[Reader-list] Investigating Environmental Child Friendliness for Children in Nizamuddin Basti

schatte2 at ncsu.edu schatte2 at ncsu.edu
Mon Jun 27 14:04:00 IST 2005

Investigating Environmental Child Friendliness for Children in Nizamuddin
Sudeshna Chatterjee

These past six months I had collected data from a wide cross-section of
Muslim children, their families and teachers in and around Basti
Nizamuddin. In addition I also interviewed DDA officials and park
gardeners and groundkeepers who collectively were responsible for creating
and controlling ‘designed’ public places around the basti. I had adopted
the strategies of participatory field research to study children’s
perception of a “friendly” environment, and the meaning of children’s
friendship with place. An honest confession: in trying to be a
participant-observer, I never succeeded in playing both roles
simultaneously, i was either a participant, or an obseerver.

The study is very much a work in progress. But certain patterns have
emerged from my indepth interviews with children, which when isolated and
held up for scrutiny may provide a new way to think about cities in
general for the marginalized and vulnerable populations, and municipal
spending for children and youth environments in particular.

Environmental care, or its lack in play areas for poor children

Places that children respect for the intrinsic qualities, are not the MCD
parks specifically designed for children with slides etc. Rather the
children of Nizamuddin almost unanimously value a neighborhood park on the
outskirts of the basti in Nizamuddin West. What does this park have to
offer? It is clean and well-maintained, with rules that are enforced by
not keeping the slum kids out, but by including them in the park. It has
no play equipment, but a beautifully designed landscape with pretty
flowers, grass, paths, seating etc. Yet rules are obeyed and the place

The lesson for designers and city fathers from this example is to not
under-estimate the needs of poor people, and not to write them off as
vandals. What would be ideal is to include the children in the
environmental management and care of beautiful facilities to which they
have ready access in collaboration with appointed caretakers. That would
be the ideal bhagidari or participatory approach. As many children said,
“I beautiful place should be kept beautiful. One shouldn’t spoil it.”

However, after interviewing the deputy director of landscape in DDA and
the gardeners responsible for looking after the DDA parks in Nizamuddin, I
found out that the dominant cultural narrative that governs public spaces
and their use by the poor seems to be: provide the cheapest, tackiest
equipment or else they will steal, doesn’t matter if they get hurt or
injured; don’t waste money on trashcans, what’s the point they will litter
anyways; shoo children away if they engage in ball games asking them to go
to designated sports fields even if you know there are none, but its not
your headache as long as they leave your territory.

Many of the children during their interviews with me revealed that they
had internalized these negative stereotypes as part of their community
image. They reinforced what the DDA deputy director and the gardeners had
said about the vandalism within poor communities, when they told me that
however much they crave for better play facilities in their parks and open
spaces, their neighbors would come and steal the equipment. The other
fallout of this negative cultural stereotyping is focused attempts by
youth to get even, or to defy authority. Twelve-year old Zaheer who had
been thrown out of the DDA park for wielding a cricket bat several times,
sneaked back at night with his friends and smashed every light on posts
with his deadly strokeplay. He proudly told me, “I hit every light with a
sixer. It was not as if I had climbed on the pole to smash the lights!”

I want to further probe and understand to what extent their self-image is
linked to these dominant cultural narratives, and if at all, they carved
out self-identities based on more positive community narratives. NGOs
working with the community could facilitate more trusting relationships
between researchers, evaluators, and the community through collaborative
teamwork to incorporate multiple perspectives, share new narratives,
challenge old narratives that are damaging, and create new ones together
(Harper et al 2004).

How safe are places for children’s play?

The only play injury I have witnessed in my observation sessions in
Nizamuddin since February 2005, was on a rickety slide put by DDA on a
barren piece of land in front of the local MCD primary school in an
attempt to “provide” a playground for poor children. I recount the
incident here from my fieldnotes from the day of the accident.

We were close to the slides now. I asked the boys to pose for a group
shot. Suddenly we heard a loud scream. We turned to the slide closer to
the school and saw that a boy was stuck mid-way in the slide. His left
foot was wedged in between the tin-clad slab of the slide and the round
metal pipe that served as a handrail, three inches above the slab. I was
scared and dumbstruck. We all raced toward the trapped boy. Asha with her
training in dealing with this community for the last eleven years was the
first to spring to action. She started easing the foot while massaging it.
The boy wailed uncontrollably, and resisted Asha as she tried her best not
to hurt his foot in trying to straighten it. After struggling for about
five minutes, Asha managed to slide the foot out of the gap. The boy slid
down crying. He testily placed his bare foot on the ground. Picked up his
slippers by hand, put them on and gradually stood up. He was still crying
and wiped his face with muddy hands as he walked away from the slide.

I had often wondered about injuries in this community. I had seen children
walking barefoot through rubbles, sand and filth. I have seen small
children; probably less than five walking down the streets behind loaded
carts with sharp edges protruding exactly at their eye levels. I have seen
older siblings circling furiously with smaller children at full speed, on
not very smooth grounds, till I felt giddy watching. When the smaller kids
got released their eyes looked drunk, but smiles hovered around their
lips. But witnessing an injury first hand, which could even had led to the
boy breaking his anklebone, left me shaken. Everyone in the group except
Julie (my young American student) and me, the two outsiders, thought since
the child walked away, he was all right.

I asked who had installed the slides, MCD or DDA. Asha said, “this is a
DDA park. See the board over there.” So this was an example of providing
what the poor thieves deserve—the worst specifications, and no design
inputs at all to make the equipments safe. As long as something looked
like a slide, it was all right. The seesaws near the school were even more
terrible. The bars on which children balanced themselves were badly
truncated metal pipes. One of them had hooks to hold on to as kids
balanced on either end. The other one must have lost the hooks through
extensive use.

The dimension of safety in play areas poses a special challenge to
evaluators. The cultural nature of human development makes the issue of
judging safety of play areas tricky. For example, children’s judgment and
coordination to perform adult tasks such as handling sharp knives safely
are culturally mediated (Rogoff 2003). An Efe baby of 11 months is allowed
to cut fruit with a machete under the watchful eye of a relative. In
contrast, middle-class US adults often do not trust children below about
age 5 with knives. Similarly, the children of Nizamuddin regularly play in
places that are filled with sharp edges, hard uneven surfaces, open
staircases etc. This is the environment in which they have grown up. These
conditions would be considered very inappropriate and unsafe in western
cities as well as in middle-income neighborhoods in New Delhi.

My own observation of the accident in a badly designed slide, made me look
up the literature on playground equipment injury. Data from the US show
that 76% of all play equipment related injuries happen in public
playgrounds, of which 79% of all injuries result from falls (Tinsworth &
McDonald 2001). All fall injuries are accounted for by equipments such as
climbers (53%), swings (19%), slides (17%), seesaws and others (11%).
Landscape experts acknowledge that the way playground features are
programmed, managed, and maintained inevitably reflect the values of the
adults who create, manage and operate these play areas (Moore 2005).
Though playgrounds are the setting for many injuries including death, they
play an important role in the healthy development of the child through
gross-motor activities, cultural and perceptual learning through games,
exploratory and risk-taking behavior. Appropriate equipment design and
maintenance with careful attention to heights of equipments, walking and
landing surfaces, help minimize the risk of injury (Moore 2005).

All the DDA designed playgrounds in Nizamuddin, had slides high enough for
adolescents to enjoy in barren rubble-strewn ground. In a place, where
inter-generational sharing of limited resources is crucial, special
attention needs to be paid to the needs of the young child who are most
vulnerable in such environments.

I will be sending the rest of my emerging patterns in subsequent posts.

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