By Diana Coulter
KOLKATA, India, 27 April 2011 – Salim Sheikh, 13, and his friends are putting their sprawling Kolkata slum on the map – literally. For a year now, they’ve been gathering data about the people, small brick huts, crowded alleys, scattered temples, few trees, water pumps and other facts that clearly identify Rishi Aurobindo Colony, squashed next to a railway line in eastern Kolkata.
Already, with the support of UNICEF and a local NGO called Prayasam, they’ve created a colourful, hand-drawn map of their community of 9,000.
Soon, they will also upload much of the information onto one of the world’s best-known computer mapping systems, Google Earth. And Salim says he will finally feel secure in his bustling universe.
“With this map, everyone in the world will know we are here. We are a community with many issues and ideas, just like anybody,” he says.
It is this confidence that clearly inspires Salim’s neighbours when he and fellow child volunteers with the NGO Prayasam work in the community. Along with mapping, they’ve been gathering lists of residents’ concerns and taking concrete steps to fight polio and malaria, helping impoverished children attend school, finding water sources and improving public hygiene.
Innovative mobile technology
Called Awaz, or ‘Voice’, the project has children initiating change in a community that not long ago was mostly notorious for crime. The objective is to help children understand their rights and entitlements and provide them an opportunity to talk about development.
The mapping project started in 2010 as part of a larger child participation programme, supported by UNICEF and implemented by Prayasam, for both in school and out-of- school children in select areas in Kolkata.
Salim and his friends came up with the idea to create a community map during a series of workshops on the UN Millennium Development Goals held during the Awaz project.
At first, the children were trained to use traditional mapping tools. Later they trained to use innovative mobile phone technology developed by Matt Berg at Columbia University’s Earth Institute. Recently named one of the world’s most influential people by Time Magazine, Berg first created the system to help gather community health information in impoverished countries.
With Berg’s system in Kolkata, the kids were able to conduct a household survey. Going door to door, they tabulated such details as the number of residents, their ages, occupations and health issues when possible.
In teams of four, each child had a specific task – as a photographer, tabulator, map-maker or note-taker. They photographed water pumps, power sources and points of interest like schools and temples.
The survey was run with military-like precision, recalls resident Bhrati Das, 36. “The children worked very hard because this community mapping was very important,” she says. “We cooperated because until now, the area was not on a map and nothing was ever done for us.”
After data were collected, the children drew the map’s first draft on a big sheet of paper. It clearly labels each house, distinct blocks with different colour coding, and individual details right down to the last tree, temple, street lamp and garbage dump.
Now, the map and survey, which identifies 71 sources of water but not one clean enough for drinking, can also be used as a powerful advocacy tool, points out Prabir Saha, 15.
“Access to clean drinking water is the biggest problem in our community today,” says Prabir. “Our water is yellow (with arsenic and iron) so we only use it for washing or cooking.”
Most days, children like Prabir must trek down dangerous railway lines nearby and sometimes wait hours at a neighbouring pump, only to be turned away if authorities there object. Scuffles and fines are frequent.
Now with the map and survey data as proof, the community will approach the locally elected representative and Municipal officials for help.
Das says improvements have already been made in this manner. Pointing to a lamppost in her crowded alley, she observes, “Things are already better. We have more light here.”
The children also use survey data to target households during polio immunization campaigns.
In teams armed with handmade paper megaphones and signs, they regularly march about shouting: “Shunun, shunun (listen),” imploring neighbours to bring children for polio drops. They also take toddlers to polio booths themselves.
The children also mobilize for malaria information drives, to check on children who drop out of school, or to teach proper handwashing techniques. They tackle tough topics, like child marriage and human trafficking, with puppets and street plays at each community festival.
At the moment, the children are looking forward to putting their map and some photos onto Google Earth. They expect this to happen soon.
“We want everyone to know how good this place can be,” says 13-year-old Shikha Patra with pride.
For media queries and more information:
Chief, Advocacy & Partnerships
Communication Officer (Media)