Winner ‘Social Impact Award 2015’

TOI Social Impact Awards 2015: Rays of Asha brighten classrooms

When a powerful idea fuels youthful energies, futures are formed. Asha for education, this year’s Social Impact Award winner in the International category, began as an Ivy League discussion group set up by three Indian students in their mid-20s at Berkeley in April 1991.

VJP Srivatsavoy, Sandeep Pandey and Deepak Gupta began bouncing off ideas on Newsgroup — a PC network for information exchange and an Internet-based collaboration among scientists — and soon hit on the idea of starting a non-profit student research group that would spread education to the disadvantaged in India.

Today, Asha involves 500 people around the world who’ve helped shape more than 50,000 lives through 316 educational projects across India in 24 years. From preprimary schooling to professional education in slums and rural patches, Asha works with stakeholders and community groups, and catalyzes social and economic change by schooling unprivileged children.

Deepak Gupta, who now teaches at IIT-Kanpur, and oversaw the building of the Asha Residential School for migrant children in Kanpur Dehat recalls: “The idea spread like wildfire (on the Berkeley Newsgroup). There were so many who wanted to do something. They found a platform.” According to Asha’s website, it directed $20 million towards children’s education between 2001 and 2011. Social activist Aruna Roy, jury member at the Social Impact Awards, said: “Asha has Indians abroad doing something for the country. They collect small amounts from people concerned about the marginalized and the poor, and offer finance and fellowships. There are only two institutes I know that are working from abroad, Asha is one of them. It’s a commendable way of helping India.”

Pandey left Asha after associating with political issues, finally joining the Lok Rajneeti Manch in 2012. “My idea of education is based on empowerment,” he said. The 2001 Magsaysay winner laments the absence of a Common School System — a corner stone for securing social justice in education as outlined by the Education Commission (1964-66) under DS Kothari.

Asha remains largely amorphous. What began as a venture of zeal and activism by three bright-eyed Berkeley students has transformed into a movement that no one person is prepared to take credit for. Ask Gupta or the self-effacing Pandey who should receive the award, and they start naming their grassroot workers, wanting no part of the glory. As the poet said, “Mai to akela hi chala tha janib-e-manzil magar, log aate gaye, karwan badhta gaya (I was alone when I started my journey towards my goal. But people began joining me, and the flock kept getting bigger).”