In March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic brought the world to a standstill. The learning at schools and colleges was disrupted. India too had to impose a nationwide lockdown to stop the spread of the deadly virus. During the unprecedented times, it was the country’s army of frontline workers that took charge and helped millions of people across the country. The role of the Anganwadi workers was especially crucial for assisting the rural and semi-urban population.
While children have not been affected by the pandemic so far, UNICEF reports that the lockdown is having a significant impact on their well-being. There have been stories of children who have difficulty concentrating, are bored, irritable, restless, nervous, and feel lonely. The pandemic has impacted children’s mental health as they miss their school and friends.
This is the story of a determined youth from one of the most marginalised sections of Indian society, paving the path for many behind him. It is also a story of how the ‘system’ itself creates barriers for many who do not have the privilege of accessing opportunities. It started 10 years ago, in 2011. Raju Kendre, then an 18-year-old boy, was in Pune for admission to undergraduate studies. Owing to financial constraints, he had to give up the opportunity.
I follow a neat file of people lined outside Adarsh Foundation Study Center’s office who were there to collect ration under the Covid-19 relief distribution programme initiated by the members of the Center to support community settled in Kurla’s Qureshi Nagar, Mumbai. This fortnightly routine is managed by a young squad led by 21-year-old Sameer Kamble. With the informal sector coming to a halt, Sameer and his team has stepped up to help people in the community in this second wave of the Covid-19 lockdown in Mumbai.
As he notices me, he calls for a cutting chai and puts plastic chairs outside the office. He has frequented this study centre for years. “This is the place that contributed to my success and made me the person I am today!” he said with a beaming smile.
Sameer is a karate champion and has represented India at Russia for the Unifight (Universal Fight) World Championship. “Unifight is not a fighting style.
In the past five years, since our marriage, my wife Bhagyashree has not stopped asking questions. “Had you ever thought you would have your own house? Had you ever imagined you would have a love marriage? Did you ever think you would get so many relatives after marriage?” and so on but I fail to reply to these question as I live in the present – unable to dwell on the past and never think about the future. Nowadays, however, the nature of her questions has changed.
At the age of 23, when the idea of exploring life dominates the younger generation that often struggles with commitment issues, Vaibhav Pawar had different idea about exploring life. He dreamt of becoming a father to a daughter and had also thought of a name for her – Tiara. Now at 31, Vaibhav’s dream has come to life. He has found his calling and feels contended with a loving wife Janvi and daughter in tow. Vaibhav – a marketing consultant for an insurance company, is proud of his wife Janvi Doshi who’s a psychologist.
Snehal remembers reading when she was carrying Anaira – her daughter who turned 8 this year, that the baby in the womb is dependent on the mother for nutrition as well as mental, physical, and emotional growth. She adds, “It is true what you do, as parents, in the first 1000 days makes a difference to the rest of your baby’s life.” Research supports her claim.
“Amita bhabhi cannot work from home, her work doesn’t give her this privilege” says Sujata Sawant tai – an activist who has been working with the community in Buntar Bhavan, Qureshi Nagar, Kurla for the last 6 years. Amita, like several other women of the community, are essentially home helps. With the lockdown and its restrictions on travel, they’ve been asked to not come for work in Mumbai’s high-rise buildings and societies, until the restrictions are lifted.
Nitant Chavan, a 15-year-old adolescent from the Sindhudurg district of Maharashtra befriended the bicycle when he was just a toddler. His bond with the cycle grew deep with age and his escapades in the wilderness connected him with nature. Hailing from a small village called Varavade, located on the edge of the river of same name, Nitant grew around paddy fields and mangroves. The slow pace of village life was conducive for his love for the cycle and environment. It provided a space to Nitant and helped him bond with the trees and the flora and fauna. The expanse around the village enchanted him and he decided to explore it. As he cycled from place to place, he sensed the depletion of the ecosystem and decided to raise awareness about it.
In the last one year, Covid-19 has changed the way world functioned. After upending day-to-day lives across the globe, it transformed our way of working, learning and interacting. The need for ‘physical’ distancing has led to a more virtual existence. Of everything that has been shifted to the ‘online’ mode, education has suffered the most specially in here in our country. With a large population devoid of access to resources required to acquire education online, children and parents have faced their worst nightmares in the last one year.
The district of Nandurbar from Maharashtra houses two mountainous Adivasi blocks – Akkalkuwa and Dhadgaon. Here, the basic amenities like potable water, electricity and transport are scant. Women have to tread few kilometers every day to fetch water and electricity is conspicuous by its absence.
Along with the topographical hurdles, the local communities face difficulties in accessing health and education services as well. A number of schools, Primary Health Centers (PHCs) and Anganwadi Centers (AWCs) are housed in makeshift structures. The existing number of health workers, teachers and Anganwadi Workers (AWWs) holding these facilities together.
Pooja Mudhane, a nineteen-year-old girl from Virar — a town in Palghar district of Maharashtra — was exposed to the ugly reality of caste system when she was in Class-III. The school had announced the final exam results in which Pooja had secured top position. She was eager to show the report card to her friends but her father stopped her from doing so. He said, “Our caste, Mahar, is mentioned in your report card. You don’t have to show it to others.” Pooja asked, “Why should I hide my caste?” She didn’t understand the concept of caste system, however, she did sense the shame associated with it.
Deafening sounds of clicking and thudding coming from the power looms located in dark, dingy bylanes define Bhiwandi – the loom town of Maharashtra. There are several rows of shanties with overflowing drains dotting the streets. The poor state of hygiene and sanitation is an evident characteristic of the region yet that’s not all that describes Bhiwandi; flowers do bloom amid the muck and the mire. 43-year-old Javeriya Kazi – the principal of ‘Momin Girls’ School’ is one such example who is trying to change this image of the town by transforming its landscape.
19-year-old Ramzan Sheikh from Maharashtra is a second-year student pursuing Bachelor of Arts. Born in a lower-middle class family, Ramzan’s life has been about struggle and compromise. His father is a daily wage laborer while his mother is associated with a non-profit organization ‘Saryjani Mahila Utkarsha Sanstha’ engaged in TB control and Family Development programmes in the bastis of Bhiwandi. Having lived a life full of struggles, Ramzan is empathetic towards other young children and works towards supporting them through their challenges.
A few years ago, the residents of Mumbai were barely aware that a forest existed within the city, let alone the fact that Adivasis lived in it. One can only imagine the problem of identity that young Adivasis would face living in a city. With one part of life enveloped within forests and another amidst the chaos of a city, the Warli tribe has spent their life navigating this identity. Life of Manisha Dhine, a local Adivasi girl from this tribal community in Aarey, is a reflection of their struggles to fight for the right.
How do we measure merit and accomplishment? Why is the applause reserved only for the rank holders and successful students? Is academic success the only criteria of meritocracy? When you meet the 17-year-old Fiza Yusuf Sheikh from Bhiwandi you realize the unjust system of merit which is often a product of privilege. This teenager has done commendable work in her community, from stopping child marriages to persuading parents to seek immunization for their children but has failed to crack the Secondary School Certification (SSC) exam.
Born into the most ordinary circumstances, 16-year-old Zosha Khan’s story is full of strength and spirit. This young girl from Goregoan, Mumbai city in Maharashtra trying to make a difference by advocating for Child Rights. Her father is a salesman in a furniture shop and mother, a home maker. She has three siblings. The family finds it difficult to make ends meet with meagre salary that the father gets. But that is no deterrent to Zosha who thinks ‘will assumes more power than money’ and is herself a living example of this adage.
In a widely acclaimed interview with the Science Times in 2011, Stephen Hawking famously advised people with disability to focus on things which their disability does not prevent them from doing. He said, “Don’t be disabled in spirit, as well as physically”. It is a piece of profoundly powerful advice from one of the greatest thinkers ever lived. Rutuja Raorane, an 18-year-old from Kankavli, Maharashtra, India embodies this advice. This is an account of a young change-maker who has been channelling her life experiences in creating a positive impact around her. It is her story of determination and a yearning to be independent. Rutuja was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy at the age of 3. It is an incurable genetic disease that causes loss of muscle mass and progressive weakness. Rutuja’s parents – Deepak and Shweta Raorane, did not realize the specifics.
Joe Biden, the newly elected President of the USA had vowed to enact the Equality Act in his first 100 days of commencing the office. The said Act would provide consistent and explicit non-discrimination protection for LGBTQ+ people across key areas of life, including employment, housing, credit, federally funded programmes and jury service. In India, after decriminalising homosexuality in 2018, the legality of same-sex marriage is now being raised in our courts.
Saloni Todkari, a class 10 student, immediately after joining her new school at Kalyan was informed by her teacher that bindi and bangles were mandatory for girl students. Saloni and her friend Rekha (name changed) who wore neither the bindi nor the bangles, failed to understand the teacher’s insistence while the rule book of the school didn’t mention it. The overzealous teacher would often reprimand them and would offer these two ‘erring’ students the accessories from her stock – only to be rejected. Their behavior was soon reported to the principal who summoned the duo and asked for an explanation for not following the dictate of the school.
“The law of love could be best understood and learned through little children,” believed Mahatma Gandhi who always had a special place for children in his heart. His immense belief in children has, undoubtedly, inspired generations and the values he had advocated continue to guide the young minds even today. One such young mind following the teachings of Gandhi is Maharashtra’s 16-year old activist Saloni Todkari.
The law of love could be best understood and learned through little children,” believed Mahatma Gandhi who always had a special place for children in his heart. His immense belief in children has, undoubtedly, inspired generations and the values he had advocated continue to guide the young minds even today. One such young mind following the teachings of Gandhi is Maharashtra’s 16-year-old Saloni Todkari.
When his band of friends came to call Vinayak Sonar for an evening around the usual katta last year, his mother met them at the door. “Kaku, where is Vinayak?” asked the teenage boys. “He’s washing utensils and said he will come later.” The band of boys burst into muffled giggles. Vinayak’s story isn’t about protest marches or youth conferences, but it’s about a silent revolution that adolescent boys in Pune’s communities are a part of – of moving from the belief of ‘protecting women’ to making the world a more gender equitable space.
In early April a tweeter user had put up a post saying that his children have given away all their savings towards Prime Minister Care Fund. A number of children have joined hands with citizen’s groups and NGOs to reach out to the communities who had lost their livelihood due the lockdown.
Covid19 pandemic and the subsequent lockdown has hit the lively spirit of children and young adults and they have been relegated to home. Many parents say that their children have become jittery and distressed. Lockdown has inspired some children and young adults to take to creative writing, whereas children from a slum in Oshiwara in suburban Mumbai have joined hands with an NGO wanting to reach out to the local communities for delivering food and other essential items.
We require a key ally to shift from the popularly accepted notion of ‘protecting women’ to fundamentally changing the world around us to make it safer for women: young men. Sachin Balkunde, is one such thoughtful 19-year-old who has been having difficult dialogues about gender-based violence and discrimination with himself and his peers for the last 5 years.
Varad Kubal, a resident of Achara village in Sindhudurga District of Maharashtra is 15 years old. However, he belies his age when he starts speaking about the fragile ecosystem of his village. ‘The trees, the birds and the animals have to bear the brunt of the construction activities taking place in the district. Thousands of trees have already been felled and the environment around the village has become untenable.