The Ashraya Initiative for Children (AIC) works with 200 children from two communities in Pune, in the west Indian state of Maharashtra – the Vaghri and traditional metal workers, the Sikligar Sikhs. They take a hands-on approach to helping vulnerable children get through school, into college and eventually into meaningful jobs.
Vaghri people have lived on the margins of Indian society, selling used clothes in city neighbourhoods, often on foot from baskets and handcarts, to mostly poor urban consumers.
Pune, whose vibrant and well-off student population represents a very different India to the ones Vaghri people inhabit is proof of the economic paradox that remains in the country. Despite growth and self-sufficiency in grain production, India remains home to a huge concentration of food-insecure people.
“We take care of everything: birth certificates, school admissions, uniforms, textbooks, medical checkups, to family issues involving alcoholic men and single mothers,” says AIC director, Bharati Kewalramani.
Good food is central to AIC’s work, “Food is most important, it’s what brings the children here,” adds Ashraya co-director Bunty Ashok Pai
An ordinary day at AIC begins at 6am with breakfast for 100 children, serving rice pudding, cereal or noodles with a glass of milk, cookies and seasonal fruit. Lunch, served for 200 children, usually consists of wheat chapatis and vegetables or rice with daal stewed with veggies; and eggs or paneer. They have another glass of milk and a snack in the early evening before going home for the night. The cost of feeding one child at AIC adds up to Rs 40/day.
The midday meal is prepared by a local caterer, Robin, who has been cooking at AIC for the last two years. He keeps an eye on the bins to see which meals are working and which are not: “Children can be picky eaters, no matter how hungry they are, so he has made an effort to take their preferences into account,” said AIC volunteer Sarah Wallensteen.
AIC goes the extra mile by including organic, preservative-free, fresh milk served cold with “supercookies” covering 100% RDA of essential vitamins (A, D, folic acid), minerals (iron, calcium), and protein, all sourced from safe, responsible vendors.
All these efforts are paying off: they just celebrated their first college graduate last year. AIC is leading a tiny revolution in a country where a quarter of the world’s malnourished reside, according to the World Health Organisation.