Friday, October 23, 2009

Ashraya Initiative for Children

For my time in India, I've chosen for my base of operations Pune, India, where I've been volunteering with Ashraya Initiative for Children (AIC). The representativeness of India's transformation in Pune is striking. Here, street magicians try to make a couple rupees off an up-and-coming wealthy upper-middle class in the trendy Koregaon Park neighborhood. Some of the 130,000+ vehicles added to the roads annually weave around cows who have decided to take a rest in the middle of a 4-lane highway. Pune has recently passed Mumbai in exports of software and IT professionals, and IT parks are quickly sprouting up between the shacks of slum dwellers. It's estimated that up to 40% of the city's population lives in slums.

Two such groups among these slum dwellers are the Waghri and the Sikligar Sikhs. The Waghri originate from Gujarat and southern Rajasthan, and have historically found roles as merchants, especially in garments. The other day in the Waghri slum I happened to talk with one woman who encouraged me to come visit her at her garment stand on Sundays. The Sikligar, whose name means “one who burnishes metal”, trace their lineage to Rajasthan and Punjab. The onset of industrialization hit these blacksmiths hard, as did events such as the collapse of the Mughal empire and British land resettlement operations. Dislocation of tribes led to an increase in crime, and the British colonial rulers, confusing caste with occupation, passed the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871, which labeled these castes as such.

Itinerant tribes like the Waghri and Sikligar are now starting to settle, but because in some states they are not listed as Scheduled Castes or Scheduled Tribes, they are unable to receive many government benefits. In Marharastra, the Waghri and Sikligar have received status as Other Backward Classes, which has helped their situation in some respects. However, many of them lack the necessary documents like birth certificates. Additionally, both groups suffer from high rates of illiteracy, prevalence of anemia, and widespread alcoholism. While the ‘criminal tribe’ denotation has since been removed, a negative reputation still accompanies the Waghri and Sikligar. I asked an Indian friend I met recently if caste played a big role in poverty, and he said, “In the villages, yes, but in the cities not anymore.” “Instead,” he said, “the problem is attitude.” The poor, lower castes have been marginalized for so long that they have developed a negative and angry perspective toward society and improving their situation.

Enter Ashraya Initiative for Children. Started by a couple of Princeton and Emory grads while still in high school here in Pune, the organization basically started out as an orphanage for street children. Since then it has grown to include to an Education Outreach Center that tutors over 150 kids whose parents are unable to help them with schoolwork. More recently, AIC found that parents who became sick sent their children to work or beg, rather than going to school. Like adding a critical support beam to the main structure, AIC added the Health Outreach Center (combined with Education) for Waghri and Sikligar families. Eleven kids live full time at the Residential House, which is separate from the Outreach Center.

As a Health Outreach volunteer, I’m making sense out of the mountains of health data we already have and then going to the slums to get what we don’t have. It’s an enormous task, and was only made more difficult when the health director came down with malaria a few days after I arrived. The fact that the health director got malaria isn’t a great sign, but the fact that the locals were talking about it like it was just a cold was slightly alarming. They’d just remark almost nonchalantly, “She’s got malaria. She’ll be back in a day or so.” Eventually, she did recover and I got my start. Just by sifting through the data you see and learn so much about how health and poverty interact: an entire family of 16, save a couple people who probably just haven’t been tested, have mild or severe anemia; tuberculosis tests routinely come back positive; mothers who are adding children faster than income are clamoring for birth control. When I walk into the slums, I see these numbers come to life: the old woman with a swollen leg complaining of bone problems, and another man who begs me to pay for treatment of his failing kidney. I’m sure as I continue my work and people come to recognize the Ashraya stamp on my head, this trend will only become more pronounced.


  1. Funny that I found you, I am currently living in Pune and volunteering with AIC (have been since Sept '09). I found your blog while searching AIC through google.

    We were actually both working with AIC at the same time, I met Bridgette on her first day at AIC but I never got to meet you, kinda weird. But I guess that's because I didn't live in the volunteer apt and I did not work at the health outreach, I stuck to the residential & education outreach. Your stories are very interesting though, what an interesting life you lead!

  2. Hey Mary, good to hear from you. Yea, that is odd our paths never crossed. I did hear mention of you. I wasn't living at the volunteer apartment, but was over there a good bit. I hung out with Bridgette a solid bit, that crazy kook. So you're still with AIC? Wow. I hope things are a bit less crazy than when the hoard of volunteers was there. Cheers!