Smruti Kumari Shah, a 17-year-old girl witnessed lack of basic amenities like water, electricity, sanitation, and education in her village in Odisha. She started an initiative to change this poor condition. Today, over 6,000 children are involved in her initiative and have created some extraordinary impact.
The year was 2013, a natural disaster had destroyed Raghupati Nagar in Berhampur, Odisha and left many people homeless. The region was suffering from the lack of electricity, street lights, water, proper houses, and education. All these major issues were noticed by Smruti, who was just a 15-year-old teenager then. She decided to do something to make the lives of the people better in her village.
“When I saw the condition of my village, I felt extremely disturbed and helpless. I decided that I can fight for the rights of my people and if I succeed in doing something, I will feel really happy,” Smruti said.
Berhampur city had 163 slums. Over one lakh residents of these slums suffered from lack of basic amenities. The slums did not have piped water supply, the region did not have public toilets and about 60 percent of the slum residents defecated in open.
There were no garbage bins in the area and door to door garbage collection was never done. Lack of electricity connection, roads, and even drainage added to the residents’ woes.
She got in touch with Youth for Social Development (YSD), a non-governmental social research and development working for the betterment of the Southern part of Odisha. This region of the state has been the most poverty-stricken district since decades.
According to Smruti, she started attending the weekly meetings of YSD. There, she discussed the issues of homelessness of the village with the Vice-President of YSD. She also talked to the secretary of YSD and many influential members of the organisation. She deeply realised the helpless state of her village and how it needed serious support for its survival.
“People of the village were not ready to send their children to school and we had to walk around huts to huts to tell people about the importance of education. We tried hard to convince them to send their children to school. In order to make things better, we had to make sure that we start working on the issues step by step,” said Smruti.
A cleaner village
She tried to collaborate with the Berhampur Municipal Corporation. “We wrote notices to them, which were left unanswered. We tried hard to get the municipal crporation’s support to make sure people start living a heathy life. Finally, a cleanliness drive in the village was started,” Smruti added.
She installed a Slum Sanitation Wall, a child-friendly tool to monitor cleanliness and hygiene of slums on a daily basis by the children. Weekly report of this wall was sent to the Health Officer, BeMC. The initiative was started with 10 slums and now all of 163 slums of Berhampur district have this unique wall.
Once the village took its first towards cleanliness, Smruti and her team put their steps forward to provide better accommodation to the villagers. They visited 32 slums near their village and drafted a plan to get better houses for the residents. Smruti took proper use of Rajiv Awas Yojana, a scheme under the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs and helped villagers in getting cemented houses.
Smruti did not stop her work here. With the help of the government and YSD, she laboriously worked to provide proper education to the village children. Smruti, along with YSD, held sessions with children to catch their attention. Dance and drama was used in the initial stage to win the trust of the students and generate interest towards school.
Gradually, the activities got more serious and useful. Discussing practical issues and challenges of Raghupati Nagar became a regular session. Students were given free book and uniforms. In addition, free basic, but healthy meals became an important part of the children’s school.
“When I could finally see parents being convinced and sending their children to school I felt like I was on top of the world,” the young girl said.
Using the strength of young minds
Smruti’s most effective strategy was to involve slum children in her work. She prepared a ‘children’s manifesto’ regarding their wishes related to the protection of their rights as well as a safe and healthy environment. She then put forward this manifesto before different political parties during civic and general elections
She created 30 informal groups of children and called them “Child Clubs”. These informal groups meet every weekend to play, discuss, have fun and take action. The children discuss the issues and problems of their slums and come up with possible solutions and action plan. Children analyze their situation, identify and prioritize issues, explore potential resources, identify stakeholders, and plan for a dream neighbourhood.
They then advocate for these improvements with city government officials through direct lobbying and formal planning. Children also bring out a multi-edition fortnightly wall magazine named Ama Kahuchhu, Ama Katha (We Speak Our Tales). Over 16 editions have been published and visited by parents, neighbours, elected and government officials and media. More than 500 children directly and 6,000 children indirectly are involved with Smruti’s efforts.
Smruti was finally able to witness the positive change in her beloved village. The village did not have any piped water supply earlier. Now, 26 slums were provided with public taps.
Construction and cleaning of drains were done in 18 slums. Regular collection of garbage was started in 18 slums. The Municipality also distributed 10,000 dustbins to the households of the district. Street lights were installed in 14 slums and proper electricity was provided in four slums. Twelve slums witnessed a proper road connectivity and safe spaces for children to play were identified in 10 slums.
However, it was an uphill journey for her. People often did not take her seriously and she had to work extra hard to win the trust of the villagers and authorities.
“It was not easy for me at the age of 15 to do so much work, but I was fortunate enough to get in contact with great people from YSD. It did seem impossible at times as I felt nobody would take a teenager like me so seriously. However, that did not seem to matter when the positive results of my work became visible,” Smruti said.
The road ahead
Smruti has strong plans for the future. She wants to provide leadership and citizenship training to our young leaders and new groups. In addition, she is looking to get access to better resources to enhance her activities and reach more areas.
“I plan to expand our activities to other slums and other neighbouring cities. And also in colleges and schools,” she said.
Smruti wishes to study English and pursue a career in Journalism in future.
“I want to become a Journalist so that I become able enough in my life to fight for the good of the people in our society. I wish to work hard to provide a better standard of life to people living in places, which lack even basic amenities,” Smruti concluded.