Commonwealth Parliamentary Association
Northern Ireland Assembly Branch
REPORT OF DR R COULTER MLA, MR S MOUTRAY MLA AND MR J REYNOLDS, DEPUTY CLERK
Visit to the Asha Project
1. As delegates to the CPA conference we visited Delhi, India during September 2007 and, whilst there, travelled to the Asha Polyclinic to meet Shamitha Tripathi (Programme Officer) and Paul Frey (Director of Marketing) for the “Asha Project”. We accompanied them on a memorable journey across the city to visit the Kalkaji project. The journey itself introduced us to many of the issues in urban India – chaotic traffic, streets teeming with people, hundreds of people at every junction.
2. Arriving at Kalkaji the first challenge was the smell. The streets outside the clinic reeked of the stench of living without sanitation or organised waste disposal. Inside the clinic was much different. A simple two-storey building housed a doctor’s surgery – somewhat embarrassingly for all, we visited as a young pregnant woman was registered and given her first pre-natal check-up. Upstairs we saw four small rooms packed with children (aged 6-14) engaged in various tutorials in basic literacy, introduction to computers and playing a game which looked like a cross between draughts and pool.
3. Back downstairs we were shoe-horned into a small room where again, embarrassingly, we were seated along one wall while about 30 women sat on the floor and recounted tales of their voluntary efforts to introduce better healthcare, especially maternity care, the eradication of polio and TB, as well as developing improved sanitation and public toilet facilities. The women were inspiring in their simplistic humble recounting of how many of them had walked to Delhi from small rural villages, in search of both husbands and the related financial stability, if not prosperity, that marriage promised. However over the past 16 years or so, these women had been marshalled into an organised system of “alley volunteers” (each responsible for 25-30 families) who monitored the health and well-being of young or expectant mothers, children under 5 and those suffering from polio or TB. Older women (Community Health Volunteers) were responsible for larger areas of 250-300 families. Each CHV was provided with a small box of basic medicines and family planning advice. Many of their concerns were about young people, sexual health and care for children ante- and post-natal.
Support from Northern Ireland
4. We thanked them for their presentation to us; we offered them support and encouragement particularly for the development of the role of women in society and we expressed thanks for the support they gave to young people from Northern Ireland when they too visited the project to offer support and voluntary effort.
Visit to the slums of Delhi
5. Some of the CHVs then took us on a short tour out of the clinic into the slums. This was, for each of us, one of the most humbling yet powerful experiences. Walking along the primitive laneways we could see small cabins in which families lived and worked. Small units were home and shop. We saw kiosk-sized units housing shops trading in jewellery, fish, clothing, laundry services, anything and everything. At the door of one, a horse grazed, cows ambled freely along the lane. Fifty metres into our tour we turned into a narrow lane (the territories marshalled by lane volunteers) – five feet wide at most. On each side doors opened into small eight foot square rooms – home to a family. A drain ran down the lane carrying water and waste from each home. We met small children, recovering TB patients and expectant mothers. Each one accompanied by a registration card setting out the care they had received from Kalkaji Project and the statistics which demonstrated their progress. We wound our way along the narrow lanes, stunned, speechless at the sights before us. It was humbling to think of the contrast between the relative luxury of our hotel and the reeking humanity of these hovels which meant home to literally thousands of people. After 30 minutes we wound our way back to the clinic and bid farewell to our hosts. We offered pencils and other small Assembly gifts to the children and older volunteers. It was wholly inadequate but graciously and warmly received by our hosts.
6. After another cross-town adventure we arrived at the second Asha Project. Inside we were introduced to young men (aged 14-18) who had become peer educators delivering health, and especially sex education, in their local communities. They were shy and self-effacing, but yet sufficiently confident to report on the success of their efforts and to demonstrate pride in their involvement with the Asha Project. They were followed by a host of stories from young girls aged 6-14 eager to recount their involvement in local community initiatives. Then the female peer educators – another dozen young women – shy, yet strong, proud of their achievements both personally and on behalf of their communities. One of them insisted on reporting in English. Dr Coulter quickly suggested she would be a future Prime Minister. Her infectious smile, chattering conversation and joy at her role in taking forward the work with her local community were charismatic. All of us were gripped by the wish to give something more than the token gifts of pens and pencils we had brought with us.
7. It was an astonishing day. From the traffic chaos, through the squalor of the housing conditions to the humbling magnificence of the community reaction, we witnessed a greater scale of political issues in a day than we could expect in a considerably longer period in Northern Ireland. What we could do about these issues remains an unanswered question. The value of any effort and the moral propriety, indeed the obligation to do so appeared to us undeniable.
8. India, a country of 1.2 billion people. 400 million living on less than US$1 per day. Only 250 million living above international poverty thresholds. In contrast it is an economy experiencing rapid growth (9.3% last year) averaging over 8.5% in the last 4 years. Its links with the UK, culturally, linguistically and through a common legal system, offer significant opportunities. Links between Delhi and London, at governmental level are (according to the British High Commission) all the time becoming “broader and deeper”. However with only 3.7% of GDP spent on education and roughly 1% GDP on health, the potential for rapid growth and improvement on the conditions of poverty we had witnessed appear hampered by their own internal policies and priorities.
9. India is undoubtedly now emerging onto the world stage, politically and economically. It is right that Northern Ireland should support and encourage that development. However limited the potential to influence wider events, opportunities can be created to support projects similar to those which we visited. We recommend that the Assembly should offer support to those young people undertaking such voluntary efforts and also exercise its influence towards an improvement in the living conditions and future prospects of the young people of India. We participated in an unforgettable visit to a remarkable project. They won our support and total admiration.