Astal Anthony Tania, 16, is a resident of Uttan village in Thane district, Maharashtra. At a young age, he had already made a mark in his village. Three years ago, he led an initiative where over 100 tree saplings in Uttan were planted. Aston recalls the circumstances that led up to the tree plantation initiative, “In school, we learned about the harmful effects of global warming. Our teachers told us that children could contribute toward the environment by planting trees. My father too informed me that the government would provide tree saplings to anyone who wanted them.”
The teenager lives in an area where pollution of the sea coast and dumping of waste have caused serious environmental and health issues such as dengue and malaria. He and other children discussed about the menace of pollution at Bal Sansad, the children’s parliament in Uttan of which he is a member. It was in the course of these discussions when he put forth a proposal for planting trees on June 5, 2016 to the parliament to celebrate World Environment Day. The parliament consists of 30 children. There was a consensus among the members of the parliament to go ahead with the tree plantation drive. After enlisting their names for the drive, Astal wrote a letter to the government authorities with the help of his father, and requested for tree saplings. The request was granted. On 4th June, 2016,trucks arrived in Utan, bearing 150 saplings. The children’s parliament met in the evening, and decided to plant the saplings the next day at a church in Uttan and surrounding areas. Some samplings were still left, and thus, were distributed to the children so that they could plant near their homes.
Astal feels very proud of the plantation drive that Bal Sansad had organised because out of the 150 tree saplings, 80-90 of them have survived. For him, planting the saplings meant movinga step ahead from just discussing problems to taking remedial actions. The children’s parliament was formed in July 2015 with help from the Centre for Social Action (CSA), and started its activities by holding discussions on child rights and local issues. “In the course of just one year, the parliament became stronger because we no longer just sat and listened. We started participating in street plays on cleanliness of the sea coast, child marriage, and communal harmony. We also held interactions with local ministers,” Astal said.
The parliament intends to take more collective actions. Astal is concerned about the dumping ground in Uttan where garbage from neighbouring villages and Mumbai city is being dumped. “When the rains come, the garbageis carried along, and spreads all over. This brings diseases and foul smells. People also dump garbage in the creek, and when the creek water meets the sea, it affects the fish. The polluted water has caused the death of fish in great numbers because of which the fish catch has also declined significantly,” the 16-year-oldsays, demonstrating his understanding of environmental issues that the community faces.
The children of the parliament have met their local MLA, and discussed concerns of cleanliness of the coast, creeks, and hospitals. During these meetings, they take necessary photos and data, if available, to strengthen their demands. The MLA has promised the children tankers for water supply. The parliament also visited a hospital to check if essential medicines and vaccines were in stock. ‘Awareness picnics’ have been conducted at the police station and post office, and knowledge sessions on the Constitution of India have also been held.
Astal is eager about the forthcoming activities too. The parliament plans to do a survey of literacy levels in Uttan. “Child labour is prevalent in this area and we see that migrant children from other states work in tea shops and small hotels. These children should be in school,” he asserted. There are four committees in the children’s parliament: education, health, finance and environment. Astal, being the oldest, leads the parliament and its committees.
“I have always been interested in extracurricular activities at school and church activities,” Astal said when asked about his civic awareness. His parents encourage his endeavours. “They are happy with my participation in state and national level events on child rights. I am also more confident now.”
Though Astal Anthony Tania wants to be a genetic engineer, he is inspired by an initiative of street children in Delhi who runs a newspaper called Balaknama. A group of street children in the capital city started the newspaper in September, 2003 to ensure their voices would not go unheard. He too, wants to start a newspaper for children, complete with a team of reporters and editors.
Urvashi Sarkar, Maharashtra