Daan Utsav: Knowledge, Truly For All – Esha, People For The Blind
This #DaanUtsav, BloombergQuint brings you a series of first-person accounts on volunteering that narrate stories of how different organisations across India are engaging volunteers at scale, or in depth, and bringing about significant transformation.
When people work for love, money cannot buy the output they produce. It was this belief that made Esha a volunteer-driven initiative from the start. Before Esha was launched as a standalone initiative in 2005, I had worked as a volunteer for more than a decade with various schools for the visually impaired, and spent hours bent over a braille board, followed by a braille slate, and then a brailler, pounding away to create content in braille. On this journey, I had the good fortune of meeting other people who did this work for one thing only – personal gratification. The idea was not, “I’m doing this to make a better world.” It was, “I do this because it makes me happy.” That journey of meeting awesome people continued with Esha.
Take, for example, Anil Bhagatji, whom I call Dadaji, as much for his wisdom as his age. He started reading at blind schools in Delhi when he was still in college. Even after he moved out of the country, he kept in touch with people who needed his help. And he regularly volunteers with Esha. Last month, he converted the entire draft National Education Policy to an audio piece so that the visually impaired can listen to it and participate in the feedback process. He spent four days doing that – using text-to-speech, then cleaning the text, and then painstakingly and carefully cataloguing the entries, doing his bit to create an inclusive ‘knowledge democracy’. His efforts were much appreciated by the National Education Policy Committee.
Esha is essentially trying to address two needs:
1. Creating A ‘Knowledge Democracy’
In the 1990s and 2000s, Google and Wikipedia made information easily accessible. But a true ‘knowledge democracy’, where everyone has equal access to knowledge resources, on demand, did not happen for almost 70 percent of India, due to two primary reasons:
- Fluency in English
Esha has addressed this gap has with the Central Library of Audio Books in Indian Languages. CLABIL is an online, free-to-use audio-library in Indian languages. Although it was started primarily for the visually-impaired, the library is today used by many others. But that is not the most important part of the library. All of our content is available in 23 Indian languages.
2. Creating An Inclusive Public
We believe that an inclusive policy needs an inclusive public. While there is a lot of work happening to create inclusive policies, we found a gap in the second area. We also found that people don’t want to be insensitive. It’s just that we don’t think or talk about it enough.
Esha conducts open Braille sessions – where anyone can come and learn Braille. We host Blind Walks, where people are invited to experience a place as visually-impared person would experience it. Theater workshops and other events are held to make inclusion a part of our everyday thought process.
The Magic Of Volunteering
Running for 14 years, with 6,900 audio files in 23 Indian languages, about 1 lakh people a year, sensitised through this initiative. The ‘staff’ count to do this? Zero. This has been possible because the entire initiative is volunteer-driven.
Doing it this way, we have been able to interact with people from all walks of life. People who have always wanted to do something but never found the time, or young students who wanted to explore and find the good in their hearts. This way, when a person volunteers, at least two lives are enriched.
How This Works
All year-round, our work is facilitated by our volunteers. However, there are two points in the calendar, when the volunteering activities peak. The first is the summer vacation, when students from all over the country record content, create blog posts, and conduct sensitisation events near them.
The second is Daan Utsav, which runs from Oct. 2 to Oct. 8. Quite a few workplaces conduct their Daan Utsav activities in association with Esha.
What Makes Volunteering Succeed For Us?
Over the years, many volunteers have shared their experiences about how their lives changed after their association with Esha. Take the story of Toshit Chauhan. At the time he joined us, Toshit was a law student. As part of his course, it was compulsory for him to volunteer with an NGO, and he chose Esha. His assignment was to demonstrate the audio library to underprivileged children in some parts of Delhi. He had to show them how to open the audio library to listen to stories, quizzes, and even get access to school lessons. This experience changed him as a human being.
Over that summer, he had empowered over two hundred children, moving them from knowledge dependence to self-reliance.
His work was brilliant, but his smile at the end of the engagement was even more radiant than that.
There were some things we learnt along the way, and I would like to share those:
- Templatised events: If we have to work with volunteers spread across the country, and ensure that everyone has the same experience at an Esha event, we need to make it easy for people to understand how to create an Esha experience. To do that, we created content that a person had to go through once and then follow it to the smallest detail. We take the feedback from our volunteers and continue to improve the content.
- Flexibility and options: All volunteers get five to six work options to choose from. These range from hardcore field-work like audio library communication and blind walks to some things which are more creative, like video-making or blog-post writing. We are very clear that everyone does as much as they can, for as long as they can.
- Accountability: Esha is among the few NGO that selects its volunteers, especially for its summer programme. If a person promises to send something and doesn’t, we send them a reminder. After the third reminder, we send them a polite note telling them why they are no longer volunteering with Esha.
The future is exciting and promising. Since we started CLABIL in 2010, a lot of free and open-source knowledge resources have been started and sustained. But we saw that adoption remains a challenge. This led us to the idea that perhaps this is not an adoption issue, but a core design issue. We have designed knowledge resources according to our own knowledge acquisition patterns. Perhaps, this is not the knowledge acquisition behaviour of the people we want to empower. In 2019, Esha has started a national research project to understand different techniques of knowledge acquisitionr. The research is, as you can imagine, being conducted, led, and guided by volunteers. The first set of insights is very promising.
The key question this research is trying to answer is:
If you had to create a Google for those who cannot read or write, or those who don’t know English or computers, how would you design it, such that can they use it as effortlessly as you use Google?”
The results of this research will not only help us redesign our own knowledge offering – CLABIL, but will also be shared freely with anyone wanting to design new knowledge resources.
Someday, perhaps, we should write about the productivity of a passion-based economy and society. Because volunteerism, pretty much, is that.
Nidhi Arora is Catalyst at Esha – People For The Blind.
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team.