Salim Sheikh, 13, shows off hand drawn map of his community. A UNICEF direct advocacy program, community mapping volunteers collect information from residents and take photographs of houses to lay out blueprint of colony that is linked to Google maps.
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, trees, water pumps and other facts that identify Rishi Aurobindo Colony in eastern Kolkata.
With the support of UNICEF and local non-governmental organization Prayasam, they’ve created a colourful, hand-drawn map of their community. Soon, they will also upload much of the information onto Google Earth, one of the world’s best-known computer mapping systems. When they do, 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.
Mapping for change
It is this confidence that clearly inspires Salim’s neighbours when he and fellow child volunteers work in the community, which has a population of 9,000. Along with mapping, they’ve been gathering lists of residents’ concerns and taking concrete steps in fighting polio and malaria, helping impoverished children attend school, finding water sources and improving public hygiene.
The project – called Awaz or ‘Voice’ – 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.
At first, the children were trained to use traditional mapping tools. Later they learnt how 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 children 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.”
Pritam Sarkar (15) takes photographs of houses in his colony. A UNICEF direct advocacy program, community mapping volunteers collect information from residents and take photographs of houses to lay out blueprint of colony that is linked to Google Maps.
After data were collected, the children drew the map’s first draft on a big sheet of paper. It clearly labelled and colour-coded each detail, from houses to street lamps.
Now, the map and survey – which identified 71 sources of water but not one clean enough for drinking – can also be used as a powerful advocacy tool.
“Access to clean drinking water is the biggest problem in our community today,” says Prabir Saha, 15. “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.
Ms. Das says improvements have already been made. Pointing to a lamp post 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 hand washing 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 most looking forward to putting their map and some photos onto Google Earth. “We want everyone to know how good this place can be,” says Shikha Patra, 13, with pride.