The telephone connection from Kamrup district in Assam is often marred by static, but at the other end, the four children speaking in rapid Assamese are least bothered. They have some serious children’s issues on their mind — the shocking, open access children in Kamrup have to adult films, rampant substance abuse, and waterlogging, that prevents students from making it to their board exams in time. The quartet has, however, found ways to express itself in ways that do not depend on erratic phone lines.
Last month, Seema and Yoshana Chakravarty (12 and 18 years old respectively), began preparing for a print campaign against theatre owners who screen adult films and issue tickets to schoolgoing children. The reports will soon be published in their four-page monthly newsletter, Mukta Aakash, which was started in Kamrup with the help of UNICEF India in 2010. Today, 450 children from across Assam contribute to similar newsletters in their districts and, since June last year, make one large poster by the same name, which is pasted in busy market areas.
“Recently, my friends asked me to accompany them to an adult film showing in a neighbourhood theatre. I refused, and was promptly branded a ‘loser’ because I was not ‘cool enough’ and lacked the guts to watch a blue film,” says Yoshana in Assamese, which is then translated by Haima Vaishya, who assists the children in Assam. Later, Yoshana found that younger children in her school too, often went to watch adult films. She now decided to write about it.
Seema, on the other hand, admits, “I had not realised that having access to the Internet could have drawbacks too, until the older reporters asked us to be cautious about inappropriate content and make sensible choices,” she says.
The young reporters meet once a week to decide and assign stories and delegate aspects of design such as photographs, cartoons and illustrations. Mukta Aakash publishes reports, fictional stories, poems and cartoons sent in by their young readers too.
Fifteen year-old Fariul Ahmed draws comparisons with the mainstream media to prove his point. “This year, when some board students in our area missed their exams and others missed out on admissions due to heavy waterlogging outside their schools, the mainstream media wrote sketchy reports without talking to the children themselves. They think we can have nothing insightful to say and strings quotes from school and government authorities. Having our own newspaper really helps,” he says.
To create a larger impact in the region, the group also visits schools, convinces parents to send their children to schools, and speaks about the Right To Education (RTE)Act. Their reasons for being journalists vary — Seema, for instance, decided to be a young reporter last year because she saw children younger than her engaged in child labour. Others, like Yoshana, were part of their region’s Bal Punchayats and thought this was the next step to bring about change.
“Adults often wonder why can’t we ‘just concentrate on studies’, government authorities don’t always meet us for reports. But our articles and campaigns have made an impact and the garbage problem in our area is not as bad as before. When we stick our newsletters in the market, we have seen people discuss it and clean the area up at that very moment. Small things do help,” says Ahmed?
Hope with comics
Last month, 15 year-old Hyderabad-based Hope Awungshi stood in front of students at the Manipur school he left seven years ago to teach them how to publicise Manipur’s problems in the form of comics.
“Comics are not frivolous. They can bring out issues and you can have a good time doing it,” says Awungshi, who has been drawing since he was a child and learnt the art of using comics as a social medium from Sharad Sharma, founder of the World Comics Network at a workshop in 2009.
“Manipur has seen a lot of strife and insecurity, and it was cathartic for my peers to talk about it. Many of my friends were initially reluctant to speak about the region’s problems, but eventually they felt great about it. We printed the cartoons and stuck them in the neighbourhood, and students asked passers-by to jot down their feedback in a journal,” says Awungshi, adding that the responses ranged from surprise to encouragement.
“The idea is to give people a voice so we can be the change. I, for instance, am sure I want to be a social worker who works with art and cartoons to bring out social change when I grow up. And I want to be a footballer, too,” he smiles.
Awungshi also held three workshops at his home earlier this year, and was surprised to see many children make cartoons on the rampant student suicides. “You’d think children do not think about these issues, but we do.” Recently, Awungshi’s sister’s best friend committed suicide. “We could do nothing about it. But after this workshop, we spoke to parents, who admitted to pressurising their children. Soon after, many of the students who attended that workshop came back and said their parents’ attitudes had changed. We may not be able to press the government for change that is visible to everyone, but this is a start,” he says.
It was his first hand-drawn cartoon, adds Awungshi, which helped him get over the trauma of being mocked at by locals in Hyderabad when he first came to the place as an adolescent. “Adults and children still call me ‘Chinese’ and ‘Chinky’ when I walk down the road. I felt out of place and we even shifted home in Hyderabad when I was nine years old. But now, I don’t care because these cartoons are like a talisman I carry around.”
Awungshi doesn’t need any coaxing to admit that he is popular among the girls in Hyderabad and now, in Manipur, too. “At the recent Manipur workshop, the girls wouldn’t stop blushing when I explained what I do, and at the end of it all, one of them came and shyly kissed me on my cheek,” he says with a smile. “I now plan to hold workshops in Myanmar and Vietnam next year.”
‘People don’t care’
In Gairsain district of Uttarakhand, 15 year-old Aarti Purohit is one of the 3,250 young journalists spread across 13 districts of the state who work for the monthly 8-page newspaper Umang, which started in 2006.
Last year, Purohit decided to join the paper after her best friend of the same age told her she was about to get married. Purohit marched to her home and demanded an explanation from her parents, who were taken aback at the outburst. “The fact that they were adults didn’t help, did it? So, I decided to write about these issues.”
The feisty girl’s speech is peppered with words such as ‘jagrut’, ‘ruchi’ and ‘badlaav’. Gairsain has roads leading to remote villages which cannot be accessed because their condition is beyond repair. “I’ve done many stories about the condition of those roads, chased each official for three days and, sometimes, got nothing out of it. But I am not going to give up. I am going to be a social worker.” Not discouraged by the lack of impact, she adds, “ Most people here don’t care about what is happening to them. I don’t like that. But I know I will explore more, bigger avenues when I grow up. I will wait.”
Eighteen year-old Deepak Uttal, a senior editor at Umang from Uttar Kashi district, says he admires Purohit’s perseverance. “I’ve written on alcoholism in this region, caste discrimination, global warming and discrimination against the girl child in Umang. I cannot say every report has had an impact, but there have been changes.”
Recently, he says, after he wrote an article on alcoholism, a child refused to buy alcohol when asked to by his father and gave him a bottle of a soft drink, instead. The father smashed the glass bottle on his son’s head. “It caused an uproar in the region and the father was made to read our stories. He later apologised to his son and hasn’t touched alcohol since.”
In Uttar Kashi, adds Uttal, it is common for teachers in schools to make the children fetch gas and water for their free meal. “That stopped after we wrote about it. Today, many schools are now free of corporal punishment.”
Recently, after Umang published articles on the Rishi Valley model of teaching in schools, the education minister, says Uttal, announced last month that 36 schools in the state will now switch to the model that teaches with toys, not books.
“Thanks to our journalism, change is now just around the corner,” says Uttal.