Salaam Bombay Foundation is building a 'super army' of slum children

It is estimated that every day, more than 5,500 children in India below the age of 10 try tobacco for the first time. There are over one crore juvenile tobacco users in the country today. A recent study of Mumbai schoolchildren in the 7th, 8th and 9th grades found that seven of 10 students reported at least one parent who consumed some form of tobacco. Every student had at least two close friends who used tobacco. Other studies show that tobacco abuse at an early age serves as a gateway to other forms of substance abuse and more disturbingly, teenagers perceive smokers to be more popular than non-smokers. “It is a preventable epidemic,” says Aditi Parikh of The Salaam Bombay Foundation (SBF). The NGO has been working since 2002 to empower adolescents to make healthier life choices, and specifically educates them on the ill-effects of tobacco abuse.

SBF engages with children from Mumbai’s slums through in-school leadership programmes and after-school sports, arts, media and vocational training academies. “The idea is to catch them young, before tobacco has had a chance to ruin their health and quality of life,” she says. “To do this, we have to build self-esteem and give them the necessary psychological skills to deal with the stresses of their existence.”

To develop the strength to say no, teens from the Maximum City’s slums need several inputs. “Think of the stressors in their lives,” says Parikh. “Poverty aside, many of these children are first-generation learners with few good adult role models.” This is why SBF’s flagship Project Super Army, an in-school programme, aims at the holistic development of students as agents of change. The classroom programme not only uses role-playing, interactive games and storytelling to create awareness about the pitfalls of tobacco — it also encourages and enables them to actively promote the message in their communities. A case in point is Bhairavi Jadhav, the daughter of an autorickshaw driver in Navi Mumbai, who has now become an active anti-tobacco advocate among the 200 drivers who work with her father. At a broader level, the project conducts tobacco control audits and works with policymakers to better implement tobacco-control policies and provisions of the tobacco control law.

Also, Parikh and her cohorts found that dropout rates in high school were very high. “In poor households, 14- and 15-year-olds are considered old enough to work,” she says. “So the perceived value of education vis-à-vis employment is often low.” This became the rationale for the Project Resume. This includes a skills development programme that imparts training in skills, such as jewellery  and fashion design, mobile repair, retail management and web development. Thanks to this programme, many students have been able to work part-time while still in school. “This is not just added income for the family,” says Parikh, “it also ensures that they can earn and learn simultaneously, instead of dropping out of school.” The Salaam Bombay Academy of Sports, Arts and Media caters to more holistic development of students. Professionally taught after-school classes provide not only world-class training, but also performance opportunities. “The idea is that as children learn to express themselves in many different ways, they often find their voice, get noticed and discover themselves for the first time,” says Parikh. “We refer to it as ‘the power of the playground.”

The results have been positive. So far, SBF has worked with 309 BMC and government-aided schools, and has impacted about 530,000 children. “Many parents tell us that their children’s ability to focus has improved and their approach to education has changed,” says Parikh. While skills training has enabled many to find better jobs after school, many from the super army have become anti-tobacco advocates in their communities. “We want to expand our reach in the coming year as we can see a lot of positive impact on the ground,” says Parikh.

Given that about 20 million children of ages 10–14 are estimated to be tobacco-addicted, as per a recent National Sample Survey Organisation survey, the task ahead is huge. But the Salaam Bombay Foundation’s easily replicable model and it’s “super army” of confident kids shows that it can be done. 

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