CHENNAI: When 10-year-old Mary Madeline is asked what she wants in her ideal house, electricity is the first word she utters. Her other aspirations include a big building, playground, fan, bench and table to sit and study. “Maybe a blackboard and chalk too,” she says with a laugh. Elda Esther, her friend, interrupts, “I want my own room, a computer, and a park to play in.”
At Srinivasapuram slum, where the girls live, toilets are the fields and the beach. What if the girls need to use the toilet in the middle of the night? “We have never felt that need,” says 14-year-old Tina, with a laugh. “We are not scared, even though there are two ghosts in the neighbourhood,” chips in Elda.
Living all their lives in the squalor, some aim high, some just want the basic facilities. But the aspirations of these kids from marginalised communities remain distanced from the policies that affect them. “We always tend to look at an adult male as an end user while formulating policies and urban planning. But shifting the focus from this to a girl child could make planning much more inclusive,” says Pradeep Narayanan, director for research and consultancies, Praxis Institute of Participatory Planning.
Praxis, in its study, has looked at some of the requirements of children that add much needed social value to planning. The children, according to the survey conducted by them, wanted well lit toilets and bathing spaces.
Tina’s aspirations are fairly simple and feasible — a toilet in every house, continuous power supply, a separate space for her to study. Some kids have more celluloid dreams. “I want a house with car parking, video games and a swimming pool!” says 12-year-old Deepak, taking a break from cricket.
A few said that they found uncomfortable due to the small size of toilets and thus used the fields. Many said they got late to school because of the queue in front of the common toilets. Making these spaces child-friendly, automatically makes them inclusive for senior citizens and the disabled. After drawing layout plans, the children came up with safety considerations, like low parapets and open drains could lead to accidents, they pointed out.
Awareness among the urban poor may have improved to an extent after widespread news of child abuse. “Ten years ago, we didn’t think much about letting our children wander out alone. Now we are careful,” says Mary’s mother. But a lot more has to be done with issues like gender sensitivity and infrastructure, and make planning more participatory, say the researchers from Praxis.