Source: Annual Report 2014

The India strategy of the Bernard van Leer Foundation consists of two main parts. The first part focuses on the situation of the 1.4 million tribal children under 6 years old growing up in the state of Odisha. The second part concerns 7.6 million young children under the age of 8 growing up in urban slums across the country.

These two populations are the main target groups of the BvLF strategy in India, although our work will concentrate on smaller geographical areas within these very large populations. The two goals in India are:

Increased access to quality multilingual preschool education services for tribal children aged 3-5 in Odisha  

Out of the 8 million tribal people in the state of Odisha, 1.4 million are children 0-6 years of age. Among the tribal population in Odisha, literacy rates are 37%, compared to 63% for the state and 65% for the country. Although 77% of tribal children attend a centre run by the government’s Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS), more centres are needed. Where centres do operate, there are problems of poorly trained teachers who are regularly absent, unsafe physical infrastructure, and discriminatory attitudes towards tribal children and their parents. The young tribal children do not speak Odia-the official state language, and the absence of tribal languages in ICDS centres is one of the main barriers to improving learning outcomes. Only 4 to 5 per cent of centres use the children’s mother tongue as a language of instruction. The Foundation has been supporting the creation of multilingual pre-schools in Odisha - as showcased in this two-minute video - since 2009. The Foundation’s support to indigenous groups and NGOs have resulted in the state and national government’s inclusion of mother tongue based multilingual preschool in its early childhood education and care policy.

Ensure safe and healthy living conditions for young children in urban poverty

Every eighth urban child under six years of age lives in slums, according to ‘Slums in India – A statistical compendium 2011' published by the Union government. This is nearly 8 million children. However, there is a major movement to change conditions through programmes like the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) and Rajiv Awas Yojana (RAY) – nationally funded urban renewal initiatives with plans to invest 15 billion Euros between 2012 and 2017 in cities where urbanization and urban poverty are most dramatic. The Foundation strategy it to make these and other investment in urban development count for young children in slums by influencing policy through: i) demonstration projects in up to four-second tier cities; ii) advocacy to drive resources towards improving the safety and healthy living conditions for young children; and iii) technical assistance to architects, planners and practitioners including the dissemination of successful experiences.

Empowering children and women living in slums to make neighbourhoods safe and healthy for the youngest children 

Twenty slums in the Indian city of Hyderabad, between them home to around 8000 children, now have community centres for residents of all ages. In most of these slums, blocked drains have been cleared so that sewage no longer overflows into homes and over footpaths, and garbage is now regularly cleared by the municipalities. Around half of the slums now have new and safer roads, pavements and streetlights. And there are a dozen new playgrounds.

These changes have come about in the last two years through a project called Bala Raksha (Child Protection), a partnership between the Bernard van Leer Foundation and ngo Divya Disha (literally, ‘Divine Direction’), which has worked to support children’s rights in Hyderabad for more than 25 years.

Bala Raksha was based on eight components for a ‘childfriendly neighbourhood’ defined by Humara Bachpan (Our Childhood), a national campaign supported by the Foundation: safe water, all-weather housing, public spaces to play, proper sanitation, healthy air, safe sources of electricity, better transportation, and soil free from contamination. ‘We had never made the connection between living conditions and child rights before,’ says Dr Isidore Phillips, Director of Divya Disha. ‘The specific vulnerability of children living in urban slums was something that people were not talking about.’

The project set out to collect data to gain a better understanding of the situation, and to organise children, young people, women and community groups to demand improvements. ‘ngos are seen as coming in for a bit, talking a lot, and leaving,’ says Dr Phillips. ‘We had to tell them, “We’re not here to give you anything – we are here to help you access what you’re entitled to get from the government.”’

Divya Disha - Bala RakshaThe Divya Disha team formed mothers’ committees and children’s groups as well as working with existing Slum Development Committees. ‘We brought in telephone hotlines and let the community members know they could call if a drain was clogged, for example. We put power into the hands of the mothers. For the first time they were calling, they were going to the government offices to ask for services.’

The project tapped the support of professionals from paediatricians to architects, lawyers and journalism students, who trained children to report on the state of living conditions in each slum through ‘Wall Papers’. These became a popular place for community discussion, and have catalysed action – in one community, after the Wall Paper reported mosquitoes breeding due to a leaking drainage pipe, community members raised money among themselves to fix the leak.

In addition to these positive physical changes, Dr Phillips highlights the shifts in awareness and capacity building as the project’s biggest success. ‘First, if you go to any of the slum communities, they will be talking about living conditions and how these will affect the way our children grow. Second, the communities now have power. They aren’t just waiting for governments to come in. They know how to get things done, they know who to call, and if it doesn’t get done they know how to get volunteers in. Third, the community has been clearing open spaces for children to play. The community took the initiative – they weren’t waiting for someone to come in and do it. Rubbish collection has been streamlined. Stinking water has been cleared.’

Divya Disha now plans to support the children’s clubs and mothers’ groups to become official ‘federated’ groups, so that they will have a legitimate voice at city level, where there is much more work to be done – Hyderabad has around 1500 slums in total, home to around 600,000 children. It also plans to build on the enthusiasm for Wall Papers by starting a children’s journalism academy to help children’s voices be heard not only in the slums, but in the halls of government.

Highlights from 2014

  • India’s government committed to reflect children’s needs in 100 new smart cities at the conference Small Children, Big Cities, co-organised by the National Institute of Urban Affairs and the Bernard van Leer Foundation.
  • The government of Odisha developed curricula in 10 tribal languages in response to a 2013 law, championed by partners PREM, Adivasi Manch, SPREAD and Divya Disha, on multilingual preschool education.
  • Partner Aide et Action persuaded brickworks owners to build 57 childcare centres, which will benefit around 3800 children of poor migrant workers.

    Engaging with business owners and government to improve living conditions for seasonal migrant children in India 

    Thanks to intense policy advocacy by Foundation partner Aide et Action, in 2014 the state governments of Odisha, Tamil Nadu and Telengana committed to provide various programmes of healthcare and educational and nutritional support to migrant children living at brick kiln worksites. These children often don’t have access to such services because they ‘are harder to track and reach than permanent migrants who settle in slums,’ according to Umi Daniel, South Asia Regional Head of the Migration Thematic Unit at Aide et Action.

    Expected to benefit at least 20,000 children, the services range from tribal-language teaching, study materials, uniforms and school lunches, to immunisation, health check-ups, and food for pregnant and breastfeeding women. The advocacy was supported by research initiated by Aide et Action and the Bernard van Leer Foundation to study the situation of young migrant children at worksites.

    The governments of Odisha and Tamil Nadu have also taken over the household and child survey that Aide et Action had previously conducted – ensuring that these families will be counted in official data collection systems.

    Aide et ActionThis isn’t the only way in which Aide et Action scaled-up its work in 2014. Brickworks facility owners in Bhopal, Hyderabad and Chennai built 80 child-friendly houses and 57 childcare and learning centres for migrant families, after seeing the benefits of 24 model houses and 12 childcare and learning centres that Aide et Action had built in 2013 in collaboration with brickworks facility owner Babu Rao and architecture firm 23° Design Shift, as reported in last year’s Annual Report and the December 2013 issue of Early Childhood Matters.

    The new houses and centres are providing more than 3800 children with safe living and learning spaces and access to healthcare, clean water and sanitation. Children can now sleep separately from smoky cooking areas and use shared toilets.

    ‘Earlier even after our work hours, we didn’t used to sit inside our house as that was too stuffy, but the present house gives us relaxation making us comfortable to live inside it,’ said Sushil Dharun, who has migrated with his wife and three daughters from Bolangir, Odisha to and from the brick kilns of Hyderabad and Chennai for the last five years. ‘The cooking place is safer, as we do not get any suffocation due to the accumulation of cooking smoke.’

    There are fewer accidents and illnesses among the children. Aide et Action staff have also helped to enrol more than 700 migrant children – who are often forced to drop out of school due to their families’ movements – in schools near the worksites. Meanwhile, the Tamil Nadu state government has recruited teachers to the worksites to teach migrant children from Odisha in their own language.

    Said the parents of 6-year-old Akash Chourasiya, who was supported by an Aide et Action facilitator to return to school after spending a few days at one of the childcare and learning centres at a site in Bhopal: ‘We are really happy to see our kid once again going to the school.’

  • The Humara Bachpan campaign to secure healthy and safe living conditions for young children in slums now involves close to 20,000 children in 23 cities.

Programme strategy

See the summary of our India strategy (pdf) for an outline of how we are approaching the goals summarised on this page. There is also a shorter, two-page handout.


Do you have comments on our goals in India? Please contact our India Representative, Dharitri Patnaik:

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