As an undergraduate student of economics at Lady Shri Ram College in Delhi, Lavanya Garg, 22, went to Cape Town in South Africa to participate in a volunteer programme. There, she had a chance to work in townships, also referred to as slum settlements, and immediately saw the potential of doing something similar back home in India.
Almost 70% of India’s population lives in villages so this is where Lavanya decided the focus should be. Also, the country has the largest number of youth in the world. Lavanya saw this as an opportunity to bring together the villages and the youth through a volunteer programme. She discussed the idea with her friend Kavya Saxena and the two decided it was worth pursuing. “Many of my friends said they would love to help but when I searched the internet for ways in which college students in India could volunteer, I found nothing,” says Lavanya.
That’s how Asmat was born in 2014, as a platform for college students to volunteer.
Asmat means “we the people” in the local language of a tribe in New Guinea and it seemed like an apt name for an organisation that was not just aimed at helping rural people but also providing an enriching experience for youngsters. The NGO brings batches of about two dozen college students to villages for two weeks, where they immerse themselves in the rural life while trying to make a difference to the people.
For now, the NGO is working exclusively in Soda village in the Tonk district of Rajasthan. The village’s claim to fame is its MBA-educated female sarpanch, Chhavi Rajawat. Chhavi, 39, is reportedly the youngest sarpanch in India, and also an inspirational figure for many, including Lavanya. Chhavi is also an alumnus of Lady Shri Ram College. Lavanya said they reached out to her for guidance when they started the NGO. The sarpanch invited them to visit Soda village in December of 2013, and the team decided this was the place they would launch their programme. “We found there are many issues that volunteers can help the villagers with,” Lavanya says.
Asmat’s first batch of college students went to work in the summer of 2014.
Their efforts were centred on providing complementary informal education to primary school students, raising awareness about health issues and menstruation, and helping people take advantage of government schemes.
Although Asmat has attracted funding from a corporate sponsor and individual donations in the past, the group often funds its volunteering trips itself. The average cost per person per day comes to about Rs. 300 but the NGO is trying to push that down to Rs. 150. The organization recently launched a crowdfunding campaign to raise Rs. 1 lakh to fund a health campaign in Soda village where doctors from Delhi have been invited to provide free health checkups for villagers. The campaign has raised around Rs. 60,000 so far, and Lavanya hopes they will meet their target soon so they can organise camps this December.
The Asmat team has 16 permanent members and is headed by Lavanya and three other co-founders. Lavanya, who did a Master’s in Development Studies from Yale University after finishing her Bachelor’s in India, also works as a researcher studying the conditions of garment workers in Bengaluru.
Up until now, 120 volunteers, many of whom are students at Delhi University, have participated in the Asmat programme. The trips are organised during the summer and winter vacations to allow maximum participation. Lavanya says they try and recruit school as well as college students. All applicants have to send their CVs and also fill out a questionnaire before being called for interviews. The forms include questions like: “What kind of problems do you think rural India faces?” and “How do you think we can raise awareness about taboos like menstruation?”
Asmat looks for people who are not just passionate but also sensitive and capable of thinking on their feet. Working in villages has its own challenges. Lavanya remembers a time when a village woman confronted her during one of the sessions, saying that she, Lavanya, was a city girl and did not have any idea about the realities of village life. Volunteers should be driven to help others but they also need to have the presence of mind to deal with difficult situations, says Lavanya.
But there are also moments that are gratifying for the Asmat team. For example, a village woman once approached Aleena Khan, an Asmat volunteer, and gave her a tight hug; she said she was ever so grateful to Asmat for raising awareness about menstruation. “’I enter the kitchen and make food, put out the pickle and even present offerings to God while I’m having my period. God loves us, he doesn’t bother about purity or impurity; we are always pure for him,’” the woman said. The Asmat team had not just created awareness about the issue but also introduced the woman to sanitary napkins, encouraging her daughters to use them as well.
While Lavanya is happy with the stories of change that have emerged from the village, she says her aim is to do something more long-lasting. “We are looking to do something more sustainable in Soda,” she says, “and also hoping to expand to other villages.”
You can contribute to Asmat’s crowdfunding campaign here.