A small step in the right direction…

By Shalini Tripathi

Communication Associate, ASER Centre

Steeped in antiquity, with origins dating back to the 10th century B.C., Varanasi is one of the oldest living cities in the world. I have, over the years, had the opportunity to explore this ancient city where the noise and dust of modern life mingle with the sounds of temple bells and the chanting of hymns, walk through its narrow winding lanes dotted with shops jostling for space, try out its mouth-watering food and acquire beautiful silk sarees that the city is famed for worldwide. However, the visit to this city was always with a long list of relatives to meet, temples to visit and an array of things to do. As a result, never in all these years, have I had the chance to explore the city beyond its boundaries, the numerous villages, big and small, surrounding it.

In August 2016, after a lull of one year, ASER again came alive. Following the national workshop held in Lucknow, the action shifted to the states and districts across the country. Training and survey schedules started being prepared, travel plans being chalked out and tickets booked. It was then that I got the opportunity to visit Varanasi for the district level training and survey, a visit that broadened my horizons and gave me memories to cherish.

Having taken the overnight Shiv Ganga Express from Delhi, I was happy to be in time for the days’ proceedings. The training venue, a packed hall in the old dilapidated Hanuman Dharamshala, took me by surprise! As I entered, a little hesitant, the hall was full of young volunteers huddled together, ready to start the day’s training.

Volunteers participating in the District Level Training, Varanasi
Volunteers participating in the District Level Training, Varanasi

Ever since I joined ASER, I have been always curious to meet the nameless, faceless group of individuals, the volunteers, who come together in large numbers to complete the chain, the very last leg of the ASER process, who help make ASER happen. Having braved long distances to the training venue and the morning spell of rain, the young group exuded enthusiasm and energy. Some were new to this exercise while others had participated in ASER 2014. The old hands were leaving no stone unturned to impress the newbies – be it volunteering to fill the survey sheet pinned up on the wall, answering questions being raised by the master trainer or participating in the role play exercises. It was fascinating to observe how charged and motivated the entire atmosphere was. The volunteers had all gathered that day to contribute, in their own small ways, to a mammoth endeavour which aimed at improving the learning standards of children.

Luckily, the morning rain had subsided and it was heartening to see the sun out, for venturing out in the village in rain would have made the exercise difficult. The classroom session was followed by a field pilot. Packed in different vans we left in groups, for the village pilot. Having keenly participated in the training session, the volunteers were following the guidelines and were ready with the village map and the school information. As the day progressed, the sun grew in intensity and the day turned out to be hot and sultry. With the overnight train journey, followed by the morning training session and then the village tour, my energy level began to plummet.

A volunteer during the field pilot
A volunteer during the field pilot

However, when I saw the young brigade who remained undeterred by the heat, busy carrying out the survey passionately, it brought a smile to my face. The target was complete – the number of houses assigned had been surveyed, the household information gathered and the school details collected. It was time to disperse and we left to meet for the last day of training before the actual survey was to take place.

I felt delighted to be a part of this exercise that seemed unbelievable by the sheer scale of its reach, an exercise that brought together people from different walks of life, joined by a desire to bring a change in the lives of the children of our country. It was a long, winding chain involving tremendous effort at different levels, team work, rigorous research and field trips. Being part of such a unique exercise was overwhelming.

I thank ASER for this enriching experience and helping me take this small step in the right direction!

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