ASHA (Asha Samajik Vidyalaya)'s Blog

Aasra Project Update

Major Project Updates:
  • Funds for the first half of 2009 have been disbursed.
  • The construction of permanent rooms for the NFEs (Non-Formal Education Centers) is now complete. In the past, the NFEs ran in mud huts or under trees, which made operations difficult during the monsoon season. The project is situated in a flood prone region. The mud huts were almost always washed away by the overflowing river, and had to be rebuilt every year.
  • A health camp is scheduled to be held soon, and the children studying in the NFEs toured the nearby city of Varanasi.
  • Women from the village have begun training on the embroidery machines purchased for the vocational center. Two more machines will be purchased soon.
  • A site-visit is scheduled for the month of March.

Timeline of Updates:
  • Jan 06, 2009: Funds disbursed for the period January-June 2009
  • Dec 23, 2008: Teleconference updates from Vallabh Pandey and Ajay Patel. Construction of rooms for NFEs and roof installation complete. Health camp to be held in January 2009. Tour of Varanasi for children completed.
  • Dec 10, 2008: Budget for 2009 approved in chapter meeting. Budget document is available here:
  • Nov 25, 2008: 1-week long sports and theater fair held for children. Events included badminton, football, athletics and issue-based street theater performances by children.
  • Nov 04, 2008: Teleconference updates from Ajay Patel. Distributed uniforms and bags amongst needy children. Raised money locally for building permanent rooms for NFEs and construction underway. Sewing center expanded from 1 to 2 sewing machines and added 1 embroidery machine.
  • Sep 15, 2008: Special additional budget approved and funds disbursed for Aasra.

Site Visit Pictures: For a more comprehensive project update, please visit here. This summary of the more detailed site-visit report and feedback Q&A is by Sathyanarayan Anand. The funds raised by Givology are used in the education portion of Asha's work, detailed at the end of the report.

The Musahar Community outside Varanasi
Varanasi (or Kashi) is one of Hinduism’s ancient and holy cities and is a place of strong Hindu character. As with most holy cities, Varanasi displays both the glory and blights of religion and the Musahars exemplify all that can wrong at the bottom of a rigid and unyielding caste system. In the villages around Varanasi, the Musahars are a dispersed and disparaged lot. They live in groups of tens, the biggest being in the village of Jogapur numbering around 80. This lack of numbers translates into a lack of representation at the level of the village. These people do not own any land and are forced to live in temporary mud huts or even just under trees on the outskirts of villages. Their mud huts have straw roofs that leak every time it rains and more often than not, every structure gets destroyed during the monsoons & has to be rebuilt frequently.

Their primary livelihood comes from plucking leaves and breaking branches off trees and selling them to other traders. In many cases the traders pay them only a few kilos of old and even rotting rice or grain in return for their goods. If they run out of trees or for any reason, the villagers do not allow them to go about their work then they are forced to move to a different village. This combined with limited numbers of trees in a given area explains their dispersion into small groups. Some Musahars also work in brick making factories for meager wages.

Hardly any child and many of the adults can be categorized as healthy. There have already been two child deaths due to starvation in the village of Mankaiyan. And instead of providing adequate support, the State Government promptly reduced the dead children’s quota of food to the families from the public ration system. Most families did not have ration cards before workers of the NGO Aasra Sewa Sansthan (Aasra) came in and forced the hand of government officials. The nomadic nature of these families further complicates the situation, in that they are not registered as residents of any particular village and hence, cannot be issued ration cards.
The severity of the situation is exemplified by a story that the founder and current head of Aasra, Mr. Ajay Patel mentioned. A few years back, late in the evening he was standing outside one of the Musahar huts talking with the family when a street dog came and started eating their dinner. They shooed away the dog and started eating the same food for they had nothing else for the night. The incident prompted Mr. Patel to form his NGO.
Sanitation and health care is non-existent for these people. Almost every child suffers from one disease or the other and none have been properly immunized. Two girls in the Jogapur community suffer from lack of consistency of blood and were only treated when Aasra brought in its own doctors for a general checkup of the community. In these villages around Varanasi, the only time the Musahars see a doctor is when Aasra organizes a health camp and arranges for doctors and nurses to come in.
Socially, these people are outcasts and have no say in mainstream society. Their lack of numbers means that their voice is never heard and political will at any level of government to improve the lives of these people does not exist. One villager remarked that nobody would employ the Musahars for household work or at any community event because no one would eat the food they served or drink the water they filled into glasses.

Given their socio-economic status and quality of life, the attitude of Musahar children and indeed, their parents towards schooling is surprisingly positive. The two non-formal education (NFE) centers run by Aasra – in Mankaiyan and Jogapur - covered in this site visit were both run in Musahar communities and were both well attended by almost all the children of the slum. About 7-8 of these children were attending government school in a nearby village but were discriminated against and regularly beaten by teachers there. They eventually dropped out. Conversations with teachers at the NFEs revealed that the Musahar children are eager students and their parents recognize that education might be their best hope at a potential change of line of work and a better way of life. Apart from occasional absences due to work or family related issues, the children are regular and enthusiastic about attending school. The majority age between 5 and 13 years. Older boys go to work and the girls are married off.
If ever there was a community in need of empowerment, the Musahars are it. Somewhere along India’s journey from License Raj to nuclear and IT superpower, these are a people who’ve truly missed the bus. What they need is education, a voice in mainstream society and more importantly, a set of basic skills to make them employable in regular factories and workshops. Ideas and recommendations to help out this marginalized community are given in the last section of this report.
Aasra Sewa Sansthan (Aasra) & Its Work
Aasra is a non-registered NGO founded by Ajay Patel and works primarily to improve the lives of marginalized communities in villages outside Varanasi. These communities include the Musahars, Khatiks, Ghaunds and poor Muslims, among others. These people are economically deprived and are mainly carpet weavers, handloom workers or brick makers. The Musahars seem to be the worst off.

The founder, Ajay Patel moved from the state of Gujarat to the outskirts of Varanasi in the mid-eighties along with his parents who were looking for work in the construction industry. He completed a Bachelor of Commerce degree from Allahabad University and started working with the Government of India’s National Social Service (NSS) program. He said that he started working full time on education related issues for marginalized communities after spending some time with Mr. Sandeep Pandey, the founder of Asha for Education. He was prompted to start Aasra after he saw a Musahar family eat the same food that was partly eaten by a street dog, for lack of anything else to eat. Even though the NFEs, health camps, women’s programs and other work by Aasra focuses around the Musahars, people from other communities in need are also actively sought out and encouraged to participate.
Aasra currently runs two NFEs and provides one teacher each to two government primary schools. Attendance is taken daily at all schools. Details of the schools are as follows:
  • NFE at Mankaiyan: Teacher: Usha Patel (With Aasra since 2006); No. of students: 35-38;  Timing: 6am – 8am, Mon - Sat
  • NFE at Jogapur; Teacher: Shanta (With Aasra since January 2008); No. of students: 20-25; Timing: 4pm – 6pm, Mon - Sat
  • Government Primary School at Kharagrampur; Teacher: Pratibha; Grade: 3, No. of students: 81; Timing: 8am – 11am, Mon - Sat
  • Government Primary School at Kansraipur; Teacher: Ashok Kumar; Grade: 3, No. of students: 85; Timing: 8am – 11am, Mon - Sat

According to the teachers, there are no dropouts anymore and the children are enthusiastic about coming to school. Indeed, kids in all four schools were very responsive to their teachers and also to Ajay Patel.
All four teachers are paid by Aasra using the funds given by Asha for Education, Philadelphia Chapter according to the approved budget. In addition to their teaching duties, these four teachers are also actively involved with other activities of Aasra. Most important, they and Ajay Patel have formed personal bonds with the students and their parents. The parents and the kids seem to know Mr. Patel and their teachers very well. As a result, claims the NGO, dropouts are now virtually non-existent. This claim might not be untrue and was backed up by positive comments from parents and headmasters of the two government schools, all of whom were very happy with Ajay Patel and his teachers.
The NFEs are aimed towards kids who cannot or do not want, for fear of discrimination and even violence, to go to government primary schools. The ultimate goal is integration of these people into mainstream society. To that end students of the two NFEs will eventually be merged into government primary schools. Their progress and treatment will be monitored on a daily basis by Aasra workers. Mankaiyan NFE students will join the government primary school in their same village at the end of this academic year. Ajay Patel will start working towards the same process for Jogapur NFE students sometime this year.
All four teachers have undergone teacher training courses under the Eklavya program and use its methods on a daily basis. At the NFEs, the attempt is to bring the level of the students on par with government school kids. This is not always possible as they do not have the same books. Most NFE kids do not own any books. To maintain their interest, the teachers first ask them everyday what they want to learn – English, Hindi or Math. If consensus cannot be reached, then the content for that day is randomly chosen.
The primary focus at these classes is always on getting the children to actively express themselves and give them confidence to speak out in front of other people. This is a skill sorely missing from these communities.
he range of issues covered by Aasra includes making these communities aware of their right to food via the public ration system, spreading knowledge of the Right to Information Act, fighting for the right of children to receive education, getting public areas to include facilities for the disabled and working for empowerment of women. At the time of this visit, Ajay Patel and Ashok Kumar were working obtaining job cards for the Jogapur Musahar community. Job cards are provided to all Indian families under which at least one member of each household is guaranteed 100 days of work every year at a preset wage.

Aasra also runs a sewing center for women. At the time of this visit, there were about 8-10 girls working on various types of clothes. They typically learn at the center for 6 months to 1 year. According to Ajay Patel, some of these women are eventually able to earn Rs. 2000 – 3000 a month, which is usually as much or more than what their husbands earn. The center runs Monday through Saturday, 9am – noon.

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