ASHA stands for Accredited Social Health Activist. It also means hope. My first connect to this woman-driven community health initiative came as a message in my Facebook inbox. I recognised Neha, my ex-colleague from our 24X7 News years. She is also a young mother and the daughter of a teacher who influenced me greatly. We have drawn inspiration from each other before.
Neha asked me to be part of a film they were making on a day in the life of an ASHA worker or Asha Didi, as they are popularly called. All over India, women have been recruited and trained as ASHA workers. They are the foot soldiers in the campaign to bring healthcare benefits to mothers and children in the deepest recesses of Indian society.
Over the course of one day, Mithlesh Saini assisted the Auxilliary Nurse and Midwife (ANM) as she vaccinated infants and pregnant women, gave them health supplements and created awareness about family planning and immunisation support.
"People trust their ASHA worker. They call on her in times of distress and she responds beyond the call of her duty."
Mithlesh knew people by their names in the community she has been assigned in Dasna, near Ghaziabad in Uttar Pradesh. She knew which families she had to track to bring their vaccinations and supplements up to date. She was aware of cultural and social pressures that prevented women from reaching the camp on their own. We knocked on doors and brought out women and their babies to the immunisation camp.
We walked through slush and mud to reach temporary tenements where migrant labourers had set up base to escape the rain. Isolated by poverty and illiteracy, women who were sitting alone with their babies in the afternoon heat, came out and walked back to the camp with us. These are the people that government schemes really need to reach. ASHA workers like Mithlesh are the critical link.
People trust their ASHA worker. They call on her in times of distress and she responds beyond the call of her duty.
"I came to this home at midnight with my husband on his scooter," Mithlesh said to me. "The woman had gone into labour and needed to be brought to the hospital. Her husband had panicked and called me."
The ANM and ASHA workers counsel families on the merits of institutional delivery and the best use of contraceptives for family planning. It is inspiring to witness their genuine connect with the community. This is the ground where the foundation for a new India is being laid.
The current data is heart-rending. More children under the age of five die in India than anywhere else in the world. Many of these deaths are due to vaccine-preventable diseases like pneumonia and diarrhoea. According to UNICEF, about 6 lakh Indian children die of pneumonia and diarrhoea every year.
Every campaign that aims to bring universal health to all depends on people like Mithlesh Saini to connect the benefits with the beneficiaries. Each one of us has a role to play before we begin to live in a world where our children are safe and well.
Watch this film to see what inspires Mithlesh to keep at her work tirelessly. Walk with her and me to witness how change is taking place every day, sometimes accompanied by the cry of a baby, often with the gay abandon of his or her laughter.
You can view the Twitter feed here.