Sikha Patra is only 16. But, this teenager oozes confidence that belies her slum background. Salim Shekh, also 16, is dynamic and speaks with conviction. No wonder that these two teenagers have come a long way to become change agents and are now busy transforming the lives of thousands of slum dwellers. Working as child area health minders, the duo and their friends have brought a remarkable change in health and sanitation in their slum, Rishi Aurobindo Colony, near the Belgachia Metro station.
From ensuring that each child in their locality do not miss polio drops to initiating preventive measures on community health issues like malaria, dengue and diarrhoeal diseases, the two have spearheaded movements that could put many of the so-called privileged to shame.
"Taking up such voluntary work has been so much paying. If it was not for this I could have become a dropout and went wayward," said Salim, son of a factory worker, who is a student of Taki Government Sponsored Boys' School.
Sikha and Salim lead a contingent of about 75 children from the front, working not only on health issues but also on social, educational and developmental issues. Their work spans across six urban slums including one in Salt Lake.
Sikha Patra and Salim Shekh
"Initially, it was a tough job, with elders rejecting our proposals and suggestions. They have seen us collecting data, assessing problems in the community and approaching the government officials on their behalf. Now, the community has accepted our work and seriousness," said the articulate Sikha, daughter of a driver.
From the slums of Kolkata to the city of Seattle, Salim and Sikha's is a fairy-tale story. Impressed with their work, they have been invited to speak at various fora, that include The Skoll World Forum in Oxford, Gobal Vaccine summit in Abu Dhabi and at TEDxChange, organised by Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. In 2013, Sikha was referred as among the “most inspiring women and girls I have met this year” by Melinda Gates. Scouted, honed and groomed by Prayasam, an NGO, the duo and their team are full of energy and optimism.
Sikha and Salim at UNICEF in New York
Here is the video link to the inspiring TEDxChange talk show, where Melinda Gates chats with the duo: http://tedxtalks.ted.com/video/A-Conversation-With-Revolutiona;search%3Atag%3A%22tedxchange%22
A documentary film has also been made on the work and journey of these two community leaders and their team. The Revolutionary Optimists traces the inspiring journey of these children who have become change agents. The film also highlights the work of Prayasam's founder-member Amalan Ganguly. His model of child area health minders empowers children to become change agents in their challenged world. It has been made by Nicole Newnham and Maren Grainger-Monsen, whose camera followed the character for three-and-a-half years.
The film has garnered a lot of praise all over the world. It won the Hilton LightStay Sustainability Award in 2013. It was shown at American Center in Kolkata on World Health Day. "It is amazing to meet these change makers who go ahead and tackle issues head on, and show that people from all levels have the power to institute change in the society," said Rachel Sunden, deputy director, American Center, Kolkata.
Here is a video link the film-makers explaining their inspiration behind the film: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bwJZZjcFN_o
Maren Grainger-Monsen (left) and Nicole Newnham with the Hilton Award
Prayasam continues to introduce its peer education and child empowerment concepts to impoverished sectors of society. Notably, Prayasam is working with the government of West Bengal to uplift brick kiln migrant worker communities – the first such collaboration between government and NGO in India – through its signature ‘Multiple Activity Centres’. In addition to his work in West Bengal, Amlan facilitates leadership, soft skills and gender trainings across India, most recently with World Vision India all over West Bengal and under the aegis of the Xavier Institute of Social Sciences in Bangalore.