The Nature of ASER – A Photo Essay

by Varun Gupta, MME Associate

ASER 2017 ‘Beyond Basics’ took me to the pristine lands of Uttarakhand. This was my first ASER, and very early on I realized that ASER is much more than a survey, it is an experience. The most fascinating thing about this week-long journey for me personally was that it really allowed me to break out of my own private bubble, and engage with life in all its different aspects. From training student volunteers, to asking strangers for directions to a village, to surveying youth and experiencing the hospitality of their families, it was a very intensely social experience.

Furthermore, being a nature enthusiast, being able to witness the human-animal co-existence during the course of the survey left me fascinated. Through this piece I want to take you through the journey of ASER, and the nature surrounding it from my lens.

Post Diwali, I started my journey to Dehradun from Chandigarh to support the ‘Beyond Basics’ training. Uttarakhand has been a state I have always wanted to explore, so you can rest be assured that I was ‘beyond’ excited for this experience. After all, no travel can help you absorb the culture and geographical spread of any place in the way conducting ASER does.

A Grey Bushchat seen on a chai break en-route Dehradun.

 

After a night of planning and managing logistics, our team of five reached the campus of Doon University, ASER’s partner for Beyond Basics in Uttarakhand for the survey training. With its grandiose buildings and the backdrop of the Lachhiwalla forest range, the campus looked like one you only see in movies.

Administrative block of Doon University

 

A black kite surveying the survey training at the campus!

 

Days 1 and 2 of the training were about introducing the volunteers to the ‘why’s and ‘how’s of the survey. For the benefit of the reader, let me elaborate a little. ASER 2017 is unlike any of the previous editions. Shifting focus from the 5-16 years age bracket, it is focusing on 14-18 year olds. Additionally, the survey focuses on three additional aspects: activity, awareness and aspirations, along with ability in this higher age group. For this reason, it has been christened ‘ASER: Beyond Basics’. The survey is being carried out in 28 districts spread across 24 states in the country. There are 60 villages being surveyed in each of the districts, with the aim to survey 16 randomly sampled households with a resident youth in each village.

Most of the volunteers were first time surveyors at Doon University, but they showed keen interest in the training.

 

Role-play by the students about introducing ASER to the village Sarpanch.

 

The third day of the training involved a field visit with the students to pilot the survey with them. After all, hours and hours of lectures cannot make-up for first-hand experience. Each one of the trainers accompanied about 15 students to villages near the university. We walked them through the entire process of the survey starting from meeting the Sarpanch, to mapping & sampling and finally surveying the resident youth of the village.

Here are some scenes from the field visit to a village in Uttarakhand:

 

The training concluded on the 4th day with a feedback session from the field, allocation of villages to surveyors and finally handing out the survey kits.

With the surveyors trained, and logistics in place, it was finally time for the survey to begin. While providing support and monitoring the survey, we realized that though the performance of the youth on the survey did not always paint a very happy picture, it was evident that every household realized the importance of the questions that were being asked. This gives me the belief that other than presenting systematic comparable data on the 14-18 age group for the first time, the survey has directed households to important issues of financial and digital literacy, as well as the aspirations of the youth and the path to achieve it. If this enhances the public discourse and the village consciousness, it will be a big victory for the survey. In my opinion, there cannot be any other better agent of change.

Here are some snippets from the survey:

Surveying a youth.

 

Carrying on with the survey with the blessings of the Lord.

 

We even came across many animals. Some of them were domesticated…

Tutu would not allow his master to get surveyed unless given constant attention!

 

And some very wild!

Giant Wood Spiders were seen very commonly in the villages we were surveying.

 

Spotting a Monitor Lizard while monitoring

 

A White-capped Redstart

 

Leopards se saavdhaan!

We came across stories of friendship…

 

And some of brewing conflict,

Not very pleased with new intruders in his territory.

 

All said and done, ASER in Dehradun was an incredible learning experience for me, not only in the way of getting to know how a survey is conducted at such a large scale, but as a reminder of all the humanity that is involved in and affected by it.

Witnessing a sunset like this after a hard day’s work on the field was extremely fulfilling.

 

The realization that I was on this same track on my way back to Delhi, looking at the villages I had monitored through a train window was surreal.