Sixteen-year-old Srushti Pawale is from Rajgurunagar village in Khed taluka. Villagers of Rajgurunagar are afraid to go out at night as tigers and other wild animals frequent the area now.
“There used to be forest areas around our village but they have been cut down over the years to make way for buildings and roads,” said Srushti. “With nowhere to go, wild animals often enter the villages in our area. Just last month, my uncle encountered a tiger but thankfully managed to return safely. Not everyone is that lucky and it’s especially dangerous for young children,” she says.
This is just one of the many problems that children and youth from different parts of Maharashtra highlighted at a state-level conference on ‘Child Rights and the Environment (especially, Climate Change)’ in Pune on Tuesday.
Kumar Kadam, a 20-year-old from a village in Parbhani district, is worried about his family’s future and the education of his two brothers next year. “Both my parents rely on sugarcane harvesting to run our family. Because it has not rained enough this year, next year sugarcane cultivation will be even less than half as it is water-intensive. With most parents gone for months, children have to go far out to bring water. The level of underground water is falling and with many relying on the few lakes, they dry up. Will you focus on school every day when there is no water at home,” he asked.
Issues ranging from health problems due to lack of proper garbage disposal to more frequent floods and droughts, the threat of wild animals to polluted air, rivers and lakes, use of chemical fertilisers to lack of clean and accessible playgrounds were raised by the children.
Pratiksha Kale, an 18-year-old from Beed district whose parents are farmers, said, “Even today there is regular use of chemical fertilisers by almost everyone. It harms the soil, our food and our health in the long term.” She also witnessed floods near her village for the first time last year and said that rainfall patterns have been changing.
Over 40 children, youth and NGO representatives from various districts like Beed, Parbhani, Aurangabad, Solapur and Ahmednagar as well as from settlements in Pune like Vishrantwadi, Hadapsar or Rajgurunagar were brought together with the help of ground-level organisations like Work for Equality or Yuva Gram Vikas mandal who have been working closely with these children on education and other matters.
Pune-based child rights organisations like Action for the Rights of the Child (ARC), New Vision Pune and Terres Des Hommes organised the conference to generate awareness and initiate some action plans at the state level on the basis of the ‘General Comment 26’, a document prepared by the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child discussing the relationship between child rights and environment, especially climate change, and issuing guidelines for governments to safeguard them.
Extensive pollution and waste disposal have been major problems with some having taken up cleanliness drives at the community level. Many find it difficult to walk to school when it rains as the risk of landslides during monsoon has increased manifold in the last few years.
Children said that there is an utter lack of clean and safe playgrounds and because of this they end up turning to television or online entertainment. Clogged drains and poor sewage disposal has made their localities unhygienic.
Notably, child marriage was one issue raised by almost every child that spoke on stage. Mandar Shinde from ARC said, “Climate change and other environmental factors have made agriculture increasingly difficult and more people now migrate. The tendency is to marry off a young daughter rather than to take her along. There is more incentive for child marriage also because of financial reasons. A married couple fares far better in the sugarcane work market than a single person.”
Chairpersons of Pune District Child Welfare Committees 1 and 2, Rani Khedekar and Nandita Ambike were present. Khedekar said, “We are open to taking immediate as well as long term action with coordination of other government departments and bodies. The children can write letters to us and we will take the process further.” Shinde said, “The General Comment 26 needs to be communicated to government departments and the general public. There is a global and national level action plan to do this and we have launched the state level plan today…”