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Catching them young

The programme, which has reached 2,000 students in 20 schools across Mumbai, aims to lay the foundation for school children to mature into responsible, aware adults who can look after the environment, reports Sai Raje.

india Updated: Jan 15, 2013 12:13 IST
Sai Raje

Images of Mumbai’s beaches, strewn with garbage, plastic bags and broken Ganesh idols in a film on water pollution moved 13-year-old Sharvarie Sohoni so much that she decided to take action.

Spurred by arguments during a class discussion after the screening, she convinced her family to switch to a small, eco-friendly Ganesh idol made of clay that could be immersed in a tank at home. This ripple effect of civic consciousness spreading from the classroom to the young girl and her family was exactly what the Children’s Movement for Civic Awareness (CMCA) hoped to achieve.

The programme, which has reached 2,000 students in 20 schools across Mumbai, aims to lay the foundation for school children to mature into responsible, aware adults who can look after the environment.

It’s a timely initiative. About 25,000 civic workers in Mumbai collect 10,000 tonnes of garbage from 6,000 community bins and six lakh homes everyday. Despite this, the city’s streets, beaches and railway tracks are still strewn with more waste.

The problem is not that Mumbaikars generate a lot of waste — a Mumbaikar, on average, generates 450 gm of waste per day, compared to 2 kg per day for a New Yorker and 1.7 kg per day for a Londoner. The problem lies in an inefficient and ancient garbage management and disposal system and our general lack of civic sense.

That’s what makes CMCA important. The students who are part of the programme have participated in several campaigns since 2004, including crusades against plastic bags and firecrackers, as well as clean-up drives at Girgaum Chowpatty, Juhu Beach and Powai lake every year after Ganesh visarjan.

“The advantage of working with young children is that they are not cynical and are receptive to change,” said Priya Krishnamurthy, who works for CMCA India, in Bangalore.

The initiative was started in 2000 by Public Affairs Centre and Swabhimana, both Bangalore-based NGOs, after 3,000 children who participated in a cycle rally for a clean, green city thought there should be a sustained effort towards civic awareness. Since then, it has spread to schools in Mysore, Hubli-Dharwad, Hosur in Tamil Nadu and Mumbai.

At the centre of the programme is a civic club — an association of students in schools that are CMCA members. There are 280 such clubs across India, 40 of which are in Mumbai (20 schools, each of which has two clubs on an average).

“Trained volunteers are in charge of these civic clubs and they conduct a session every week. There are programme modules along with reading material for volunteers and guidelines on conducting sessions,” said Vinodini Lulla, CMCA’s Mumbai coordinator.

Once a school becomes a member, CMCA turns one division of a class, usually Class VII, into a civic club. “We ask the school for one period a week with the children. The clubs will not work as efficiently as they do now if the sessions are held after school,” said Lulla.

Interactive discussions, games, skits and field trips are used to drive home concepts like civic sense, fundamental rights and duties, active citizenship, local government, solid waste management and water issues. There is also a special focus on the Right to Information Act.

The programme aims to gradually sensitise children to civic and environmental issues so that they grow into active, responsible citizens. “Our work may not give immediate, tangible results. But the small changes in children’s attitudes make us hopeful for the future,” said Reena Gupta, CMCA Mumbai’s first volunteer.

“I’m encouraged when I meet students who are no longer civic club members but still carry with them what they learnt here,” she said.

Take 13-year-old Shreyas Ridhorkar and his classmate Shashank Uniyal, students of Navy Children’s School, Colaba, for instance. During a class picnic at a water park last year, the boys noticed that their classmates were littering the canteen, though there were plenty of dustbins around.

“There were chips, biscuits and chewing gum wrappers in the canteen and the bus. We started picking up all the rubbish and putting it into a bin, “ said Ridhorkar. “The boys teased us, calling us names like kachrawala (garbade collector), but we ignored them.” Many of the boys who teased them then are now CMCA members. “Now they also don’t hesitate to pick up litter,” Uniyal added.

Principals and teachers agree. Lakshmi Krishnaswamy, vice-principal, Utpal Sanghvi School, Juhu, felt that since CMCA catches children at an impressionable age, the things they learn stay with them for life. “Children are the best to market new ideas to because they can influence others around them as well,” she said.