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August 8, 2000

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Spare an hour for underprivileged

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How much is an hour of your time worth? Monetarily the value could range from minimum wages to a figure which runs into several digits. But, what does this mean to an underprivileged child in India? A chance to read and write, an opportunity to learn a skill, a reason to hope for a better future.

Work An Hour 2000 is an initiative of Asha for Education [] to raise funds for underprivileged children in India.

The web site was launched on July 4 to highlight literacy issues in India and raise funds for some education projects it supports. Symbolically, on August 15 people from all over the world can donate an hour of their salary or more towards this cause.

Asha for Education
In the summer of 1991, some graduate students at University of California, Berkeley, including V J P Srivastavoy, Dr Sandeep Pandey and Deepak Gupta, got together to think of ways to play a role in the development of India, the country of their birth. They shared the belief that education is an essential prerequisite and an effective catalyst for socio-economic change.

Basic education became the agenda for the action group that emerged from this gathering. They agreed upon the name Asha - which means hope in several Indian languages. The team attended almost all local Indian cultural programs around Berkeley and distributed pamphlets. Donations flowed in.

"The first few meetings were poorly attended. But within two months, we had quite a large group of people, many of whom just wanted to discuss problems. Once we settled on action, the group shrunk to 10 active members." Richa Govil, president of Asha, remembers.

Asha galvanized volunteers from various cities in the US, many of whom were beneficiaries of subsidised education in India and seemed to be waiting for the cue. Today, there are over 30 chapters of Asha in the US, India, Canada and Australia. Zero overheads ensure that all funds go directly to the projects.

The WAH-worthiness of a project is decided by its unique selling points in terms of being primarily a product of local initiative, being fundamentally far reaching, innovative and providing as a model features which can be incorporated in similar ventures elsewhere. Asha has identified three projects this year after extensive research.

Giving Irulas their due
Irulas are tribal people of the Negrito race, living mainly in Thiruvallur district. The Forest Protection Bill of 1976 ended the traditional livelihood of the Irulas, who sold firewood, wax, and honey collected from the forests.

Irulas are extremely poor. They fall under the category of scheduled tribes. According to Saroja, a sharp-witted Irula, when they go to get our eligibility certificates they are insulted by questions like: "Do you eat rat meat at home? Can you catch snakes? Why don't have curled hair? You are too tall to be an Irula ".

It is true that Irulas ate rat and snake meat. But all that has changed now. They are now agricultural labourers.

Siddamma, who comes from a powerful land-owning Lingayat family, founded the Bharathi Trust to help the Irula cause. Her knowledge of how landowners maintain their stronghold on the oppressed has been invaluable in dealing with tension here. Siddamma says: "I would like all activities of BT to be handled by the Irulas so that we can withdraw from here completely. But for now, there is a lot of work to be done."

Irulas bring down several herbs from the hills, to make antidotes for snakebites. When asked why they do not document such knowledge, Ramesh, an Irula matriculate-sans-caste-certificate replies: "Among Irulas, the elders have a tradition of not giving out such information. Only in their deathbed they choose a youth and teach him the functions of the herbs."

In the past, BT has helped Irula children join government schools by making them go through their "motivational centers."

WAH funding will be used to help the Irula children in 11 villages to become part of the mainstream schooling system via transitional schools. It will also ensure that their culture and knowledge base is not lost.

A VOICE center in Mumbai

VOICE (Voluntary Organization In Community Enterprise) is an NGO working towards the overall development of the street child and was established in 1991 by the Bansiwars. It runs four non-formal education centers in Mumbai, near railway stations, which cater to the needs of working children with flexible teaching hours and relevant curricula.

An ASHA volunteer, Shailen Mistry, met a 'crew' of shoeshine boys in the age group of 7-13 who make an average of Rs 50 per day. They usually turned over the entire amount to their parents, but if they made more they would spend it on gambling, movies, cigarettes and eventually drugs. The girls begging or working at railway stations could get kidnapped and sold into prostitution. The mother of Kirti, a sweet eight-year-old lemon seller says: "I have been offered Rs 2,000 to Rs 5,000 for my daughter."

When asked why they wanted to learn English, the uninhibited group gave various replies. A very vocal Shankar said: "I want to study English and get married to an American girl, I have already placed an order for one!"

Victor Bansiwar informed the team that Shankar had asked an American VOICE volunteer to look out for an American girl for him.

The Bansiwars hold educative discussions about sexual and substance abuse at Balsabhas. A VOICE girl whose marriage had been arranged heard from someone that her fiance visited prostitutes on a regular basis. She approached Victor and asked him for names of clinics, which run HIV virus tests. She then made sure that her fiance had himself tested. This story speaks of the resolve that these children have to improve their lives with the information that is given to them.

The Bansiwars have developed some valuable educational board games, which use day-to-day words, which these children hear at railway stations and markets. They cleverly introduce ways to change behavioural aspects like gambling and begging into daily lessons.

The children are enrolled into 'Swadhar', which teaches vocational skills to older children and hones their value system, apart from paying them a stipend. These children have expressed a desire to continue the work of VOICE so that they too can make a difference in the lives of other children.

A school in progress, in Rajasthan

UMBVS (Urmul Marusthali Bunkar Vikas Samiti) was a society formed by and for weavers in 1989, in Phalaudi, Rajasthan. The marushala (desert school) is an alternative school conceived by the trust. The children are trained not to accept anything blindly, and are encouraged to be curious. There is no physical punishment, which is almost unheard of in a village school.

Their education programs, which include some schemes, like imparting education up to fifth standard to girls within six months by keeping them in a boarding environment away from home, were run as part of the Lok Jumbish project of the state government.

However, after the Pokhran nuclear tests, as part of the economics sanctions imposed by western countries, a Swedish funding agency decided to withdraw funding and the Lok Jumbish program received a severe jolt.

The Indira Gandhi Canal is snaking its way to the Jaisalmer district. While farmers are beginning to arrive here to claim the new arable land, there is an absence of educational and health facilities. UMBVS proposes to open 15 schools with two teachers each in this area over the next three years. WAH funding could make all this happen.

All donations to Asha are tax-deductible under IRS Code Section 501(c) and Section 80G of the Income Tax Act (India). You can make your donations by credit card, personal or Internet check. Asha is also registered to accept matching donations from companies. The WAH, Asha drive ends on August 31.

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