From ‘right to play’ to ‘right to vote’: How Mumbai youth are helping fellow citizens claim their rights

Many youngsters across Greater Mumbai have formed collectives to help co-create a more inclusive city. Their initiatives have received a big boost from the youth event 'Making Mumbai', part of the annual urban festival ComplexCity, organised by not-for-profit YUVA.

Co-authored by Doel Jaikishen and Sachin Nachnekar

A few years ago, a World Bank blog mentioned how two demographic patterns stand out globally, especially in developing nations—‘rapid urbanization and large youth populations’. In India in particular, which has the world’s largest youth population, it is important to consider how this demographic impacts and is impacted by urbanisation. The broad effects are clearly visible. While increasing urbanisation has brought about rapid infrastructure growth, greater connectivity and economic progress, it has also led to growing levels of inequality, exclusion and unequal access to basic services and universal human rights. 

It is generally agreed that the positive demographic dividend of Asian countries like Japan, China and South Korea had spurred their growth in the past. To enable this, however, these countries ensured supportive economic and social policies, like adequate employment for youth and provision of quality education and health facilities. However, most rapidly urbanising Indian cities are finding it extremely challenging to offer citizens, especially its growing youth populations, the support and nourishment needed to help them develop their capacities and achieve their potential. UNICEF recently stated that over half the youth population in South Asia are not equipped with the right education and skills to be employable.  

When youth own and lead change efforts

Instead of letting their challenging environments subsume them, many youngsters across Greater Mumbai are in fact forming and strengthening collectives to help co-create a more inclusive city. A significant moment for these initiatives has been the youth event Making Mumbai, part of the urban festival ComplexCity, organised annually by Youth for Unity and Voluntary Action (YUVA), a non-profit development organisation committed to helping vulnerable groups access their rights. 

At Making Mumbai 2017, ‘the youth discussed urban conditions they experience, access to basic services, and their vision for an inclusive city. They took this campaign forward to build solidarity and drive awareness on collective ideas of inclusivity.’

Claim spaces for play and expression

Over the next year, the youth worked hard on a citywide ‘claiming spaces’ campaign they had launched for the right to play and express themselves. This campaign was especially close to their hearts as youth from marginalised backgrounds are often forced to forgo play from an early age, which affects their development in multiple ways.

From identifying open spaces to workable strategies and failures they had experienced, the youth pooled their ideas and learnings to take this campaign forward. They implemented multiple strategies, from organising long marches to meetings, mobilising not just the youth but people across age groups to lend their voice and support to this struggle.

‘In the next few months, more spaces started opening up for the youth. Girls who had no opportunity to leave their homes earlier began playing in larger numbers across neighbourhoods. In some cases, youth collectives could organise sports training on these grounds. Gradually, these spaces are also being used by local communities (women take walks there, young couples have a safe space to meet, and so on).’ Additionally, youth have used these spaces to advocate other needs, such as a library, gymnasium, and so on. In total, the claiming spaces movement has spread to five areas in the city.

 Claim and strengthen their identities

Encouraged by the success of the claiming spaces campaign, they next launched the ‘missing identity’ campaign. This was led by youth from Malwani (Malad) as the Development Plan for Mumbai did not recognise their area and they were keen to point this out and draw support for their demand to map their settlement in the Mumbai Development Plan. The youth used film screenings, a wall painting and community meetings, among other strategies, and were able to get local media coverage of their campaign.

With growing support, they organised a signature campaign and sent postcards to the Chief Minister highlighting their demands and concerns. The Missing Identity campaign was also taken up by the indigenous youth of Sanjay Gandhi National Park (Borivali) who are still struggling to be recognised, and youth in Krantinagar (Kandivali) and Kurar Village (Malad East). Youth in all these areas, which are mostly on forest land, have voting rights but are often denied other basic services (access to quality water, regular electricity, etc.) and took ownership of the struggle to fight for their rights. Making Mumbai 2018 also dwelt on the claiming identities theme, to help the youth share learnings from struggles across the city to be better able to achieve their goals.

The wall painting by youth, as part of the missing identity campaign. Photo credit: YUVA

The wall painting by youth, as part of the missing identity campaign. Photo credit: YUVA

Drive peace efforts in the city

Given the atmosphere of hate and divide in cities, youth across Greater Mumbai have also come together in the Aman ke Saathi (Friends of Peace) campaign. This was originally launched as a course on peace-building with youth by YUVA, which has now been taken forward by the youth themselves. By focusing on a value-driven approach (which includes justice, equality, communal harmony, etc.), the youth are creatively developing capacities to resist divisive forces and encouraging others to join them. The youth are strengthening their understanding of citizenship, to meaningfully participate in the struggle for their rights.  

Help people access their right to vote

Prior to the 2019 general elections, youth across Greater Mumbai also participated in the broader national campaign ‘Desh Mera, Vote Mera, Mudda Mera’ as part of a Missing Voters’ campaign. They set up stalls across 13 communities, reached out to 4,000+ individuals and compiled a list of 300+ names missing from the voter’s list and shared this with the state authorities. Over the next few weeks, YUVA helped many of these missing voters get access to identity cards.. The youth also published a Manifesto on Youth Unemployment and presented it to four Members of Parliament for further action. 

Help communities access their right to water

With lack of access to water being a critical concern across communities in the city, many youth have been actively working with partners to help such communities. These youngsters have been helping community members fill up application forms for access to water, and advocating this right by putting pressure on municipal authorities.. YUVA, Pani Haq Samiti and Columbia University also partnered on a research study on access to water in select informal settlements across Mumbai. The midline findings in January 2020 revealed how the interventions have resulted in a substantial increase in applications submitted, although there is still a big gap between this and the number of connections granted so far. 

Beyond change: Growing the self and the collective

Youth participation in change efforts not only strengthens their understanding of core issues, but it also develops their personality and leadership skills and helps them surmount challenges in a bold and innovative way. The youth take on new roles in their community, with the experience they have gained from working on change efforts. They are confident in taking up new issues that affect them first-hand to actively seek appropriate solutions that best suit their context

YUVA’s ‘interventions are based on core democratic values, accountability in governance, and youth participation for youth development. The organisation’s work on empowering youth is based on the belief that those who face the problems first-hand are best suited to offer solutions, with adequate training, support and knowledge.

[With inputs from YUVA staff Asma Ansari. This article is the second in a two-part series on how YUVA’s urban festival, ComplexCity, aims to help co-create a better city, and how youth across Mumbai are working towards this ideal. To know more about ComplexCity and YUVA’s work, please write to]

Note: Co-author Sachin Nachnekar is Youth Development Coordinator at the non-profit development organisation Youth for Unity and Voluntary Action (YUVA). He has over 15 years’ experience of working with young people as a mentor, counsellor and guide, facilitating the growth of youth networks and collectives across Mumbai.

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