A day at ORBIT is testimony that the glue that holds the industry together is collective effort and seamless communication.
An uninterrupted sky of corrugated asbestos, the scent of lubricants, grease-smeared khaki uniforms and the continual drone of machines punctuated by the clunk of metal make the sheds of the ORBIT workshop, close to the Central Bus Stand in Tiruchi, seem like any other manufacturing unit in the country, till I get a closer look at the employees.
The men here have never seen the boss, they only know how the pegs and pins they have been making all their life can feel, an image of their workspace exists only in their imagination and they can tell their co-workers apart only by voice. Be it Alagarsamy who punches holes in retainers or Ravi who coats them in red-oxide paint, or Pandi, the President of the administrative committee, almost all those running this award-winning engineering unit are visually challenged. It is not empathy but admiration they evoke, for their sureness of step and steadfastness of duty. And that struck me as ORBIT's greatest achievement — effortlessly pulling off the extraordinary as ordinary — in making a feat accomplished every day look matter-of-fact.
“The unit is run like any other engineering workshop complying with regulations under the Factories Act,” says Pandi, president of the organisation for over two decades, “with the only difference being 80 percent of employees are visually challenged. From shearing and sorting to packaging and loading, the entire manufacturing process is handled by bind persons. Only some of the machines are operated by persons with orthopaedic disabilities.” ORBIT manufactures various boiler components outsourced primarily by BHEL and other industrial plants. Around 125 workers are employed in its Tiruchi and Ranipet.
From its days as a chalk and washing soap manufacturing unit to its transformation into an ancillary engineering workshop, the organisation has not veered from its orbit of excellence. The biggest honour came in 2010 with the National Award for Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities for “generating employment opportunities for a maximum number of differently abled”.
The two-time winner of the State government's best private employer award, ORBIT has also claimed the best subcontractor award from BHEL for eight years in a row. “The BHEL and SBI are two eyes of the organisation,” says Pandi. “The former guarantees us employment by renewing contracts every year while the latter has been our source of monetary support.”
The organization, established in 1973 by a group of Rotarians headed by R. Ravindran, was the brainchild of noted ophthalmologist Dr. Joseph Gnanathickam, founder of Joseph Eye Hospital. Starting out with five visually challenged and one orthopaedically challenged employee, the unit switched to light engineering in an attempt to increase revenue while generating more employment. Workers were trained at special institutes at Dehradun and Poonamallee, Chennai.
ORBIT was clearly ahead of its times in transferring administration to the hands of the visually challenged way back in 1989, thanks to the efforts of its founding fathers, Gnanadurai Michael, P.M. Shafi, A. Rajasekaran, Swaminathan , Ramamoorthy, Dr. Govindarajan and China Babu Reddiar.
A tour of the unit is testimony that the glue that holds the industry together is collective effort and seamless communication. “Nobody sees the time here,” jokes Gopal, sewing the dispatch bags together. “We have never bothered about the number of working hours we put in. There are times when we are obliged to complete a year's work in nine months when delivery of raw materials is delayed, but you cannot find a single person complaining. We all know our productivity is what can propel our growth and better our lives.” Gopal found his sight an impediment only during the first month. “When I think of people who do not even have this opportunity, I feel I am blessed.”
Another of ORBIT's unique features is the lack of distinction among employees. “There is no grading here, all are workers,” says Kailasam, who manages the office is among the handful of non-disabled persons working here. “The relationship is akin to brothers,” says Pandi. “We call each other annan, thambi. This way no differences arise and no one refuses to do any job.” ORBIT has ambitious expansion plans, but what is wanting is the willingness of more industrial outfits like BHEL to assign work to persons with disabilities.
As I wind up the tour of the unit guided by Murugesan, one of the dozen orthopaedically challenged who operate some of the heavy machinery, I am confident of the organisation's growth, for ORBIT is living proof that sight and vision are indeed two different things. And for those who lack only the former, ORBIT offers what Murugesan considers his ten-year stint in the unit – “Maruvazhvu, a second chance at life.”