What would you consider to be a problem in life? In the threshold of an Indian middle class lifestyle, it could range from wanting to buy the latest smartphone in the market to the anxiety of bagging a job in an already saturated job market. I did this exercise once with myself and realised that it was within this very gambit. However, when I made some of the children I teach at a shelter home do this exercise, all I got was blank stares. It felt to me that they sometime did not have the luxury to introspect or to reflect, only a fierce instinct for survival.
Recently, when I read the story of Chandan, a youth from Delhi who is a part of Asha Society in Delhi, it all made sense. Chandan’s biggest problem as a child, I read, was not the lack of desire to work hard or the inability to follow what was being taught in class – on the contrary, he was one of the sharpest kids in class. His biggest problem was that he could not afford to buy stationery to practise his lessons.
With a salary of around 10,000 rupees, Chandan’s family, his parents and four siblings, found it difficult to make ends meet. In a relatively vulnerable ecosystem where feeding seven mouths was a daily struggle, Chandan’s dream of breaking economic and societal barriers and being financially independent seemed far-fetched. With conditions deteriorating every day, he soon found himself at the Asha Society, a Delhi based NGO which works on ameliorating the conditions of living for slum-dwellers, by providing infrastructural, financial and educational support. A lot of encouragement from the workers at Asha and Chandan’s own persistence finally bore results when he was granted admission in DU with Mathematics (Honours). For the last two years, he has been consistently scoring the highest in his batch. Of late, he has also interned at Macquarie Global Finance Service.
Chandan recounts his tryst with Asha Centre at Jeevan Nagar as, “A big gulmohar tree with a makeshift swing… I guess that my involvement with the Bal Mandal (children’s associations) and its activities was a natural progression arising from the comfort levels that I had started sharing with the centre and its staff.” He now wishes to pursue a career in actuarial sciences.
Chandan, however, is not the only success story. Asha with its Higher Education Programme has made it possible for 130 students this year to secure admission into Delhi University. Santosh, who lives in Saraswati Camp slum, has scored 86.25 per cent marks, enough to get himself admitted to Deshbandhu College’s BA course. “Cooking is my and the first step towards a successful future is getting higher education. I am have enrolled for BA programme in Deshbandhu college. I will be able to go for higher studies in hotel management and be a professional cook as I have always dreamt of.” said Santosh. While attending school he also contributed to the family income by cooking and selling tiffin for office-goers in BhikajiCama Place.
The Higher Education Programme that started with just 58 students has until now seen over 1200 students from the slums gaining admission to Delhi University and other professional courses. The count for 2015 has been 130, with many still waiting for the last list before giving up hope.
Asha has always recognised the life-changing role of education, which creates opportunities for better jobs, leading to income for improved nutrition, healthcare and housing, and finally breaking the cycle of poverty The Asha team ensures that each child is a part of the formal education system and has access to adequate study material. As a result, primary school attendance and completion in Asha communities continues to be at 100% this year as well. The integrated and progressive approach of mentoring children through 12th standard, financial and career assistance during college admissions, internships programme which breaks down institutionalised barriers slum dwellers face when they seek jobs in the open market, to placements after college or further studies has inspired a whole generation of young people who have new opportunities and in turn change the perspectives of those around them.
However, lack of educational services is not the only problem. People lack basic services like sewage drainage systems, clean water, electricity, and public schools. This means that the slum is cluttered with mounds of trash, streams of sewage run between homes, and tin homes barely offer people shelter from harsh weather. Asha’s interventions over the past 27 years have ensured that opportunities for education at each level, i.e. primary, secondary and tertiary are available to the students living in slum communities across Delhi.
“Social pressures, the obvious barriers of tuition fees and other expenses, and lack of confidence keep young people from slums out of higher education. We try and give them all the assistance necessary whether it is counselling, guidance, convincing the parents or full fee for their colleges. We insist that they concentrate on studying to secure a place in college, rest will be taken care by us.” said the Founder of the organization, Dr Kiran Martin.
The establishment of the organisation itself was triggered by a visit Kiran Martin made to a slum in 1988, to treat the outbreak of cholera. The deplorable conditions of living made her realise that the problem at hand was much more convoluted than that. Martin spoke to the people, won their trust, and began to work out how she could help.
From that single slum Asha has grown to cover over 60 slum colonies in Delhi and is currently reaching over 500,000 people. Asha has led the way in slum development in India and has played a major part in the formulation of the Indian Government’s slum policies.
The journey has come with its own perils. While school enrolment in the slums has dramatically improved due to Asha’s empowerment programme, many children, especially girls, drop out well before finishing high school. Problems like noisy neighbourhoods, lack of electricity and family issues persist.
The integrated and progressive approach of mentoring children through 12th standard, financial and career assistance during college admissions, internships programme which breaks down institutionalised barriers slum dwellers face when they seek jobs in the open market, to placements after college or further studies has inspired a whole generation of young people who have new opportunities and in turn change the perspectives of those around them. Asha Student Ambassador Programme brings together some of Asha’s brightest and most enthusiastic students who are willing to volunteer their time to spread awareness for the need of education amongst slum residents.
Asha also runs a Community Empowerment Programme aims to enable women and children to come together and take charge of their lives. The Mahila Mandals (women’s associations) and the Bal Mandals (children’s group) are dynamic groups of women and children respectively who create awareness in their communities about varied issues.
Though the problem being tackled here is an extremely complex issue with several facets and factors, youth like Chandan or Santosh who benefit from Asha’s endeavours make the resolve of bringing about change stronger. Even as I write the article, I realise that there’s is one child in Delhi right now who may be attending a session held by the organisation, which may in some way impact his/her life greatly and change the course of their life.