other formats we hope to present many faces of urban childhoods.

Photo Credits : Yuva

Words By : Yuva

Youth for Unity and Voluntary Action (YUVA) is a non-profit development organisation that helps vulnerable groups access their rights. YUVA encourages the formation of people’s collectives to engage them in the development discourse. This work is complemented with advocacy and policy recommendations. Set up in Mumbai in 1984, currently YUVA operates in 5 Indian states.

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