Pressure Tactic

Why these 15 Indian teenagers are lobbying for rights with Narendra Modi all the way in New York

A child advocacy group from India called Nine Is Mine is drawing attention to child rights with a unique campaign.

As many heads of state and very important dignitaries descended on New York City this week, 15 teenagers from India wove their way through convoys of black suburbans and yellow cabs. For some of them, like Poorna Malavath and Kongkham Lamjingkhomba, this is the first time in New York and they are thrilled to see the buildings that Spider-Man hangs off in the movies.

Two years ago, Malavath became the youngest girl to climb the peak of Mount Everest at age 13. Today she is in New York with the rest of a group of children called Nine Is Mine, an advocacy group for, by and of children to champion children’s rights at the special session of the United Nations General Assembly where heads of state with adopt the new Sustainable Development Goals.

“I am telling [world leaders at the UN] to help the world get peace and justice,” said Lamjingkhomba. The student of class 8 lives in Manipur with his mother, who lost her eyesight a few months after he was born, and younger brother. His father was killed by Indian security forces. The idea of peace and justice for Lamjingkhomba means having the Armed Forces Special Powers Act repealed.

Specific demands

The Nine Is Mine campaign has specific demands for Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his government – raise budgetary allocations for education to 6% of Gross Domestic Product and for health to 5% in line with World Health Organisation and United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation standards. Currently the allocations are about 3.5% and 1% respectively.

Nine Is Mine has been fighting a tough battle since its inception in 2006. The campaign derived its name from the Millenium Development goals of 6% for education and 3% for health, a total of 9% of GDP. The two goals are a starting point for all other rights, said the campaign’s national convener Steve Rocha. While the United Progressive Alliance government increased the health allocations through the 10th, 11th and 12th plans, the budget in percentage of GDP has hovered between 1.7% and 2%. In the last one year that budget has been slashed by the National Democratic Alliance government to just 1%.

So why are Indian children lobbying for rights with an Indian Prime Minister all the way in New York? Rocha recounts a story to explain the strategy:
“We went to Geneva and a Dalit kid spoke about exclusion issues. An Indian came up to him and said ‘How dare you talk about my country like that?’ The kid said ‘It is also my country. Is my story true and do you think I am lying?’ It is a good story about how the Indian community and the government is so image conscious and so the shame game is the best one to play right now.”

Grabbing global attention

Since then the Nine Is Mine team has been asked in some forums not to bring up "the Dalit issue". Instead they have hit upon another way to grab global attention. At side events in New York in the run-up to the big UN Summit, Malavath and two others from the campaign read out a message for a united fight against inequality together. Malavath reads softly in her native tongue Telugu, visually impaired Swarnalakshmi translates to English by reading in Braille and Yashasvi Kumud simultaneously translates to sign language. They get a rousing applause at the end of their speech, every time.

Barkha Batra, a 15-year-old from New Delhi says UN agencies have been sitting up and taking note of Nine Is Mine but not India. When Batra and her friends approached the Ministry of External Affairs about the health and education demands, they got a rather tepid answer. “The response that we got was ‘we can’t really help you. We understand that the government has to give allocations but as citizens it is your duty to be healthy, your duty to eat good food and your duty to study well and keep going to school,’” Batra said.

Unlike the experience with the Millenium Development Goals about which there was very little public awareness until the last few years, campaigns like Nine Is Mine are determined to hold governments accountable to the Sustainable Development Goals.

“What we are actually doing is first create an awareness,” said Rocha. "So if Smriti Irani talks about 6% for education then we are going to amplify that to create awareness so that she doesn’t backtrack from that."

Scroll.in has been invited  by UN Women to cover the United Nations General Assembly special session. 

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