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When India’s British colonial rulers laid the foundation stone of New Delhi in 1911, they set out to build an impressive, planned city as the embodiment of the power of the British empire.

A century on, and 65 years after its independence, India has aspirations to be a global superpower. But aside from the capital’s leafy and well-planned colonial heart – now an enclave for politicians, top bureaucrats and other elites – the chaos of New Delhi reflects decades of poor planning, corruption and neglected infrastructure.

Uncovered manholes claim small children’s lives every year. Kerbs are so high that pedestrians can hardly step up from the roads. Pavements, where they exist, are broken and covered with litter or abandoned building materials. Drains are clogged with rubbish, which means streets flood in heavy rain, causing traffic jams and creating breeding areas for mosquitoes.

For the most part, New Delhi’s residents are so inured, they hardly even notice the hazards, let alone contemplate the contempt their continued presence shows for the city’s people.

“There is no identification or connection with the outside,” says Navtej Singh Johar, a prominent classical dancer. He returned to New Delhi in the mid-1990s after years teaching and performing abroad, and was shocked by the urban chaos he found. “We’ve put blinders on. We’ve stopped seeing reality.”

Despite his dismay, Johar was convinced India’s capital, and its other cities, could be improved if citizens took ownership of the public space and demanded better performance from government agencies. Yet to mobilise citizens, he realised he would need to overcome their apathy, which he says is reinforced by a traditional Indian cultural suspicion of public space, where people of different classes and backgrounds can freely mix.

“There is absolutely no respect, and no identification with anything that is not yours,” Johar says. “It’s a cultural thing – ‘the outside is polluted’.

“Traditionally, the Indian woman’s role is to keep doing purification rituals to ward off contaminants from inside the house, while the outside is something to be afraid of – you don’t mix with that stuff.”

That was the backdrop for Johar’s initiative, the Power of Seeing – an effort to connect schoolchildren with their urban environment and inspire them to improve the city, rather than assume someone else would come along and take care of the problems.

“I realised if things had to change, it was the children who had to change,” he says. “Adults were too jaded and exhausted.”

New Delhi’s problems can easily overwhelm veteran urban planners, let alone teenagers. But in the handful of private schools where he has been welcomed by progressive principals and allowed to work, Johar has urged children to look at the poor state of their neighbourhoods and recognise their own role as residents of the city.

The project’s core approach is to ask participating students to choose one element in their neighbourhood – an uncovered manhole, a clogged drain, a broken pavement, or another hazard – observe it and document what happens to it, for a period that could run into months.

In parallel with the students’ observations, Johar and volunteers conduct workshops, sessions with non-governmental organisations and tours to raise students’ consciousness about the city, how it functions and the state of its urban design and basic services.

At the conclusion of each project, Johar encourages students to send their accounts of problems to local government agencies along with a demand that the manholes are covered, pavements are fixed and other problems are rectified.

He envisions using social networking to help students from different schools join forces to advocate for a more livable city and even dreams of pressing the government to incorporate urban awareness and design issues into the national curriculum.

“My agenda is to have an army of looking, seeing, aware children, joining hands across the city,” he says.

In reality, the Power of Seeing is still operating on a tiny scale. It is an all-volunteer effort, dependent on the energies and limited time of Johar, his partner, Sunil Mehra, an art critic and former editor of the Indian edition of the men’s magazine Maxim, and a handful of their like-minded friends.

Gaining access to schools has been challenging. Indian students are overloaded and are focused on preparing for exams to gain admission to an elite university. Parents tend to be less than enthusiastic about projects that may distract children.

“Parents really object when we take them on tours of rubbish dumps and sewage works,” says Johar. “They are ugly sights.”

Schools, too, are sometimes uncomfortable with a programme that implicitly criticises the Municipal Corporation of Delhi, the government agency responsible for the city’s basic infrastructure. “School principals are a little reluctant to take on the MCD,” he says.

Even when schools do open their doors, it is not always for a prolonged period, or for repeat visits to carry out the project precisely as its founders have mapped it. “Schools have their own agenda,” says Mehra.

But in schools where Johar and his fellow volunteers have worked, children have been deeply touched. Take the students at Fr. Agnel, a private school in affluent south Delhi. Last year, the Power of Seeing team spent weeks at the school, holding workshops in journalism, film-making, dance and music, all focusing on issues of the urban environment.

Among the participants, some were taken on excursions to the Yamuna, New Delhi’s ostensibly sacred but deeply polluted river, and a handful even went to rubbish dumps to interview the workers who sort the city’s refuse by hand in search of material to recycle.

For many of these students, the project has changed the way they conduct themselves and their response to their environment. “Before, when I was going for a trip, I used to throw the wrappers of the chips packets outside the car,” says Hemank Sharma, 12. “Now, I put them in a polythene bag.”

Nabisha Khalid, 17, spent weeks photographing manholes, broken pavements, live wires and broken roads near her house. She was angry at what she saw, particularly when she found a step leading to a house that was almost impossible for children or the elderly to navigate.

She harangued the property owner and persuaded him to build two steps to make it easier to enter. “It was an abuse to people,” she says. “Nobody would be able to walk there. They should understand – they had small kids at their home, and it was dangerous for them.”

Anubha Sharma, 17, lives in an area of housing for government officials, as her parents are civil servants. Inspired by the Power of Seeing, she protested to the authorities about an uncovered manhole. After she had complained three times a week for nearly a year, workers filled the hole with mud and surrounded it with stones – still hazardous but slightly less risky than it was.

“The government is not doing anything,” she says. “We need to put pressure on it.”

The children’s efforts – and the results – may seem insignificant in the grand scheme of New Delhi’s woes. But a longer-term impact is likely to come from the children’s growing awareness. Mehra suggests the project is mainly about planting seeds that will come to fruition in the future.

Suman Kumar, principal of Bluebells School International, where the Power of Seeing volunteers have worked in the past, believes the initiative is inspiring impressionable children who, she says, “have a responsibility as citizens of tomorrow”.

Kumar adds: “School is not just about history, geography and civics. Kids should be connected to society. It may not be a revolutionary process, but the children’s voices, and their awareness of what kind of city they would like to live in, are important.”

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