METRO PLUS

Beyond the tunnel... a new ray of hope

Asha workers help people stand on their feet with their professional guidance.

Asha workers help people stand on their feet with their professional guidance.  

IN AN age when ideas and objects seem willy-nilly to be sucked into a race for public recognition, the constant question seems to be what's new? Just as constantly, however, it is brought home to us that there is nothing new under the sun. The importance then shifts - for those who want to contribute to a world that is not new but constantly realigning itself - to seeing what exists, and making the most creative use of it. It is in this aspect that the Delhi-based NGO Asha scores. Asha's founder Dr. Kiran Martin - who sowed the seeds of the organisation when as a recently qualified paediatrician during the cholera outbreak of 1988 she set up a table under a tree in a Delhi slum colony to treat patients free of charge - has established a network of individuals and communities remarkable for their ability to use available resources with optimum effect. Her strategy for sustainable development centres round empowering and training women and children to inspire them to care for their own community.

Like the schemes for "barefoot doctors" in China and Gram Sevaks of India - that were given much encouragement by the World Health Organisation - Asha has developed a system of training women as Community Health Volunteers to treat minor ailments, oversee the general health condition of the allotted families within the basti and particularly care for the ante and post-natal needs of the mothers and children. What is more remarkable than the fact that many of the women are only slightly educated or completely illiterate is their system of maintaining thorough records and registers despite this handicap.

Asha's Prerna Community Health and Development Project is being aided by the British High Commission's Small Grants Scheme, under which the NGO receives an average of Rs. 10 lakh a year for three years. The British High Commission in New Delhi - perhaps better known to ordinary citizens as stingy in matters relating to visas for aspirants wanting to visit or settle in the U.K. - is at present providing funds to nine projects in the northern region, including Gurgaon Madhya Pradesh, Jharkand, Bihar and Lahaul and Spiti.

Shija Nair, Development Officer at the High Commission whose work involves scrutinising and short-listing organisations that apply for grants, points out that among the important criteria applied in choosing grant recipients is the sustainability of the project, since no grant is given for more than three years and the authorities want to avoid a situation in which the project dries up for lack of funds. Since Asha's thrust is on training the members of the community to care for each other and to imbibe sanitation and hygiene practices as well as well as social benefits through women's groups - Mahila Mandals -- and to inculcate safe habits among children through Bal Vikas Kendras, and a minimum payment has been established for the services of the CHVs, it seems highly likely the benefits of the grant will survive the end of the present collaboration.

Another criterion is the receptivity of the community to the NGOs' work. If popularity is the gauge, the Prerna project's viability is guaranteed. CHVs like Shakira Bano, Leelavati, Kamla, Anju and Anita not only rattle off the number of patients, pregnant women and under-fives among the 400 houses under their care, but also exclaim over the change in their lives brought by this NGO of hope.

Beyond the tunnel... a new ray of hope

"Our colony was so dirty you could not walk here," says Shakira. "We managed to get the authorities to come to collect the garbage. We are so happy that there is less illness now in our community," says one. "We have learnt how to get things done. We are not afraid even to go up to the Town Hall!"

Godavari, who is totally illiterate, is yet gifted in the healing art of talking to patients and knows her medical kit - provided with a certificate after a three-month practical and theoretical course - with its ORS solution, various tablets and midwife equipment thoroughly.

One CHV sums it up. "I had never gone anywhere without my husband, not even to buy vegetables," says another. "Now he says, you have become a doctarni."

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