Moving People, Paper and Money

ASER has been done for ten years now, beginning in 2005. Today many people have a general picture of what the survey is about and what it finds every year.

The scale and speed of the exercise is also well known – almost all rural districts, about 16,000 villages and more than 650,000 children every year; all of this done in about 100 days from start of data collection to release of the report.

Needless to say, implementing such a large exercise at such speed requires an incredible amount of careful, detailed planning and coordination. At its core, getting ASER done involves three huge logistical challenges: moving people, moving materials, and moving money to the right place at the right time.

ASER 2005-2014 in numbers
ASER 2005-2014 in numbers

Senior Research Associate Anuradha Agrawala is one of the key people making sure that ASER 2016 rolls out smoothly across the country. She explains:

Moving paper

ASER reaches every corner of the country, including many regions where internet connections are unreliable or nonexistent. Also, not all ASER volunteers have smartphones. So ASER is an entirely paper-based survey, and as Anuradha says it involves large quantities of paper. About 150 pages go into the survey kit for each village, amounting to a whopping 2.4 million pages  in all for each year's ASER.

Obviously, how to produce and move this enormous quantity of paper across the country on very tight timelines needs careful planning. As Anuradha’s blog post describes, most materials begin their journey in the hands of our in-house designer, Sanjeev Sharma. They are then translated, printed, and transported – first to districts and villages, later to data entry locations. Watch ASER staff speak about the process and explain how it takes a lot to put things to perspective.

But despite the most careful planning, getting the survey materials to where they needed to be has involved many adventures over the years. To name just two examples, read Pratham CEO Rukmini Banerji ’s blog about survey materials strewn across a railway platform during ASER 2005. And listen to Senior Associate Mohit Mishra tell the tale of a lost bag of survey booklets:

Moving People

ASER involves an enormous amount of travel, and during the 3-4 months of the survey the ASER Centre office in Delhi is virtually empty. Senior Associate Ketan Verma estimates that during ASER season the 100 or so people in the ASER Centre central team travel about 600,000km in all!

Sometimes, travel for ASER requires scaling new heights – literally. For a spectacular example, see Heaven on Earth – a short photo essay on how our ASER colleagues in Jammu and Kashmir traveled on motorbike on the highest motorable road in the world for this year’s ASER.

Although the conditions of travel can often be difficult and demanding, ASER teams usually find the experience enormously rewarding, even when it involves going to places and areas that they thought they knew well.

Here are some glimpses of travel during ASER season:

Moving Money

Getting ASER done requires moving small amounts of money to a very large number of destinations and people across the country.

Manjeet Kaur, head of ASER Centre’s finance team, gives an overview of how this works with ASER partner organizations:

nb_aser-acr-2016-daily-activity-log-2
A snapshot of a travel reimbursement form

ASER has an extremely low per-child cost – calculated at just US$1.55, or a little over Rs 100, by an external evaluation of ASER completed by Results for Development in 2015. Costs are kept low because budgets and expenditures are very tightly controlled and monitored during the ASER survey.  Although volunteers are not paid for their time or effort, they are reimbursed for travel and food while conducting ASER.

The ASER finance pack, containing a set of formats to track each activity on which expenditure is incurred, is a critical part of the survey materials. There’s even a Finance Quiz to ensure that all relevant people know how money is to be handled.

However there are some situations that no amount of planning can predict. The recent demonetization of Rs 1,000 and Rs 500 currency notes created one such situation. ASER teams in remote parts of the country had to find ways for their volunteers and for themselves to deal with the sudden absence of cash. Here are two ASER Research Associates describing  their experiences:

To emphasize what Anuradha Agrawala said in the first video of this post, ASER has a very simple, user-friendly front-end - but an extremely detailed set of systems for implementing and tracking all of the processes that take place behind the scenes. There's an equally comprehensive, sophisticated set of systems for ensuring data quality, but that is the subject of the next post.