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Kid crusaders wilt in wasteland

It took 30 children to eradicate polio from the lives of 10,000 in a squalid part of north-east Calcutta. The same 30 children — and hundreds of others — now find their “playground” being transformed into a dumping ground for used syringes, animal remains, glass shards, broken commodes. These are part of the noxious refuse dredged up from canals and being used as “landfill” in Dakshindari, near Lake Town, for the past three weeks.

Five years of hard work by an ardent band of believers to clean up their world is now being buried under mounds of foul filth, wheeled in by civic lorries. The adolescent boys and girls from the Rishi Aurobindo squatter colony call themselves the ‘area health-minders’, part of a project run by Prayasam, an NGO.

Going from shanty to ramshackle shanty, the kids have tirelessly campaigned far beyond the limits of their own colony to battle polio, malaria and the lack of hygiene. Every child now boasts birth and immunisation certificates, every home throws its waste away with care, every family tries to send its wards to school.

The peer-education project has seen such success that Prayasam is in talks with the ministry of health to replicate the model — with the young warriors at the fore — in polio-prone Murshidabad and Sunderbans. The kids, who have worked in a number of city slums in the past, are already working with two Corporation-run schools for hygiene projects.

But the health watchdogs (supported by Unicef, which has dubbed this the “only project of its kind in India”) and their comrades in the para have never had a playground. They have had to make do with “the dol-dol” — a deceptive patch of green. What used to be a pond has been filled over the years to become a bouncy “field” where the kids would jump around.

Some have even been known to sink neck-deep into the springy bog, before being fished out by friends. Though the kids, through Prayasam, have been trying to get the South Dum Dum municipality to turn “dol-dol” into a proper playground, they didn’t bargain for the garbage dredged up from Beleghata, particularly putrid after the rains.

“We don’t have anywhere else to play, so we still have to come here,” chirps a bubbly Chumki. “But our feet burn after a while,” shrugs the 12-year-old. The lanky Shibashish, one of the key leaders in the health project, bears the scars from his first venture on what used to be a favourite spot after a hard day’s work delivering papers. “I didn’t see a piece of glass lying around, and I got cut,” he says.

Any small cut makes the skin burn. “It is rotten, poisonous earth,” shudders Shibashish. But he and his friends still scamper up the brown-grey “mountains”, all they have left of their backyard.

As years of toil unwind before their eyes, these kids stand at the brink of unlearning every message of hope they have spread. And with it will unravel the fragile faith that they can create a life better than fate had in store.

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