Outside of the Jasidih train station there is an ambulance waiting to take me to visit NEEDS, a grassroots Indian NGO based in the newest state of Jharkhand. Today is election day and the streets are so crowded with villagers in to hear the results that the road to the train station has been closed and only official vehicles and ambulances are let through. As we drive slowly through the crowds of people outside the government office where the results will be announced Sanjay, the driver, tells me that these people have been waiting all day and will stay through the night. “The results were supposed to come out today, but… they need more time”.
At the NEEDS office, I sit with Murari, the program director. He founded the organization with three others in 1998 and now employs over one hundred people in a number of districts in Jharkhand. His employees are mostly stationed in the field, where they direct efforts to form and support Village Health Committees and People’s Interest Protection Committees whose principal duties are to connect community members with government health services, raise awareness, and also to unite the voices of concerned community members and prompt change in government policies. One of NEEDS’ more recent ventures recruits youth volunteers from villages, trains them on health awareness and community mobilization and provides them with means to network with each other and share experiences and advice. None of the NEEDS volunteers receive incentive based payments for any of the work they do. Murari tells me that “once a volunteer starts to get paid, they become and agent of the government in the eyes of the community and are no longer trusted. Only unpaid volunteers maintain their dedication and credibility in their communities”.
Murari explains in detail the different initiatives that NEEDS has started and describes some of the results they have already seen in changing behavior in villages and changing policy in government run clinics. Along with its health initiatives NEEDS also does work in tribal livelihood, providing agricultural education to help increase tribal farmers’ crop yield and keep them from turning to migrant labor when their food for the year has run out.
After lunch we will be taking trip to the NEEDS Rural Technology Center, located about 12km away in Danipur village. As we step outside and walk to the car I look around for the driver, until Murari opens up the driver side door and hops into the driver’s seat. I stand outside the car for a moment, baffled, and realize that the founder and program director himself will be my escort today instead of the typically low-caste, hired driver. It’s settled, NEEDS means business.
After a very fruitful three day visit at the NEEDS office, I find myself back at the Jasidih railway station, standing at the ticket window in front of a laughing station attendant who is telling me how much he loves Monica Lewinsky. He hands me an unreserved ticket for the Howrah-Amritsar Express back to Varanasi, 110 Rupees ($2.40 USD) for 450km. The train is running late by five hours, so I pass the time strolling the neighborhood.
On the other side of the tracks the street is wide and empty with a scattering of tea stalls and snack shops. No one pays me much mind as I walk by except a couple of kids playing badminton in the street. I buy a pack of soap papers from one boy, thin sheets of soap stapled into a piece of folded cardboard like a matchbook. I’ve never seen soap paper before and start to joke about it with the kids. A man about my age named Sabbir introduces himself and I learn he’s a teacher and these kids are his students. Having finished the afternoon class, they break out the cricket bats and badminton rackets and play though the sunset. Sabbir invites me into the school room, a 15m2 concrete box in the bottom floor of the building, complete with three walls and a corrugated metal rolling door. The floor is covered in mats and the walls in embossed tin posters of vocabulary in English and Hindi covering everything from computer parts to past prime ministers.
We sit on the floor and talk about education for a couple of hours, writing out elementary Hindi lessons in my notebook. The kids all take turns writing sentances to show off and prove their Hindi writing is better than mine. Each of these kids, I learn, are orphans of the street. The eldest boy of about fourteen, Salman, crosses the tracks and gathers new kids from inside the train station twice daily and invites them back for lessons with Sabbir. A free lunch is offered as well as an equally sized room next door to sleep in. Sabbir tells me about fifteen kids as well as himself sleep there on the floor each night. He tells me more about his work, which includes delivering educational messages directed towards behavioral change: advising frequent hand washing and bathing, wearing clean clothes daily, living in a clean area, etcetera.
It’s not until Sabbir asks me about my work that we realize the strange coincidence of our meeting. Sabbir himself is a NEEDS employee and we are sitting inside the NEEDS बाल श्रमिक शिक्षा कैन्द्र (residential learning center). I had walked out of the NEEDS office and straight into the NEEDS residential learning center without realizing it and was now seeing the work that had been described to me in the office happening live in front of my eyes.