“In Mumbai, we are used to sights like kids selling gajras at the traffic signals, but it doesn't strike us that that kid ought to be in school,” says Alpesh Kandoi, a volunteer with CRY. Kandoi's story is typical of CRY's 'changemakers': a marketing manager for a magazine company by day, he sought an outlet for his passion for photography and, in CRY, found the perfect opportunity to meld this passion with social responsibility. Through an initiative called Click Rights, set up to highlight the reasons why children of urban poor aren't going to school, Kandoi and four fellow volunteers went through two months of orientation into child rights issues, as well as a professional-level photography course, then took to the streets to capture their images. Far from being yet another collection of images calculated to induce a visceral emotional response, Click Rights showcased photos of children playing, making friends and talking – like any children, but as Kandoi points out, these children “had an important difference: they were all struggling to eke out a living, while others their age are cared for and go to school”.
Click Rights, active in both Mumbai and Kolkata, is a prime example of CRY's theme-based approach to activism. Kapur and his friends' philosophy in the beginning was not to wade in at grassroots level, but to act as a link between those who wanted to help and those who needed it. This method stands to this day: an organisation that enables those with resources to use them effectively in helping underprivileged children. Click Rights, then, was not created as a means of raising funds for the children pictured, but simply an effort to raise awareness of the kinds of lives they lived. Importantly, it was all carried out by volunteers using their own equipment. CRY simply provided them with the infrastructure in which to use their time and skills in a productive manner, and the motivation to see the project through to fruition. Their photographs were displayed at Mumbai's Chhatrapathi Shivaji (Victoria) Terminus, the project thereby reaching millions of people.
Where Click Rights sought volunteers to raise awareness of the lack of children in schools, a Bangalore project aimed to improve conditions in anganwadi (government-sponsored childcare centres). When Naga Yashodhar Kattula received an email from CRY, he didn't feel ready to volunteer in the field. However, the specific nature of the plea appealed. “My mother was a Child Development Project Officer back in Andhra, where the state of anganwadis is something to be proud of. At the meeting, I was quite shocked to see we couldn't say the same about Bangalore, India's IT hub.” Thus began Kattula's involvement in the fight against the infant and maternal malnourishment anganwadis are supposed to combat, but which currently stands at a whopping 46% of India's child population.
Meanwhile, in Delhi, Soni Bhatnagar was a homemaker in Dakshinpuri resettlement colony frustrated by its “facilities merely on paper” and children roaming the streets without purpose. She joined a CRY volunteer programme aimed at improving these children's lives; the group quickly gave themselves a name – Manorath, meaning 'desire' – and set about effecting change in the long term. In the beginning there was some resistance from locals and particularly schoolteachers, who viewed the CRY volunteers as an intrusion, but over time the group built up a degree of trust and understanding by listening to all sides carefully. Eventually, they could make progress in the area while keeping everyone's concerns – the schoolteachers, the parents, and most of all the children themselves – in mind.
CRY's mission, then, always has long-term change at its heart. Not content to accomplish a quick fix such as a one-off food parcel delivery or the passing of an ineffective government bill, CRY's projects aim at effecting long-term positive change. Its holistic approach takes into account all aspects of a child's life, identifies the root causes of whatever deprivation they face, then sets about mobilising volunteers in each specific community towards a solution. With this wide-angled view of each situation, the positive effect also snowballs far beyond the immediate reach of each volunteer group. Results may begin with the children Click Rights volunteers photograph, the anganwadis supported in Bangalore or the children of Dakshinpuri schools; where those results might end is wide open, as countless children benefit across hundreds of communities – potentially deep into the foreseeable future.
One may not be able to help Indian children directly from abroad, but CRY's partner organisations in the United States and United Kingdom and their support groups in several other countries make it easy to get involved. CRY America has Action Centers across the nation which undertake fundraising drives to support CRY's efforts in India, and the results are impressive. For example, in 2009 - a year badly hit by the economic downturn - saw the Seattle AC raise $120,000 through an annual dinner as well as short film, essay and painting competitions.
Meanwhile, in the UK, volunteers hold annual Diwali and Holi celebrations in an effort to raise awareness both of India and of the plight of its children. "We are trying to create easy ways for people in countries like the UK, with 3rd and 4th generation migrants, to connect to India and offer ways in which they can be part of India’s change story even if they are so far removed, in space and time," says Shruti Tanna of CRY UK. For those further afield, many countries have Friends of CRY groups organising innovative fundraising and awareness events, such as CRYket in Kuwait and even an Indian dinner and show in Botswana. Click here for more examples of CRY volunteers across the world engaging their idealism.
For as Sharmistha Biswas, one of the Click Rights photographers, notes, “Idealism's back in fashion... because it's lethal for the country if citizens believe we can do nothing about the state of the nation.” For people like Biswas, Kandoi, Kattula and Bhatnagar, as well as their many counterparts abroad, an individual attempt to improve child rights might seem impractical; under the aegis of CRY, what seems impossible can quickly become possible.
CRY: Child Rights and You has active partner organisations in the United States and United Kingdom, as well as support groups in several other countries all over the world. If you are interested in volunteering or donating to CRY, or simply interested in learning more about the organisation and what they do, check out their easy-to-use and informative website, www.cry.org.