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Why True Freedom Is Being Able To Walk To School

10/02/2016 8:21 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST
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India, Uttar Pradesh, Agra, four young children walking to school hand in hand, back to camera.

Recently, I ran a mini-survey of my friends in India. I asked them what a 24-hour day looked like for their children. Below is a synthesis of the various activities in a day:

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As you can see, the child literally has no time to be just 'free'. The parents tell them when they have to get up, when they have to sleep, when they have to watch TV, when they have to play and so on and so forth.

As someone who grew up in India in the 80s and that too in a small city, the difference from my own childhood is glaring. There are massive airports, high-quality roads, malls and shopping complexes, more cars, more two wheelers. However, some of the side effects of this rapid urbanisation are far from pleasant: massive pollution in our cities, less safety for our children, a paucity of clean water and public spaces.

The life my children are experiencing in Geneva, is more similar to my childhood in Madurai than the life they lived in Bangalore.

When I grew up, I used to roam around freely with my friends in the entire neighbourhood. On holidays, we used to play cricket from dawn to dusk far away from our houses. During summer vacations, we never thought of books. We just played, played and played some more. My mother used to send us to grocery shops frequently and we used to drink water from the well in the house. There were few cars on the roads, not many gadgets, three hours of state-run TV. Yet, we had the basics and they came for free: clean water, clean air and lots of freedom.

I compare this with the life my kids had in Bangalore. We lived in a premium apartment complex and it had all the amenities. We had lots of gadgets, a car, computer games, TV, DVD player, movies, games at malls so on and so forth. But my kids could never be sent alone to the grocery shop nearby, they could never go out of the gated community, they could not mingle with other kids from different backgrounds and most importantly, they could not breathe clean air or drink clean water outside. The most basic things are so expensive to get -- we had to travel outside Bangalore or stay indoors to breathe clean air.

Today, we are living in Geneva. And guess what, the life my children are experiencing in Geneva, is more similar to my childhood in Madurai than the life they lived in Bangalore. I made the below comparison between our lifestyles and, to me, Madurai life in 1980 and Geneva life in 2015 are very similar.

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It is the Bangalore life that is out of place, imposed by adults on kids. Our cities neither provide the inspiration for kids to unleash their creativity nor bring out the curiosity they need to make them lifelong learners. So many kids complain about boredom when they are below 10. There is less physical activity and more time is spent with gadgets. The costs of not addressing this issue are going to be enormous in the future -- socially, politically and economically.

A scene from the award-winning Tamil film Kaaka Muttai, where a kid from a wealthy gated community interacts with the two slum children aptly illustrates the state of affair today. The fence between the two groups of kids depicts the sharp contrast between the two different socioeconomic groups.

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Kids from wealthier communities live in a world rigidly organised by adults and can't play or socialize 'freely' with their peers. Kids from low-income communities enjoy lot of freedom but face violence and extremely polluted neighbourhoods. There is a paradox -- freedom at the cost of safety and caring, vs. caring at the cost of freedom. Both the worlds are created by adults, as is the fence between these two realms. Kids view the world through this fence and the real question is, how might we break these fences and re-imagine our cities to help the kids experience a world that feeds their curiosity, learning and creativity?

The day a child walks to school alone without adult supervision is the day when we can say that we have achieved real freedom.

Here is my simple challenge to our leaders. How might we help children to go to school on foot or by bicycle without adult supervision once every week? What do we need to do to make this happen? Could this be our Republic Day parade next year? For this to happen, we need to have the following in our neighbourhoods:

1. Bicycle lanes, sidewalks, zebra crossings and traffic signals

2. Car-free roads (four hrs during the day)

3. Clearing encroachments and roadside shops

4. Increased policing and community volunteers

5. Waste management and cleanliness in roads

6. Support from employers, schools

7. Eco-friendly toilets and mobile clinics

8. Technology to connect parents, kids and schools

9. Media coverage and radio support

10. A call centre with all important information for various stakeholders

Mahatma Gandhi once said, "The day a woman can walk freely on the roads at night, that day we can say that India has achieved independence."

I'd like to add that the day a child walks to school alone without adult supervision is the day when we can say that we have achieved real freedom. This parade of school children walking in our streets without fear to their respective schools will demonstrate our commitment to building a developed nation. Will our governments and leaders work towards realising this simple challenge? Instead of wasting money on Republic Day parades, could we invest our money for our kids to walk freely to school once a week?

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