As a once-upon-a-time employee within the development sector, a part
of me has become accustomed to the grim realities not only as they exist but
also manifest themselves in the lives of people stripped by access to resources
that can alleviate their plight. This accustoming, thankfully, has come neither
at the cost of desensitizing me nor at the risk of leaving me hyper-reactive!
If anything, every brush and encounter – however direct or indirect the grounds
on which it occurs may be – leaves me questioning and sometimes, altering the
course of my own journey; the journey I take for granted.
|I had the opportunity of meeting this group of students twice over the four weeks and was rather taken aback when one of them walked up to me and said, "Elita Ma'am!". He'd remembered my name!|
Travelling with a difference
In the blistering summer of April 2016 – 16 full months after I had
quit my job as a development sector professional of five and half years – I,
along with another friend, arrived in Manamadurai to volunteer our time with a
non-profit whose co-founder has been an acquaintance and a friend.
(Tamil for ‘being
humane’) was started in the Manamadurai block of Tamil Nadu’s Sivagangai
district in 2005 - long long before its (almost) English namesake in the
metropolitan city of Mumbai became a catchphrase and fashion statement. For the
uninitiated, Manamadurai is a mere 50 kilometres away from the temple town of
Started by Mr. Vanarajan - a social worker who is also district in
charge for Campaign Against Child Labour (CACL) and south zone organizer for
Campaign Against Child Trafficking (CACT) as well as a recipient of the 92Y
Ford Fellowship - with the single minded focus of ensuring ease of access to
quality education for students from communities marginalised because of their
caste, Manitham was registered as a Trust.
De-jargonising the jargon
Whether or not, one is familiar with the word ‘marginalised’, it helps
to understand what it implies under these specific circumstances. Children, who
ought to be in school and at the very least getting an education and enjoying
the carefree life, are the softest of targets for cheap, easy labour as well as
victims of trafficking.
Now given the manner in which the mainstream controls and directs the
discourse on social development in this country (or anywhere else on the planet
which is not a First World country), it’s becoming a norm to
(i) treat issues such as child labour and child trafficking as being
(ii) consider them as emanating from issues of population and poverty!
The elephant in the room, however, is that ‘caste’ or ethnicity
dictates entitlements and dis-entitlements. And education which was meant to
serve as an equaliser is one such entitlement that not everybody is entitled
|These students left the most indelible mark on me and here's why -- children from a community known for being street circus performers. For generations, this community has remained nomadic and gypsy-like in their way of living; travelling to places where 'work' beckoned them!|
Today, they're a settled community but not one that's accepted and integrated into the 'mainstream'. For a community that has to struggle for daily wage by doing the oddest of odd jobs, education is no more alien to them that walking the tightrope would be for me. And yet these are kids who are now attending schools and making sense of academics with great difficulty. Because among many other things, language is their biggest barrier.
Yes, language! This is a community that inherently speaks a language that's a fusion of Hindi, Marathi, Gujarati, Telugu, Oriya and Tamil! That's a language they've evolved of their own from generations of staying nomadic. Now imagine the plight of these children further accentuated by socio-economic barriers!
|Children at Manitham in Manamadurai, Tamil Nadu|
From stories of how students at government run schools are made to
wear colour coded bands on their wrists indicating the caste they belonged to,
to being exposed to the concept of ‘Sumangali Thittam’ (where Sumangali means
married girl and Thittam means scheme) - a form of child labour and soft
trafficking where young girls are sent to cotton mills as laborers for a
contract period of three to five years in return for which she (or rather her
family) is promised a lump sum amount towards dowry for her marriage – it does
not even begin to cover the range of issues I’ve personally heard and read
about during my four weeks as a volunteer.
It is against this backdrop that the work of Manitham is nothing short
of a crusade for students – many of whom are first generation learners. (And
it’s 2016, for heaven’s sake!)
Manitham’s Child Resource Centre program is an after school support
program aimed at ensuring that every child achieves basic competencies in
Language (Tamil and English), Math and Science. Its core focus is to improve
the learning outcomes by providing individual attention for every child. This
is achieved by grooming mentors from within the community who are responsible
for the end-to-end operationalization of their respective centres.
With its humble beginning of just 5 such centres in 5 villages,
Manitham runs 15 CRC centres in the most backward villages of the Sivagangai
district of Tamil Nadu today reaching out to over 600 students annually.
It all seemed like an excellent model on paper to read about. It
wasn’t something completely new to me either – I had through my own work in the
past come across such models. The questions almost always arose around
implementation and effectiveness; questions almost always posed by donors
(whether from First World countries or not).
|Children at Manitham in Manamadurai, Tamil Nadu|
|Manitham's mentors at their weekly training meeting|
That world the way I experienced
And so we spent some of our time visiting these centres and
interacting with all the stakeholders involved – the students, the mentors, the
parents of the students and a few of the community leaders and representatives.
And here is what I saw:
- Villages of those belonging to the marginalized
communities existed on the periphery of the main village. Just like I’d seen it
in rural Kolhapur during my student years. Just like it is everywhere else in
the country – except that it never gets mentioned or spoken about. And we all
know what happens when things get stopped being spoken about! They stop ceasing
to be things we want to do something about!
- Even so, it was in these very same villages that
enthused groups of students wowed us with their confidence, determination and
aspirations. Asked what they wanted to be when they grow up, many of them
mentioned district collector, police officer, teacher, doctor and engineer –
probably influenced by what they have been observing from around them. But
without the awareness of what it would take to assume those roles – be it
awareness about opportunities they can avail of, the scholarships, the career
pathways to getting there (all of which Manitham is also actively trying to
plug) – it remains to be seen how enabling the circumstances themselves turn
out to be. Because ‘reservations’ are just another ruse for vote-bank politics
and to pit people against each other.
- Mentors, however, appear on the horizon as a
beacon of light. As individuals who are currently pursuing their own higher
education, they belong to the same village and offer the much required
direction and inspiration to students who have no one else to truly look up to.
From among the current lot of 18 mentors, there were a few who have studied at
the CRC not too many years ago. This, coupled with the fact that they are going
beyond what a generation prior to them had been able to aspire for is the much
required ignition button for the next generation of learners. I'll let this next photo-story below do the rest of the talking -
- For the parents it has been a simple logic that
their children shouldn’t have to put up with the same fate they have had to
because either opportunities or awareness about them didn’t exist. And they are
not a passive lot either. Parents in some of the communities have gone on to
make pleas and if required, firm demands of their respective gram panchayats to
make provision of a common physical space within the village where the students
can study together.
Change is constant and change is also slow – especially when it’s
attempting to rewrite how things have come to be without being antagonistic
about it even in the least way possible.
And there is a role for everyone to play. Truth be told, in spite of
my background I didn’t structure how I’d spend my time at Manitham. I knew I
wanted to contribute positively – though I was aware of how much I could truly
effect in 4 weeks. So I did what I could do best – I helped out in documenting
concise documents on the CRC itself: its goal, the operating model, its results
along with measurable indicators for arriving at those results and an outline
for documenting its success stories as caselets!
I fell short in terms of what more I could have done because yes,
language was a huge barrier for someone like me who cannot speak and read a
word of Tamil. But if you are reading this post and are fluent in the language,
Manitham is looking out for volunteers, interns and full time/part time roles
to fill for Communication and Fund Raising. And you don’t even have to go base
yourself out of Manamadurai. You can stay put right where you are and still
contribute. The scope is immense not just in terms of what the organization
needs but even in terms of what you could gain from the collaboration.
As for me, in spite of my language barrier (I still speak nor
understand any Tamil), I had the opportunity to connect with my environs that
in turn helped me reconnect with myself and my journey in a wholesome way!
N.B.: This isn’t about ‘caste’ as we are made to read about in the
newspapers or led on to understand about through manifestos fished out days
before any election (never to be looked at again until another 5 years later).
Because ‘caste’ is not going to go away with some legislation – we know how far
that’s gotten us. This is about re-examining the different ways in which we
perpetuate differences ourselves – in the way we interact with people. The
people who could be peers at university or our workplace or someone who is
tasked with the job of cleaning up after us – whether in our own homes,
restaurants or even out on the streets or the person you’ve just met but
already made an impression of because you’ve glanced at their last name.
It’s easier to get carried away by politics of hate – whichever side
of the argument you sit on right now. Rethink, re-examine and look beyond the
There's more to what I saw and learnt from. Here are glimpses from the potter village in Manamadurai. These aren't just pots; from the same mud and the same kiln comes the Ghatam: a percussion instrument used in the Carnatic music of South India. Manamadurai ghatams have special tonal quality.
|The Ghatams of Manamadurai | Tamil Nadu|
P.P.S.: For opportunities to collaborate on projects such as these and to work with me, click here