Mitali Agarwal – “We’ll go to the villages? WHAT?”

mitaliI assure you that the quote in the title is not by the author of this blog post. It was, in fact, the reaction of one of our potential surveyors, upon hearing for the first time what ASER was and what their role in the survey would be. India’s largest citizen led survey on the status of education in rural India – the ASER Survey – is conducted in 30 villages in a district (in 2014, 577 districts were covered), usually with the help of a local organization – NGOs, colleges etc. The organization provides volunteers, who are then trained by ASER trainers to go and do the survey in the villages. Two surveyors conduct the survey of one village, over the course of two days. The experience that I’m sharing here comes from a district in Rajasthan, where I was training a group of college students to conduct the survey. Most of the students I was training had urban backgrounds, having never visited a village before in their lives – much like myself before I joined ASER and embarked upon what feels like a remarkable journey.

Hearing that they would have to go to a village was no less than a shock for these students, and I do not blame them for it. Spending our entire lives in cities, to many of us villages seem more like a concept than reality. “How do we get there?”, “What do villages look like?”, “Is it safe to go the villages”, “Will people even talk to us in the village”, “Should I wear sports shoes if I’m going to a village” etc., were the questions that began pouring in, and that’s when it hit me that ASER was not just about collecting data regarding the status of education in rural India. A man once said, “India does not live in its towns but in its villages.” Even if we interpret this statement literally, it stands true as almost 70% of Indians do live in rural areas. Then how is it that in the age of the internet where there is a constant deluge of information, urban India knows more about the food habits of their favourite celebrity than it does about the children of rural India who cannot even read a basic paragraph?  I’m too scared to look for an answer because it forces me to rethink everything – my upbringing, my education, and most importantly, my privilege.

Since participation in the ASER survey is on a voluntary basis, a few students quit the training because they were unable to comprehend that they could go to a village less than 50 kilometres away from their living room! But a substantial number of students stayed – caring about the 70% of their countrymen, thrilled about the prospect of visiting a village, excited to learn the ground realities in the field of education, looking forward to the experience that awaited them. And I realized that this is what ASER is about.

Mitali Agarwal

Research Associate, ASERCentre