2 Foreword Editors
3 Chapter Coodinator’s Report By: Manisha Bhattacharya and Mekala Krishnan
4 Treasurer’s Report By: Amit Chowdhry, Amrita Mahtani, Mikhail Lisovich,
Akshay Panchavat, & Ajay Phadke
4 Asha 2008 Event Synopsis By: Asti Bhatt
6 Work an Hour By: Amrita Hazra
7 Creative Education By: Chethan Sarabu
8 Institute of Social Work By: Paulami Chatterjee
11 The Special Health By: Alaka M. Basu
Disadvantage of Poor Urban Children
12 Kaingkarya By: Mekala Krishnan & Rajendran Narayanan
13 The UPA Government on By: Rajendran Narayanan
Primary and Secondary Education
17 Baikunthapur Tarun Sangha By: Shirshendu Bhatt, Trinu Ghosh Dustidar, Bikramijit Das
19 A Purposeful Life By: Paulami Chatterjee
20 Langalberia By: Aritro SinhaRoy
22 My Rendezvous with RTI By: Amrita Hazra
24 The Warped and Wafted By: Subhashini Dinesh
Lives of Children
25 Jeevan Gnanodaya By: Mekala Krishnan & Rajendran Narayanan
27 Giving it a Push By: Swapnaa Jayaraman
28 Trajectory of Hope By:Arindam RoyChoudhury
Chapter Coordinators: Manisha Bhattacharya and Mekala Krishnan
Treasurers: Amit Chowdhry, Mikhail Lisovich, Amrita Mahtani,
Akshay Panchavat, & Ajay Phadke
Publicity Coordinator: Chethan Sarabu
Meeting Coordinators: Paulami Chatterjee and Asha Sharma
Webmaster: Chethan Sarabu
Editors: Paulami Chatterjee & Rajendran Narayanan
Layout: Rinki Goswami
Cover By: Parminder Kaur
Funded by: SAFC
“It is important that students bring a certain ragamuffin, barefoot irreverence to their studies;
they are not here to worship what is known, but to question it.”
-“The Ascent of Man” by Jacob Brownowski
It is precisely this thought that needs to percolate in the minds of millions of youth the world over and the
rough terrain towards realizing this hits one brutally in the class divided India. There is an abundance of
ragamuffin, barefoot irreverence but channels to nurture and nourish them are scarce and hard to fulfill. It
is this vision that Asha in its own small way is trying to reap and sustain with an active and dedicated team
of volunteers to foster education opportunities for the vast underprivileged populace of India.
The Cornell chapter of Asha started in 1994. With the active participation and the effort put in
by our dedicated members, our major fund-raising events- the Spring Dinner and the Fall Concert were a
grand success. The gratified and happy faces of the students of our school make the stupendous toil and
planning for the events a great pleasure. The Ithaca community in turn gets to experience the pleasure of
our efforts. Being on the verge of completion of yet another magnificent Asha year, we bring to you our
annual Newsletter ‘Compassion’. Asha, meaning ‘Hope’ in English, has never been discouraged by any kind
of impediment but instead has always taken a step forward to fill an area of darkness with light.
In this edition, we present some thought provoking articles which will help you realize the need for
organizations like Asha and how its participation can bring about change in the lives of others. The candid
views expressed by the authors give an idea of the sorry socio-economic conditions under which Asha Cornell
operates with its partners in India.
Each project of ours presents us with a unique set of challenges, from procuring government clearance
for fund transfer to physically accessing the place owing to its remote geographical location. However,
such things have not been a deterrent to our work. In fact, our involvement with projects is not confined
to fund-raising. We regularly interact with our school administrators to understand their conditions and
requirements beyond financial needs. Discussions play the dual role of apprising us of the variety of obstacles
they face and on occasions they get ideas of sustainability from us, which is an important step that
Asha seeks for self empowerment of these small establishments.
It is with great pleasure that we welcome several new and spirited set of people who joined Asha last
year. With the old and the new, we are ever eager to get more people to join our endeavor to improve
lives of the marginalized. We look forward to your continued support for a progressive change in the divided
Indian social fabric.
2008-2009 Asha Cornell Chapter
Front: Asha Sharma, Anish Borkar, Ragini Sharma,
Ajay Phadke, Rajendran Naranyanan
Row 2: Paulami Chatterjee, Rinki Goswami, Saummya
Kaushal, AmritaMahanti, Amit Chowdry, Trina Ghosh,
Mekala Krishnan, Krishna Iyengar,
Row 3: Chethan Sarabu, Manisha Bhattacharya
Aparna Ashok, Akshay Panchavati, Hitesh Changlani
The core philosophy of Asha for Education is the promotion of education as a catalyst for socioeconomic change
in the developing world. As part of an international organization dedicated to providing education to underprivileged
children in India, Asha volunteers work to fund over 350 schools in India through the efforts of over a
thousand members the world over.
Asha Cornell is one of many Asha chapters, drawing its members from Ithaca and the Cornell graduate
and undergraduate communities. Central to our efforts to directly support educational opportunities for underserved
communities in India are our fundraising activities, which usually consist of a concert in the fall semester and
an authentic elaborate Indian dinner in the spring. In 2008, our fundraising efforts allowed us to contribute more
than $10,000 to various education projects in India.
Over the last year, Asha Cornell has successfully carried out two fundraising events, welcomed many new
members and even won two awards for our community efforts! Our 2008 Spring Dinner was held at the Women’s
Community Building in the Commons and was a huge success. Many volunteers worked extremely hard to put
together this dinner for 350 people, who enjoyed the delicious and authentic home-style Indian food. We’d like
to thank all the cooks, volunteers and Asha members for putting together this great event! For our fall concert, we
hosted the Hindi-English fusion a cappella group Penn Masala, a unique ensemble from the University of Pennsylvania.
This event was particularly successful in helping Asha reach the undergraduate population, and all of the
concert proceeds went towards funding several of our projects.
Beyond fundraising events, we also dedicate a significant portion of our time towards reviewing our projects
in India and assisting with project operations. Our volunteers make project site visits to India at least once a
year, and are in regular communication with the projects through the year. Our recently redesigned review process
continues at our regular weekly meetings, at which we have regular presentations describing the progress of
each of our projects, and rotating updates on each school. This year, our project stewards did an exceptionally
great job keeping us in constant communication with our projects! We currently fund five projects, Jeevan Gnanodaya
and Kaingkarya in Tamil Nadu and Langarberia, Baikunthapur Tarun Sangha (BTS) and Institute of Social
Work (ISW) in West Bengal. Jeevan Gnanodaya was also selected to participate in an Asha-wide fund raising
event called Work an Hour; these funds went towards the purchase of a van and furniture for the school. We are
extremely happy to say that some of our projects have matured to the point where they can seriously consider
self-sustainability and start taking steps towards fiscal independence.
We are also continuing to organize and participate in events designed to increase awareness of social
and cultural issues that face our projects and the region. These events include screenings of movies and documentaries,
as well as discussions about education and economic development. Some of our volunteers also participated
in Corning India Day and subsequently visited Corning Community College to talk about social issues in a
developing country like India. In 2008, Asha Cornell’s long-standing efforts were recognized by ALANA and the
Leadership Initiative of Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority, who awarded us for our service to Cornell University and the
greater Ithaca community. To fulfill our secondary mission of raising on-campus awareness for our cause, we also
participated in campus events like Asia Night 2009 and Taste of Culture 2008, where we were able to talk about
Asha and also offer the community a taste of mango lassi and Indian sweets! In fact, our stall at Asia Night won
third place overall for the quality of the cultural experience we provided for our visitors.
We’d like to conclude this year by officially welcoming our many new members to Asha Cornell. This year
has seen many new, enthusiastic Cornell students join Asha and we’re very excited to see that our organization will
continue flourishing through the hard work of its volunteers! In the coming year, we look forward to stabilizing our
current projects and taking on new ones, continuing with our fundraising and social awareness efforts, and extending
our work to collaborate with similar groups on campus. Thank you for your interest in Asha, and we hope to see
you at some of our events and meetings this year!
Chapter Coordinator’s Repor 3
2008 Revenues (USD)
Asha Spring Dinner - Spring 2008 $5,327
Penn Masala Concert - Fall 2008 $6,265
Work an Hour (WAH) $5,853
General Donations $624
Total Revenue $18,068
2008 Project Donation (USD)
Schools For Funding
Jeevan Gnanodaya $3,000
Chengalpattu, Tamil Nadu
Chennai, Tamil Nadu
Baikunthapur Tarun Sangha $2,000
Kultali Islands, West Bengal
Institute of Social Work (ISW) $1,111
Work an Hour (WAH) Funds Distributed to ISW
Total Donations to Projects 15,868
Asha Cornell organized two major fund raising events this past year, the Asha Spring Dinner and Hindi a
cappella concert by a group based in University of Pennsylvania. All the proceeds from both these events
go towards funding our projects in India.
Since Asha’s core mission is to bring about socio-economic change in India through education, we care about
and often discuss the current issues related to development in India.
During the past year, we were told by Jessica Falcone about the issues surrounding the construction
of a Buddha statue in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh called the Maitreya Project. While visiting the town
known for its Buddhist heritage, Jessica found out that the most farmers in the area were asked to give up
their lands for the construction with little or no compensation offered by Maitreya or the state government of
Uttar Pradesh, which is providing the land. Disturbed by this apparent injustice to the already impoverished
farmers, Jessica went to talk to the Maitreya project thinking they might be unaware of the problem, which
they were. Jessica has taken it upon herself to expose this hypocrisy on the part by the Maitreya Foundation
and the state government. We at Asha Cornell are hoping to help her reach a larger audience.
We also watched a documentary “Bitter Drink” about the farmers struggle with a Coke plant in India
over the ground water contamination and depletion. This struggle against the corporate giants Coke and
Pepsi is ongoing. There have been a series of allegations against them of exploiting local land, water, and
farmers. We at Asha Cornell have taken a stand of not using Coke or Pepsi products in our events.
4 Treasurer’s Report and Event Synopsis
Known as the most authentic Indian vegetarian food experience, the Asha Spring Dinner is a widely attended
event. The dinner is our major fund raising event in the spring and was held on April 19 last year at the
Women’s Community Building in downtown Ithaca. This was our first experience with an off-campus location,
but thanks to the cooperation of the WCB management, the dinner was a success. All Asha volunteers came
together and cooked around 11 varieties of Indian vegetarian food complete with appetizers and desserts.
People who have attended this dinner once look forward to the Asha Spring Dinner every year.
Last year we decided to invite Penn Masala, stated to be world’s first Hindi a cappella group, for our fall
concert. The group is based in University of Pennsylvania and derives inspiration from both Indian and
western styles of music. They have performed in several states in the USA, the UK, and India and have
released a number of albums. Needless to say, they are immensely popular among the teenagers and
undergrads. They drew a crowd of about 400 students from Cornell and elsewhere. They were cheered
on as they performed their hit songs one by one and greeted as rock stars as the concert ended. After the
concert, the fans gathered around them posing for photographs and lining for autographs. From Asha’s
perspective, we were able to take our message to a different demographic.
Notes of Hope
Asha 2008 Event Synopsis 5
Many times, we look around from our own little worlds and notice the huge disparity in distribution of
resources among our fellow humans. Many a times, we have wished to contribute either in action or in kind
to make these lives more meaningful in some way, but haven’t had any good way to. Asha for Education
recognized this feeling a while back, and came up with this concept of Work an Hour!
Work An Hour, or WAH, as it is popularly known, is a summer-long, global, online fundraising campaign
based on a simple concept. It started in 1998, with a view to give people an opportunity to contribute
reliably to areas in developing India which require help. Participants are asked to symbolically ‘work an
hour’ towards the cause of children’s education by donating an hour’s worth or more of their salary to the
closely monitored Asha projects which are in need of large funding.
Asha’s project partners selected for WAH support typically require larger sums of money, more than what
a single Asha chapter can raise, in order to facilitate fixed expenditure on items such as infrastructure,
construction and other one-time costs and recurring costs.
All Asha projects are closely scrutinized by Asha project coordinators to ensure that the funds are being
properly utilized and the proposed benefits are actually being realized by the children in the project. The
first WAH campaign started in 1998, raised over $30,000 from close to 700 donors. Last year’s campaign
addresses the empowerment of rural and tribal communities & centered around supporting schools
for the disabled and non-formal education centers, educating children of sex workers, mitigating child labor
etc. We raised $1,00,500 for the projects involved and our constant monitoring of these projects show
us significant positive infrastructural outcomes for the money we raised for them through WAH.
This, and more, can be achieved by your will to Work An Hour for the underprivileged children in India. It
may just be one hour’s salary for you, a couple of dollars or rupees that you would have spent over your
next three coffee breaks, but to the children without homes, schools and clothes, it means a lot!
Find more information about Work an Hour at:
6 Work An Hour
The structured system of education that has taken hold throughout the world is directly related to the
Industrial Revolution. According to education expert, Sir Ken Robinson, every society has placed math and
science at the top because those are the skills which are needed to power the engines of industry. Humanities
including language and literacy follow after the technical requisites, but the arts fall at the bottom.
Furthermore, Robinson explicates, even in the arts, music and fine art are a level above drama and dance.
He asks why it has to be this way; and then goes on to proclaim that creativity should be just as important
a measure of education as literacy. I agree wholeheartedly.
To many however, creativity does not seem to be as important as literacy or mathematics. For explaining
this, we turn to Daniel Pink and his wonderful book, “A Whole New Mind.” If the 19th century was the
Industrial Age, and the 20th century was the age of knowledge or information, Pink explains that the 21st
century is the conceptual age. He explicates that those living in the 1st world have an overabundance of
products. The hurdles are not about production but about design and creatively presenting things and
ideas. The advent of mass consumption of good design is evidenced by the rise of Target and other stores
which have proliferated because of their emphasis on design. Pink continues explaining that many of the
staple jobs and services performed in the past can now be automated by computers, or outsourced. Furthermore,
the world is facing an unparalleled crisis, due to human industry and energy use. Those who are
awakening to this danger have begun to look for creative and new solutions for a sustainable planet. We
need new ideas, and the best way to reach these is through creative pursuits.
Also creativity can provide new avenues for education in general. In trying to improve basic literacy in
India, Brij Kothari pursued a brilliant idea. A scientist by trade, Kothari realized the huge potential of using
Bollywood to teach literacy. The massive entertainment industry in India reaches millions daily, many
of whom are drawn to movies but cannot read. So Kothari persuaded broadcasting stations to implement
same-language subtitles (SLS) for the myriad of films and television programs watched by many who are
illiterate. This has become a very successful creative venture and has contributed to increased literacy.
On this same vein, social entrepreneur, Sugata Mitra, wanted to discover if children could learn by themselves.
Specifically, he wanted to see if they could learn to use a computer; technol-Continued Pg 10
The Education of Creativity 7
ogy which has become a requisite for success in the world today. He initiated a spectacular project, aptly
named hole-in-the-wall, whereby he went to remote areas north of New Delhi and installed computers in
the side of a wall. This ensured that they were protected from abuse by weather and by overly curious
children. These were installed in villages where illiteracy was rampant and there was not much of a chance
of anyone coming across a computer before. Amazingly, the children started playing with the technology
and in a few short weeks they understood how to make it run. What was fascinating about this setup was
that it became a very social event. Due to the low computer-to-student ratio, everyone had to share, but
this meant that learning the technology progressed faster because there was a bigger pool of minds to
draw from. Mitra repeated this creative experiment in other villages as well and it is an important step in
building the world’s technological literacy.
Throughout the world, education is rediscovering itself. In the globalized world of the 21st century, what
has emerged as the dominant paradigm is the importance of ideas and creativity over knowledge. With
Google and Wikipedia at our fingertips, the value of information has dramatically dropped. What is important
however, is what we do with that information and knowledge. The ability to weave story and art
along with music and computer science is where value lies in our conceptual world. To facilitate the global
transition, education must not mask creativity. Literacy alone is not enough for improving the world’s condition.
A harmonious world and sustainable future depend on whole minded education and thought.
Institute of Social Work(ISW) is an NGO whose main office is in Chetla, Kolkata. It was registered in the
year 1978. ISW has two chapters in Kolkata- one in Barasat and the other in Kidderpore(in the dock
area). The Barasat school started in the year 1982 with 33 drop-out children and today there are more
than 350 students.
The founders of Institute of Social Work are:
Late Narayan Sarkar , Late Kabita Basu, Late Kamala Chakraborty, Nupur Sanyal, Alakendu Biswas,
Amitava Sanyal, Bhaskar Sarkar, Md Sultan, Rajia Sultan, Sujita Biswas, Mrinal Kanti RoyChaudhuri.
Currently this NGO is being chaired by one of the founders, Nupur Sanyal.
8 Creativity in Education Ctd, ISW
-The main objective of ISW is to provide education to the children in that area.
-To stop the drop-out rate of children from school.
-To stop early marriage of girls and to ensure that they receive proper education.
-To stop trafficking of girl children.
The children who attend the schools at the Barasat and Kidderpore area come from families where
there is widespread poverty and absence of economic stability. The parents of these children are mainly
agricultural laborers, vegetable vendors, daily wage laborers and laborers of the dock yard. Often there
are instances where the husband beats up the wife and the children are left in a state of trauma. The children
are forced to go to work to earn money for the family.
The Barasat school has classes from Nursery to standard VIII. The educational funding from Nursery
to standard IV is received from Asha Cornell. Classes are held in a building with tiled roofs. The area of
ISW land is 6 acres. There are two rooms with a wooden partition in each so that different classes can be
accommodated. There is also a community hall with brick walls and tiled roofs where classes are held.
There are 65 children in Nursery, 66 in standard I, 58 in standard II, 60 in standard III,
45 in standard IV, 25 in standard V, 15 in standard VI, 10 in standard VII and 10 in standard VIII.
In standards VII and VIII which were opened recently, all the students are girls. This is definitely an improvement
since the region has a history of ills like child trafficking and early marriage of the girl-child.
The subjects taught in the Barasat school are English(letters, words, spelling, sentence making and the like),
Bengali - the regional language(grammar, rhymes, prose, poetry), mathematics(understanding numbers,
addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, measuring), history, geography and science. There are also
classes on general knowledge.
The school in the Kidderpore area provides non-formal education to the children who have not yet
been admitted to schools or are school drop-outs. Classes are held in a two-storied small rented building.
There are 60 children in the Kidderpore school. There is a separate coaching center for girls. There are
about 40 students attending this coaching center. The coaching class is given to adolescent girls (standard
VI to graduation). This coaching center helps the students with their higher studies and ensures that they do
not drop-out from the schools they attend.
ISW also provides recreational facilities for the children through extra-curricular activities like
drawing, painting, music and dance. Vocational training is provided in the field of food processing and
bakery. There is also a tailoring section for women in the Kidderpore center.
ISW takes special effort to get these hand-made products sold so that there is a sense of financial inde
• Children often find it difficult to attend school because they have to work to earn, to meet the family’s
• Children coming from households where there is domestic violence and unpleasant environment often
find it difficult to concentrate in class.
• Insufficient space at the slum school area in Kidderpore.
• It is to be noted that regular ‘parent-teacher’ meetings are held. Special care is taken by the teachers
to maintain contact with the guardians of the children.
• Visits to the residence of non-attending students are conducted by the teachers to find out the problem.
Each class teacher maintains a diary for each and every student.
• Counseling by psychologist has been arranged for certain students since they come from an unhappy
• Attendance of children has increased.
• There is more interest among the parents to send their children to school.
• Drop-out rate has decreased.
• Standards V to VIII have been started.
• Parents are showing more interest about their children’s academic situation.
• Enhancement of co-operation and concern for the betterment of the school among teachers.
ISW has been able to instill in the minds of the people dwelling in the slums, the importance of education.
Such families need to be influenced a great deal to send their children to school. It is not an easy task to
remove the veil of ignorance from these people but ISW as Nupur Sanyal says, will fight against all odds to
provide education to the children of the area and the surrounding region. ISW also pays special attention to
the empowerment of women.
Asha Cornell started funding ISW from the year 2000 and has been funding the recurring expenditure
of the education center of ISW – ‘Shishu Vikas Bharati’. ISW was selected for WAH funding in 2007.
Lots of books were purchased which have been of great help to the students.
Other than the recurring cost which is usually an amount of $3000, at this moment we are looking into the
possibility of funding the construction of 1 roof in the Barasat school. ISW definitely wants us to continue providing
them the educational expense but has requested us to help them with the construction cost of at least
one roof (2 tiled roofs need to be replaced by concrete roofs). The tiled roofs pose to be a problem during
the monsoons when the rain water trickles down inside the classroom. If we are unable to provide funding for
the roof we may seek assistance of another Asha chapter who would be willing to provide funds for this onetime
ISW always keeps us updated with their progress. Nupur-di has expressed her gratitude towards
Asha-Cornell for helping them in their endeavor to educate children. It is our pride to be associated with
such a project whose mission is so noble and we all believe that children should get what they deserve. It is a
delight to be a part of the amelioration of ISW. This project is a wonderful opportunity to bring back the lost
smile on the faces of these innocent children.
Alaka M. Basu
The worldwide wild success of Slumdog Millionaire has elicited two typical responses from Indians. The first
group is embarrassed and angry that the film, by focusing on poverty, denigrates the supposedly remarkable
social and economic strides the country has made in the last few decades. The second group, being
more cheerful and eager to claim anything successful to do with India, is happy that the central message of
the film is one of optimism and hope, the idea that however poor and oppressed you are in the new India,
determination and love will make you prevail.
Both these reactions are childish and alright as long as they remain reactions to a film. But, and this is the
sad part, they are applied by many patriotic Indians to the real world of Indian slums as well. Either we
wish them away, pretend they do not exist, or we presume that our slum-dwellers have the grit and talent
to rise above their circumstances. Both these fanciful notions ignore the very real obstacles that the urban
poor face in India, obstacles that are at least acknowledged for rural India even if little is done to alleviate
them, but get lost in statistics on urban-rural differences on a range of welfare measures that show a
strong urban advantage.
But the fact of the matter is that the urban poor do not really share this overall urban advantage
on a variety of measures. I will use the example of child health here to illustrate. In the late 1980s, I had
done a field study in the slums of east Delhi which found that the infant and child mortality in these slums
was not only much higher than the averages for Delhi, but that these slum figures were worse even than the
mortality rates in the rural areas in Uttar Pradesh and Tamil Nadu from which my study slum dwellers had
come. Today, almost twenty years later, while all rates have improved (but far too slowly given the rise in
average per capita incomes in the country), the urban poor are still dismally disadvantaged in child health.
Figures are often hard to come by because we tend to focus so much on the urban rural differential, instead
of disaggregating the urban population by socioeconomic status. But look at a few numbers from a
recent study in the Chandigarh area for example. 74% of urban non-slum children were fully immunized
at age 2, 62% or rural, and only 30% or urban slum children. The corresponding figures for institutional
deliveries were 93%, 70% and 32% respectively. And over half the home deliveries in the slums were not
attended by a trained birth attendant. If this is the situation in a relatively well off area like Chandigarh,
one can only imagine what is happening in other parts of the country,
The worst off by the way are the urban poor who have migrated from rural areas. They face all the disadvantages
of urban poverty (and I will come to these in a moment) without the urban savvy of the kind
captured in Slumdog that long standing slum dwellers develop to negotiate some gains for themselves. In
the context of child health for example, the differences between migrant and non-migrant urban poor are
especially big for children’s health and survival after the first year of life; that is, once they reach an age
where the illnesses they get due to exposure to the unhealthy environment of the slum needs the ability to
find and use health care services that long-standing slum dwellers are more (but only a little more) able to
demand and access.
What are the general child health disadvantages of being urban and poor? There is the obvious
poverty of course. But that gets exacerbated in urban areas by living conditions – high population density,
poor sanitation, higher food prices, insecure tenure; the last being created both by extortionist landlords
as well as fears of slum demolitions by the state in the name of city beautification. In addition, the urban
poor have usually lost the rural advantage of kinship and community support, especially for child care and
especially crucial because poor urban women are more likely to go out to work than are rural women –
the percentages of young slum children being left in the care of older siblings (usually sisters) who are
Special Health Disadvantage of Poor Urban Children in India 11
who are themselves children, or ‘no-one’ in surveys of urban slums are shocking. This forced neglect means
exposure to illness and accidents of course, but it also means that there is less attention possible to feeding
(including breastfeeding), as well as less time to take sick children to a doctor. In the few cases where very
young children can accompany working mothers, it is often when these mothers work in environmentally
hazardous occupations like construction and quarrying. No wonder gastro-intestinal and respiratory illnesses
account for several days per year in the life of the young poor urban child.
None of these handicaps are inevitable. With better public services that take the special circumstances
of the urban poor into account ( two simple examples – having governments clinics open in the evenings
so that working mothers can get medical care for themselves and their children as a lower cost than
from the private practitioners they are otherwise forced to seek out, and piped water available for more
than the few hours that it typically is), it is possible in principle to achieve huge improvements in infant and
child health, mortality and nutrition levels at costs that will be nowhere near the amount of public money
spent on maintaining the comforts of the urban non- poor.
The beginnings that are being made in this direction are still too small. For example, the Jawaharlal Nehru
National Urban Renewal Mission that was announced with much publicity in 2005 and that includes a submission
to provide “Basic Services to the Urban Poor” is, at least to begin with, expected to cover only 63
cities, of which 28 will be cities and towns that are of “historical/religious/tourist” importance – a reservation
that sounds suspiciously like putting on a good face for the world rather than tackling the problems of
the millions of poor (and these numbers are rising rapidly – by the middle of this century, close to half of
India’s population is expected to live in urban areas) who are unfortunate enough not to be noticed by
their rich or religious brethren, not even by Danny Boyle.
Kaingkarya is a social welfare organisation situated in Thrisoolam, on the outskirts of Chennai in the state
of Tamil Nadu, India. It is a non government organisation founded by Ms. Kaveri Natarajan in 1991. Their
vision is empowerment of women and children through education, training and employment.
About the area
Thrisoolam is within a 3km radius of the Chennai international airport. The area is surrounded by rocky
hills that are used for quarrying. The quarry area in the hills are owned by a few private owners who
engage a few contractors to oversee various quarrying operations. Following the instructions of the owners,
these contractors in turn take advantage of the vast pool of available cheap human resources, in the
form of migrant labourers from the drought prone areas of southern Tamil Nadu. These workers earn an
extremely meagre salary, bordering the poverty line and work in very hostile conditions. They form part
of the unorganised work force and are paid around Rs50/day($1/day), below the government norm of
Rs76/day($1.50/day). The workers lack basic sanitation facilities, ideas of insurance, knowledge about
government norms, about labour laws and the contractors take heavy advantage of this asymmetry of
12 Special Health Disadvantage of Poor Urban Children in India
information. Their residence(huts) dot the boundary of the main quarry area and as such the workers and
children are constantly exposed to nauseating fumes from the quarries. This in turn results in severe cases
of respiratory diseases. In addition, the women and children in the area suffer from the age-old chronic
problem of an alcoholic and abusive husband/father. The rowdiness of the powerful contractors supported
by the rich owners adds further misery to the workers. It is under such inhospitable and hostile conditions
that Kaingkarya boldly operates to provide meaning to the life of distraught women and children.
I made a site visit to the place in the summer of 2008. I gave a very short notice to the authorities as I
wanted to get a sense of things as they are on a regular basis. I reached the place navigating myself
through the rough terrain on a hot and humid morning. It was heartening to meet Ms. Natarajan and Ms.
Jayashree Naidu who started by showing me around the crèche and a makeshift health centre that had a
doctor and 2 nurses nursing a worker who had suffered severe knee injury at the workplace. The doctor
apprised me of the severity of respiratory illnesses in the area and numerous cases of external physical
injuries due to blocks of rocks falling on legs. After the rude introduction of ailments, I was taken around
the quarry area by the authorities in a jeep, provided by the Japanese consulate.
What followed was a demystifying tour of how dismal the working conditions were. My site visit
to the school was converted to a tour of the rather pathetic life of the migrant labourers. I got off at the
corner of a cliff to take photographs of the work area only to be accosted by a bunch of rowdy contractors.
With the avid support of Ms. Natarajan and her driver, I embarked on a battle of words with the
contractors who were preventing us from taking pictures for fear of public attention. They were afraid that
their mistreatment of labourers would be exposed to the media and the inherent guilt and fear of public
wrath prompted them to indulge in physically prohibiting us to exercise our right in a free country. Despite
the wrangle, we went about our business in several other sections of the area taking pictures and carrying
out detailed conversations with the laborers. It was disturbing to note the lack of consciousness among
the laborers. They were unaware that hazardous work place injuries could be compensated by the owners.
They were unaware of basic human rights. They were unaware of a possible good life. Their earnings
were below poverty line and yet they were gracious enough to share their innutritious lunch with me. In
fact, their servility was evident when they expressed deep fear and shyness in expressing their monetary
need to their owners. This journey with several such stories continued till early evening.
Ms. Natarajan believes the following to be the goals of the organisation -
• Place all children in the formal system of education
• Encourage them to participate in extra curricular activities
• Prepare them for career awareness and train them with vocational skills
• Render services in the Panchayat(local self government) school for counseling and health services
• Offer subsidised healthcare to community
Kaingkarya’s engagment with Asha-Cornell pertains their education related projects.
1. Creche(pre school) – Both parents being quarry workers, the elder child ends up taking care of
his/her younger siblings, impeding their school education. Kaingkarya thus runs a creche to take care of
infants so that elder children are not deprived of school education. It has 15 girls and 10 boys and runs
from early morning to about 2:30 PM.
2. Transit School – Disturbing home environment leads many children astray who default from the lone
government school nearby. Kaingkarya runs a transit school to prepare defaulters and child workers to
induct them into the formal education system. This runs the whole day and has 5 girls and 15 boys.
3. Supportive Education – Children already enrolled in school are given extra help in their school lessons
to prevent them from dropping out of school. This programme has 80 girls and 45 boys and operates
everyday from 4:30PM to 7:30PM.
4. In addition, Kaingkarya provides educational materials and uniforms for children in the government
school and also render services like counseling, parent-teacher association etc.
Four female teachers are permanently employed and one male teacher is employed part time.
The medium of instruction is Tamil and the scheme of teaching follows the norms of “Sarva Shiksha
Abhiyan(SSA)”, meaning, “Education for All”, a flagship programme of the Government of India.
Budget and Plans
Their annual budget is around Rs24 lakhs($48,000) and Asha-Cornell provided around $3800 in 2008 for
teachers salary and other maintenance related costs. They have some other funding sources in India. They
plan to construct an additional room with restroom facilities in the near future for the school children.
Note of Hope
Recollect that this place is a stone’s throw away(literally!) from the luminous Chennai airport. It was yet
another rude reminder of the contradictions in our society. In such circumstances, it is great to learn the
work of Kaingkarya and also a sense of pride to note that Asha-Cornell is supporting such a courageous
venture. This is a classic example of Asha’s mission to bring about socio-economic transformation through
14 Kaingkarya Continued
We are living in tense times. The world’s largest democracy is on the threshold of another election. It’s like
the Olympics, but with no fixed schedule. Many times in the history of free India, we have had government
seats handed over to heirs, much like a family run business, albeit with a more complicated profit
sharing model. Polity, like property has been passed on to future generations to maintain family stronghold
in positions of power. In addition to this hierarchical regime, election times bring forth a new dimension of
relationships. New friendships are discovered and new foes get formed as part of the pre poll drama that
has no less spice content than a Bollywood potboiler and no less emotions than a Shakespearean tragedy,
or is it comedy? These nouveau alliances, standing tall on riches pumped in by rich industrialists, on many
occasions are more ephemeral than a handful of burning camphor, leaving behind a bitter concoction of
promises that get trapped in the red tape of political quarrel and corrupt seat sharing. The innocent common
man who votes on the premise of honesty of the promises is soon lost in the sea of disillusionment and
in due course loses faith in our celebrated electoral system and democracy. It is the common man who gets
marginalised in this collaboration of the rich with the corrupt polity
The current UPA government came to power in 2004 eclipsing the National Democratic Alliance
whose copywriters came up with the popular “India Shining” campaign. Blitzkrieg of such campaign expenditures
also go unnoticed on most occasions. It came to power at a time when India was shining indeed
but only for a small section of our society, the posh upper middle class that was being pushed to the upper
echelons further widening the rich-poor divide, creating a more unequal society. As an aside, isn’t that just
another euphemism for class struggle? The UPA entered the arena with a whole host of allies ranging from
RJD, DMK, IUML etc etc. Triumphing over the party of the India Shining campaign, the UPA with its allies
formulated the National Common Minimum Programme(NCMP) in May 2004. The left of centre political
beliefs of the coalition government promised a tenure of governance dedicated to the welfare of farmers,
agricultural labour, weavers and the weaker sections of society. Their principles included social harmony,
regular annual economic growth rate of 7-8% and in the context of education it included full empowerment
of women educationally and economically, provide full equality of opportunity, particularly in education.
While it is tempting to dismiss the upcoming elections as a rehash of the same old, lets try and analyze
the performance of the current government on education.
The following is the promise produced verbatim from the NCMP* “The UPA government pledges to
raise public spending in education to least 6% of GDP with at least half this amount being spent on primary
and secondary sectors. This will be done in a phased manner. The UPA government will introduce a cess
on all central taxes to finance the commitment to universalize access to quality basic education. A National
Commission on Education will be set up to allocate resources and monitor programmes. A national cooked
nutritious mid-day meal scheme funded mainly by the central government will be introduced in primary
and secondary schools. An appropriate mechanism for quality checks will also be set up. The UPA will also
universalize the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) scheme to provide a functional anganwadi
in every settlement and ensure full coverage for all children. The UPA government will fully back and support
all NGO efforts in the area of primary education. Proper infrastructure will be created in schools for
NCC. NSS, physical development, sports and cultural development of all students.”
A mandate in the 86th amendment to the Constitution of India gave birth to the Sarva Shiksha
Abhiyan(SSA). It is a programme for the achievement of universalization of elementary education making
free and compulsory education to children of 6-14 years age a fundamental right. In conjunction with the
state governments, it seeks to open new schools in remote areas, strengthen existing school infrastructure
UPA Government on Primary and Secondary Education 15
through provision of class rooms, toilets and safe drinking water. Further, centrally sponsored schemes such
as the Rashtriya Madhyamik Shiksha Abhiyan (RMSA), Girl’s hostel scheme, Model School schemes were
launched for the secondary education levels.
Another noteworthy scheme commissioned by the government is the little known Kasturba Gandhi
Balika Vidyalaya(KGBV). It was instituted under the SSA in 2005 to ensure access to education for girls
between the 6th grade and 8th grade. It started off in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh where the girl
dropout rate was the second highest at the time. Under this scheme, school uniforms, textbooks and meals
are provided free by the school throughout for three years. Success of the pilot in 5 such schools prompted
the education officials to set up more than 160 such schools in 2 years. It is a daunting task to convince
parents in very backward areas that sending their girl children to school is more profitable than them
earning a meagre Rs25/day. This is an attempt at the secondary school level and aims to give those girls
another chance who have never been to a school or have dropped out of it early. To further boost education
among the extremely socially disadvantaged women of this area, an incentive of Rs 50/month as
stipend to these girls has been planned to deter child labour and promote the importance of education.
In the light of such constructive social policies, it is crucial to investigate government expenditure
towards its education promises. The Union Government’s expenditure on education as a proportion of its
GDP has only marginally increased from 0.37% in 2002-2003 to about 0.58% in 2007-2008. State fund
allocation to education has also been dismal ranging between 2.25% to 2.39% over the last 6 years.
When the UPA government came to power in 2004, the centre-state combined spending on education was
3.09% of the GDP and its promise of 6% spending on education is far from being met. The combined
spending as of 2006-2007 has just marginally increased to 3.24% of its GDP. This is quite dismal as compared
to its investment to other departments. Some good indicators have been that there is a decline nationally
in the percentage of out-of-school students but on the other hand, percentage of girls’ enrollment
in primary level has not changed significantly from 47% in 2002 to 48% in 2008. To add to the list of not
so good stories, reduction in the percentage of schools with pucca buildings has been rather abysmal from
29% in 2002 to 27.2% in 2008. Schools without drinking water facility have reduced from 20.5% in 2002
to 13.25% in 2008. Schools with common toilets have increased from 34% to 64% in the last seven years.
These statistical figures do not reveal the complete picture though. According to a recent survey
report conducted by Annual Status of Education Report(ASER), despite an increase in enrollment, 44.8%
of grade 5 students are still at the educational level of a grade 2 student in reading ability and 15%
of grade 8 students are still at a grade 2 level. 32% of grade 8 students are unable to perform basic
arithmetic operation of division. About 39% of grade 5 students are still not able to read clocks correctly.
Beneath the glory of magnificent policies lie the scum of truth.
What we thus have is a mixed bag. There have been positive measures taken by the government in
formulating education policies catering to the socially estranged section of the society. The basic problem
is thus translating theory to practice. The premise of implementation schemes for policies has been rather
weak. There is no effective monitoring of funds disbursal between centre and state. Take for example the
textbook grant scam in the state of Haryana. The Printing and stationery department apparently had Rs74
lakhs as leftovers from the previous year and accounting for this, they should have ideally asked the centre
for Rs452 lakhs for the next fiscal year but instead they asked the central government for Rs1130 lakhs.
What is really surprising is that the central government in fact granted this amount to the state. Nobody
claimed any responsibility for such reckless wastage of money and nobody questioned the same. Another
evidence of poor auditing and monitoring. This is just one small instance of a small division in one state.
Imagine the magnitude of wastage when such maladministration is aggregated across the entire nation.
Note also that the loss amount we witness is despite the centre’s investment of less than 50% of their promised
Apart from such cases of scams, there is also the lackadaisical approach to supplies reaching
the right place at the right time. Textbooks and uniforms often arrive late to children in villages, teacher
16 UPA Government Continued
instruction materials very often come more than 6 months later than the scheduled arrival date. Who is
responsible for such slackness? It is important that both the government and the people realise that role of
the government is not over in making promises and formulating policies. It is imperative that the government
drills down to the bottom ensuring successful implementation of the policies, maintaining high accountability
and regular audit trails. Further, there is no uniformity in the manner of project management. There is
a large variance of project planning and execution even between neighbouring districts and as such there
are large budget and accounting loopholes that play privy to enormous red tape and corruption in various
levels. There is a dire requirement to streamline such massive processes of such high value involving multiple
parties and hierarchies and strict accounting norms at every level.
It is instructive for us to question this gap between the cup and the lip and force an answer for such
government inaccuracies. The government audit should not be confined to bailing out corrupt corporate
but should function to ensure strict quality controls within its own establishment. It is important to closely
monitor projects right from policy formulation to smooth running of them on the field. Perhaps, educational
audit responsibilities should be given to the knowledge commission and a resolution to that effect passed in
parliament. As citizens, it is important that we don’t get lost in the quagmire of the politics of education.
Instead we should undergo education of politics and ensure that the government is in responsible hands for
a more prosperous and equal India, devoid of social and economic inequalities.
Acknowledgements (1) – Centre for Budget and governance accountability
(2) www.asercentre.org(Assessment, Survey, Evaluation and Research)
Trina Ghosh Dastidar
Baikunthapur Tarun Sangha (BTS) is an organization working for social and community development in a
remote part of the Sundarbans(West Bengal). The core area of the project is six villages in Baikunthapur-
Moipith G.P. in Kultali block. An island in the Bay of Bengal, Kultali was accessible only by water till recent
past. A pucca road has recently been constructed connecting this island with the mainland. The island is yet
to receive electricity. The primary means of livelihood is farming and fishing. The main focus of the project
is providing primary education to children and proper health care services to the neighbouring villages. It
also runs four child care centers, supports more than 50 self help groups and occasionally conducts social
awareness programs in the community.
Asha for education supports the school run by BTS, namely Patha Bhavan. We recently conducted a surprise
site visit to the school.
Two of us made a surprise visit to the school in January, 2009. After a really arduous journey by train,
followed by a trekker, a boat and a van, we finally reached the destination in a little less than 5 hours.
Our project contact, Susanta Giri, was not present on site since he was not aware of our arrival. We were
greeted by Pulin Jana, who was quite taken by surprise, extended a warm welcome. Chitto Babu, a senior
teacher showed us around the school. We were quite impressed with the level of classes. Few students
(about 20, as reported by the teachers) were absent due to measles and chicken pox that is prevalent
here during the winter months. There were classes from Lower KG to class VIII. Primary classes (Lower
KG to class IV) follow the school’s own syllabus. High school classes follow the state government curriculum.
Music, dancing, yoga and drawing are also part of the school curriculum in addition to regular classes.
The teachers take great care to interact with the parents of the students through regular visits to their
houses. Prolonged absence of students prompts the teachers to motivate and convince their parents about
the importance of education.
The students were interactive and expressed interest in the classes they were attending.
Some of the students performed in ensembles of music, dance and yoga for us.
There is one cook in the school. The students are served nutritious lunch, maintaining a diet chart,
under the mid-day meals scheme.
The students are taught basic computer operating skills as well. However, this is still under development
and they need more time and money. They still do not have internet connection, but are hopeful that in
near future, as the government run service provider(BSNL) completes constructing a tower in the area, they
will have internet facility. There are two computers that need to be repaired and more computers need to
be installed. Two solar panels have been installed that provide electricity to the library and computer labs
. They have a well equipped library and students spend time in the library studying at night.
1. The school has about 14 teachers including 2 females. The teachers’ salaries are
around Rs.1600/month (~$32/month) or a little more based on seniority.
There are 201 students. Owing to some local political matter, there has been a decline
in the number of students since last year.
2. Students pay a nominal monthly fee of Rs.20(< $1)
3. There are 23 students who cannot pay for their education.
4. The school has one cook.
• Bathroom/ wash room odor is a problem due to lack of water. Need to install water pump in the school
• Improve the overall hygiene standards.
• Providing electricity to all the rooms of the school using solar panels.
• The project is gearing towards self sustainability. There is enormous potential for tourism that needs to
be tapped owing to the nearby tiger forest reserve. They have access to a steamer that could be used
for sightseeing purposes.
“Those who dream by day are cognizant of many things which escape those who dream only
-Edgar Allan Poe
Most of us fail to cross the bridge that connects dreams to reality. Intention is the driving force behind
turning one’s dream into reality. We have to take a peek into ourselves and understand what we really
dream of doing in life and take appropriate action in order to lift ourselves from the world of makebelieve.
The conversation with Nupur Sanyal who currently chairs ISW and was one of its founders, brought to light
how a dream can be turned into reality. It is common for children to spend countless hours dreaming about
visiting far-away places and going on exciting adventures. Nupur Sanyal, in her childhood days also had
dreams, but a little different. She dreamt of visiting the remote villages to help the children get, what she
was enjoying as a child. And once she had the opportunity, she used it to turn her dreams into reality. It
was admirable to learn about the dream of Nupur-di, so deftly incorporated with an intention and effort.
Q: Being one of the pioneers of ISW you help in providing education to the children. How have your childhood
A: I was born and brought up in Kolkata. I come from a middle-class well to-do family. I went to an
ordinary school and completed my Bachelors from Muralidhar College in Kolkata. I did my Masters in
Education from Calcutta University. I got a job as a social worker in the Kidderpore slum area when I
was a Masters student. From a very young age, I wanted to reach out to the children in the villages of
Bengal and provide them with education which I was privileged to get but they were not.
Q: What was the main driving force behind the establishment of ISW?
A: I have grown up in a male dominated society. I always wanted to be independent myself. I always
had the desire to reach out to the economically deprived children and help in the empowerment of
women. Ever since I was working as a social worker in my college days in the slum areas of Kidderpore
I got to interact with the helpless children and people who were in need of help and support.
Later on, I have been working in the government sector, ‘Unnayan Bhavan’ in the small-scale entrepreneurship
department. Throughout, I could feel a sense of association with them and felt it was
impossible to break all ties with such people. In 1978 with the aid of a few friends we started ISW
Q: What kind of support have you received from your family?
A: When I was in school I would help organize events in our school or in our neighborhood. My
parents have been supportive throughout. Most importantly, they believed in me. My father would be
very concerned when I had to go to the slum areas after dark. Support from my in-laws was nil.
A Purposeful Life 19
Q: Are you involved in any other social cause?
A: Yes, I am a member of ‘Maitree’ in West Bengal.
I am also a core committee member of ‘National Alliance of Women’ whose main office is in
Q: What do you think of today’s social and economic condition in India? How do you plan to fulfill
A: After globalization, there has been a change in the mindset of the people. Increase in consumerism
has resulted in the more greedy and corrupt man. There is huge inequality in the
distribution of resources. Many economically deprived families want their children to work
and earn money instead of sending them to schools.
There may be problems, but this will not stop us from achieving our goals. We will continue
with our efforts of providing education to the children and the empowerment of women.
Q: Where do you see ISW 5 years from now?
A: ISW has been quite successful in providing a platform for education to the children in the
Barasat and Kidderpore area. I aspire to see more and more children attend school. I would
like to see an end to the acts of violence on the girl-child. Vocational training which is provided
to the girls is of utmost importance and we will continue making steady progress in that
field. ISW will strive to reach out to the families to provide them with an insight to better and
healthy living and only then eradication of such evils, like child marriage and child trafficking
can take place from society.
Q: Has the government helped you in any way? Who are the major contributors?
A: We have not received much support from the West Bengal government.
Support has been rendered by a ‘self-help group’ in Austria. A student group of Australia
called ‘Friends of Kolkata’ provides the sponsorship program for the girls. Asha Cornell funds
go towards the educational venture of ISW.
Friends, it is never too late to discover the simple joys in life...the simple joy could be in serving mankind.
Aritro Sinha Roy
Langalberia is a village near Baruipur in South-24-Paraganas district in the state of West Bengal. The
school has a well-constructed building and a big ground in front of it. The school had started in 1994 at a
different place. The land for the current building was donated by Mr. Jyotirmoy Ghosh, the present secretary
of the school. A high school for girls was thought to be a necessity because there was already a boys’
20 A Purposeful Life Continued
school in the area. It has at present around 400 students and 13 teachers, but the building has a capacity
to accommodate more teachers and students. The medium of instruction is Bengali and they follow the curriculum
of West Bengal Board of Secondary Education.
Student strength has been decreasing over the years since the school is not affiliated to the West Bengal
government. As a consequence, the students have to register themselves to a government affiliated school,
paying the additional fee to that school to take the grade X examinations conducted by the education
board of the government.
Since most of the students belong to families of farmers and daily wage laborers of the villages
around Langalberia, paying the additional fee to the government affiliated school is a huge burden. The
fee is currently Rs 30 per month (less than $1) per student and most of the students find it very difficult to
pay even this small amount of money. Thus, the school authority is accepting whatever the students offer,
otherwise it could lead to drop-outs. Another major issue is that some of the students have stopped coming
to the school and have started helping their parents in their work. Sometimes they have to take care of
their younger siblings while their parents are away. Owing to financial constraints, many students are even
unable to buy textbooks. Further, absence of good transportation compels most of the students to walk
more than 40 minutes to reach school.
The Head Mistress of the school, Mrs. Nilanjana Ghosh discussed many other difficulties they are
facing. Most teachers are highly qualified and their good work is reflected in the results of the students
from this school in grade X board examination. However, since the students are appearing through a different
school for the examination, the teachers of Langalberia are not getting the due recognition for their
good work. Even though the teachers’ salaries are well below government norms, they seldom get their
salaries on time. The school authority has been trying to arrange for parent-teacher meetings during each
session. Most of the time parents don’t show up as they have to escape a few hours of work which means
loss of invaluable amount of money for them.
Another major problem other than drop-out is the building maintenance. The presence of a pond on one
side of the building is posing to be a problem because it is resulting in the corrosion of the foundation of
the building. Some temporary measures to overcome this have proved to be futile. A permanent solution
would be to make a guard-wall which again requires a lot of money (nearly $2,500). The president of
the school, Mr Ranajit Ghosh, told us that they are depending on Asha-Cornell for this.
Earlier our project stewards had found that the school authority was concentrating mainly on getting the
government affiliation rather than looking for funding sources like Asha-Cornell. It seems that their initial
idea was to get the government affiliation which would have increased the student strength. They thought
that the monthly fee could be a good source of funding for them. The only problem for not getting the affiliation
yet is that according to the recent government rules, they need to construct one more staircase as
a safety precaution and they have to pay a one-time deposit to the fire department to get a no-objection
certificate from them (total of $2000 approximately). Therefore, now they are desperately looking for the
money as getting the affiliation will give them motivation to look forward as the current situation is depressing
They had registered themselves as a non-profit organization which will help them get funding from NGO’s
and also, they are in constant touch with Asha-Cornell representatives to learn more on this issue. A doctor
in the locality, regularly visits the school for the health check-up of the students for free.
Asha-Cornell has funded this project thrice ($1000 in 2001 and $1500 in 2007, $1200 in 2008).
There is potential for the school to expand. The major reasons for this belief are that (1) they have a big
building which will be in good condition once the guard-wall will be made, (2) the students are coming
from quite distant villages and from very poor families showing that there is an urge in the community to
get at least a minimum level of education, (3) the teachers are dedicated to the institution as they are not
leaving the school in this difficult situation even without getting paid properly. If Asha-Cornell decides to
fund this project regularly for 3-4 years, a one-time fee is proposed to be introduced. Student strength is
also expected to increase owing to government affiliation. They also plan to start vocational training centers
for women in the community and to this end sewing machines have been purchased.
It was extremely heartening to speak to one of the students who spoke on behalf of all the students about
the positive impact that Asha-Cornell has had in their community. She requested the Asha-Cornell family to
stay with them and help them carve a better life - an unfulfilled dream of most of their previous generation-
a light of Hope.buy textbooks.
RTI or ‘Janne Ka Hak’ enables every Indian citizen to request information about any government or government-related
activity (barring intelligence, crime and security agencies) and get a response regarding it
within thirty days of submitting an RTI. It is an easy-to-use, no-hassle tool for common people to participate
directly in the functioning of the Indian Democracy and any Indian citizen can use it for Rs10(
standing in lines day after day, running pillar to post in one office then another, nor does it mean bribing
people from the secretary to the top officer to get your work done, it is the RTI !
From the first Asha/ AID workshop in 2006 that I attended at Princeton University with Sandeep Pandey,
I remember hearing about the Right to Information Act (RTI), passed in 2005 by the Parliament of India
to empower common people to participate in democracy. It is a simple measure to bring about accountability
by making accessible the records of the Central and State Government. Any citizen of India can ask for information
pertaining to any government activity like the status of road repair and building or providing electricity
supply in a city or village, accounts of the expenditure incurred in any government activity, detailed
account of why one hasn’t received their government issued documents like a passport, pension documents, a
property document etc.
According to the Act, information has been defined as any material in any form including records,
documents, memos, e-mails, opinions, advice, press releases, circulars, orders, logbooks, contracts, reports,
papers, samples, models, data material held in any electronic form and information relating to any private
body which can be accessed by a public authority under any other law for the time being in force. The Act
also requires every public authority to computerise their records for wide dissemination and to proactively
publish certain categories of information so that the citizens need minimum recourse to request for information
It includes the right to:
i. inspect works, documents, records.
ii. take notes, extracts or certified copies of documents or records.
iii. take certified samples of material.
iv. obtain information in form of printouts, diskettes, floppies, tapes, video cassettes or in any other electronic
mode or through printouts.
Now even I, the common (wo)man knows what to do when I am stuck with a problem regarding government
I have heard many success stories about RTI ( Parivartan’s website* has many stories and applications)
and have always been eager to try out this tool. This time, when in India during the winter break, I got a
chance to do so and jumped on it to check out the validity of the ‘power of the RTI’.
My father had been trying to obtain our current home’s registration document for the last 14 years.
The house became a home over the years, we grew up, the house has been painted and repainted… but
every time my father went to claim the document, he was asked to wait for two hours and the person never
found it, and he was subsequently asked to go to another office and the same story unfolded there. After 13
attempts at doing this, he resigned and continued residing at home without any official documents in hand.
This time he told me, ‘You and your brother keep going on about RTI. Let’s see what it can do for
this registration document. ‘So I set faithful Google to task with ‘RTI application’ and retrieved a couple of
cases similar to mine. My brother, who had earlier made an RTI document but didn’t exactly need to submit
it, provided copious tips for making the application. And the nice part is – there is no form or format for the
application. It can be done on a normal sheet of paper, addressing the ‘Public Information Officer (PIO)’ of
the office you have a grievance with. The PIO is generally the head of the office, so every office has to have
a PIO by default. The important part is to write in the subject line of the letter, ‘Information Requested under
the Right to Information Act 2005’
The letter I used is asked simple-to-answer-but-embarrassing-to-answer questions for authorities who
may have not done their job properly. So the letter just makes them sit up, shake away their negligence and
get to work on what they should be doing.
Submitting the application to the PIO was not trivial because he was out for lunch on the day we went,
so when my mother and I got back from our own lunch, there was no electricity in the office! Finally we got
hold of the right people, who very reluctantly agreed to take the application, and we submitted it. And it
worked! We have our registration document now! So bribes and long repeated waits in lines, adieu, in the
new dawn of a strong people’s democracy through RTI !
Sharmila’s eyes are bright, her face lighting up with her smile when her class teacher announced that there
would be no class as the teacher had visitors. Her classmates request her to sing for them. She almost immediately
obliges them with a Tamil folk song, while her “audience” break into a spontaneous dance.
Eight-year-old Sharmila is the star singer in her class, effortlessly moving from foot-tapping folk
songs to the melodious chartbusters. Her voice is ever so sweet and effervescent. It belies the long hours
she puts in at the dingy handloom unit, deftly readying silk threads to be woven into sarees that enrich the
cupboards of Indian women.
Her mornings begin at 4.30 by force. Sleeping beyond that is a luxury her family cannot afford, specially
in this wintry month of margazhi (December according to the English calendar) as it culminates into the marriage
season of thai (beginning of January according to the English calendar) . Her family, indebted to the
unscrupulous handloom owners, have loaned Sharmila for labouring in the unit in exchange for the loan.
That is Sharmila; a bonded labourer in the mornings who tries to return to childhood in the evenings as a
sprightly young student. Her smile will never remind anyone of the loss of childhood that our children seem
to have taken for granted.
Her classmate, Anbu, is seven and is also a bonded labourer in a weaving unit. So the classroom
of 45 children are all Anbus and Sharmilas in the seven to twelve age group, trying to grapple with their
imperfect present and a tense future. They all meet in the evenings at this school for child labourers in a
Kanchipuram village, run by an NGO.
Parents are reluctant to send their children to these schools, fearing distraction or rebellion from
their wards. After all, these tiny fingers tediously separating silk threads and twining them to the handloom
unit is the repayment for their deep debts. The children are not sure they will be able to come for class the
next day. It is with this uncertainty that most night schools for child labourers function.
But that was 3 years back. This year, the same place was desolate. There was no laughter, no
children, and no classes. The NGO, which was conducting the night school, had to shut shop because there
were no children to attend them. The government had banned child labour. So, officially, there was no employment
of children, and hence there was ‘’no need for night schools’’. They were supposed to be attending
day school like other children.
A visit to a day school revealed that there were a few children of weavers who were out of their
cramped handloom units, playing out in the sun, studying and making friends. An NGO had “rescued” them
from their parents and helped them get back to school. Their families had also pledged to stop sending
their children to the weaving units.
But not all children had been enrolled. Then where is the surging hope that children will be empowered
The answer lies, not just with the NGOs who can help, in a small way, to help elevate the status of
children. The answer lies with the government executing its literacy mission programme in right earnest. The
children working under such hazardous conditions must first be identified and then enrolled into schools or
placed under vocational training. Most importantly, the families of such children must be given sustainable
income generating opportunities so that they do not prevent their children from going to school.
But are these far-fetched dreams? Can children trapped in the throes of misery be granted their
fundamental right to education? Creating awareness and mobilizing support for these causes may be the
first step. And that first step is the most crucial step in driving out darkness from these childrens’ lives.
24 Warped and Wafted Lives of Children
Rajendran Narayanan firstname.lastname@example.org
Mekala Krishnan email@example.com
Jeevan Gnanodaya is an education-based organisation in Chengalpattu, Tamil Nadu started by Mr.
Devarajan in 1989. It started off as a school for the deaf and over the years it has branched into many
other schools. The aims of the organisation include imparting education to disabled and rural children; to
help them lead a “normal” life, providing vocational training to the deaf/mute children to foster future
employment opportunities. The organisation runs a range of schools such as, school for the deaf(upto the
12th grade), a nursery and primary school for children in the village and its surroundings, an Industrial
training institute for children graduating from high school.
The rural areas in and around Chengalpattu have a low literacy rate and are much less developed
to Chennai, located just 60kms away. Over 500 children in the local community have benefited
from the education provided since the inception of the school. Some of them are employed in bigger cities
in Tamil Nadu, and some hearing impaired children are even continuing their studies in college
JG receives funding from several Asha chapters namely, Asha Seattle, Asha-UIUC, Asha Atlanta,
besides Asha Cornell. Asha Cornell has been associated since 2005 and we provided a total of $6000
through WAH in 2008 for building construction work. Prior to that, we funded $2000 in January,2007.
I made a site visit to the institute in the June, 2008. I was received by Mr. Devarajan at the railway station
in a new van that was funded by Asha Atlanta. We first stopped at his residence. The eponymous Jeevan,
his son, escorted us to the main office area inside the school for the deaf. After a brief halt at the office,
we headed to the Industrial training institute.
The Industrial training institute offers a two year free vocational training to hearing impaired children
on completion of 12th grade. The curriculum is based on the syllabus of National Centre of Vocational
Training and students are taught rudiments of filing, engineering drawing, welding etc. It also houses a
small centre where students prepare chalks that are then sold in various places. Mr. Vijayan, who holds an
undergraduate degree in engineering and a masters degree in management is the sole instructor in this
institute. He showed me the notebooks of the students that were remarkable both in content and neatness.
He expressed concern over employment opportunities of the students and to this end he also mentioned
the possibility of setting up a production unit where students graduating from this institute could smoothly
transition into a regular job.
We later headed to the primary school which caters to children of the township and neighbouring
areas. The nursery and primary school has about 200 students with 15 staff members including 9 teachers.
All the students are day scholars here. They pay a nominal fee of Rs30/month(
After a sumptuous lunch at his residence, I was shown around the school for the deaf. The school for
the deaf has approximately 180 students with 14 staff members including 11 teachers. The medium of
instruction here include lip reading in Tamil and Indian sign language training was initiated through Asha’s
involvement with them. However, the school lays emphasis on actual speech and speech therapy. Hearing
aids and other accessories are provided on an individual basis to students. Students of this school are provided
free hostel accommodation that has 6 female bathrooms and 12 male bathrooms with clean water
facilities. In addition, Mr. Devarajan himself supervises meal preparation for all the students of this school.
Food is served three times a day to all the students. All the teachers in this school are trained to teach
these special children and several innovative methods including a mirror to teach lip reading and communicating
gestures are used. All the students use hearing aids. We later went to a classroom where several
students congregated and were tested on their ability to converse in Indian sign language. It was impressive
to see them do so correctly. Science laboratory is introduced in the 9th grade but what impressed me
most was the mathematics ability of some students in the 10th grade.
However, as expected, there is a lot of variance in the students’ ability to grasp various subjects. I
would be particularly curious to see if there is a method to extract hidden talents of students, be it
sports or arts which could then serve them professionally at a later point in time .
The teachers’ salary vary in the range of Rs5000 to Rs10000 depending on their experience and
given standard benefits such as Provident fund. Most of the teachers live in the teachers’ quarters provided
by the organisation and seem to be quite content about their work. As mentioned by Mr. Devarajan, the attrition
rate of the teaching staff is remarkably low contrary to my expectations.
Two medical camps are held each year for a general check-up and medication for any prolonged illnesses.
Mr. Devarajan was categorical about lack of government assistance in any of the JG projects but was
equally appreciative of several contributors and well wishers of this 20 year old organisation.
Mr. Devarajan has recently initiated a tailoring institute for women as part of his vocational training
ventures. A massive celebration marked the completion of 20 years of successful commencement of the
organisation where several luminaries from the government and the world of entertainment were invited in
addition to several schools from all over the state who attended. Owing to his entrepreneurial mindset, he
has started construction of a marriage hall that would be used in future to support his school needs. This is a
key step towards sustainability of the project, an important initiative from Asha-Cornell’s perspective. This is
a matured and well established organisation and Asha-Cornell is planning to move out of this project to focus
on newer projects requiring more handholding.
I don’t know about you, but I have grown up thinking that corruption is the norm in Indian government offices.
Giving and receiving bribes is something every government official does. That anyone who goes
against this norm will be killed. A little dramatic you think? Not really, not with all the news that we hear
and watch and read, not with all the glorious movies about heroes laying their lives down to fight corruption...
Anyways, I am digressing. I wanted to say that I have actually changed my mind about it. I am not
saying that my perceptions have been entirely reversed, but even though I was certainly led to believe the
worst about government officials, I can’t tell you how happy I am to be proven wrong several times within
the span of one year.
Of the many causes that Asha supports, ours is a fledgling project in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, run by a
retired professor of Tamil. Our non-profit organization, Pudiyador (meaning “a new beginning”), runs afterschool
centers for underprivileged children from slums in and around Chennai. We had managed to start
two such centers and function by ourselves for the first six years, but the third center that we tried to start
in the summer of 2007 proved to be a challenge. It was different from the other two in that it was close to
the center of the city and we did not have enough resources to afford to rent or acquire a location for the
children to learn and play in. All of a sudden, we were looking at an unused government-run community
center right outside our slum of interest. It was our only option, but it had been locked up for years before
we landed there. The only way to use it was to get permission from the government to first get it opened
up, and then to use it regularly.
Our organization has a policy: we will neither affiliate ourselves to any religion, nor will we involve
any governmental body in our functioning. Now we were in a fix. We had to bend our own rules a little by
approaching the state government for help. We steeled ourselves, promised each other that we will step
back the moment we smell any reference to bribes or corruption, and started contacting people. We went
from pillar to post trying to approach the people who were supposedly in charge of our community center.
We spoke to friends who introduced us to journalists who in turn introduced us to ministers and finally one
morning, we found ourselves sitting in the office of the Mayor of Chennai! Within a few hours from then, the
community center was opened up, cleaned, white washed and the keys were handed to us. It was simply
amazing! It was amazing not only because things moved so simply and quickly for a good cause, but also
that there was not a single bribe or commission exchanged in the process.
What we saw in those few days and the weeks that followed were real people who actually went
out of their way to help others do good. Starting with the assistant engineer at the local area corporation
office, to the Joint Director of the Sarva Siksha Abhigyan program, to the Mayor of Chennai, everyone was
amazing! It was very difficult to get face time with all of them, they were all extremely busy, but the minute
we got our foot in the door (literally) and we got them to listen to our cause, they were very responsive and
put us in touch with the right person. And they always added a personal note that they endorsed our cause.
I realized then that one doesn’t have to be part of Asha or Pudiyador to make a difference. You can be
just about anybody… and all you have to do is follow your heart and push for what you think is right or
Giving it a Push 26
The focus and activities of Asha have undergone many changes from its starting years. Initially Asha set
its goal to provide basic education to some of the most marginalized children in India. In the later years,
some volunteers have come to appreciate the interdependence between education and a number of social
issues. These volunteers have actively engaged in projects outside the conventional focus of Asha. Yet another
group of volunteers has argued in favor of the more traditional education-only approach, citing the
modest amount of resources available.
The supporters of extra-educational policies argue that the educational efforts would not survive
if the more basic needs were not met. This idea has prompted some Asha-chapters to undertake projects
in health-care. In addition, some chapters have expanded the definition of education to include social
awareness and empowerment. Examples of such Asha-activities are: the Reviving Hope project for supporting
Hemophilia patients, MICDA Mathamma project for eradicating the practice of dedicating girlchildren
to temples, resulting in a life of prostitution for the children.
Opponents of such policies argue that Asha, with its limited resources, is not equipped to deal with
such diverse issues, and therefore all available resources should be pooled into what has the most potential
to bring change: basic-education of underprivileged children. It has also been noted by many volunteers
that Asha’s interest in community empowerment has, in the past, led it in the midst of a social conflict.
Therefore, some volunteers would argue that Asha should keep itself away from extra-educational projects,
even though that contradicts Asha’s philosophy of reaching out to the most marginalized.
A blanket policy of any nature could lead to unintended consequences. The need for extra-educational
projects may be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, rather than having strict guidelines in favor of
or against considering such projects. As Asha volunteers, we should responsibly choose project considering
both sides of the debate.
Asha continues to grow as an organization; our experiences will teach us to walk the line between
overwhelming ourselves with too many social issues, and being selective to the point of being ineffective.
Yes, I would like to help Asha Cornell
raise funds for education efforts in India.
Here is my contribution $ _____________
28 The Trajectory of Hope
Yes, please add my email to the Asha mailing list.
Mailing address: (for a tax-exemption receipt)
Please mail checks to:
Asha Cornell Please mail checks to:
c/o South Asia Program
170 Uris Hall, Cornell University
Ithaca, NY 14853
Ithaca Guitar Works
215 N. Cayuga St.
Ithaca, NY 14850
Tel.: 607 272 2602
Fax: 607 272 6241