Mentally challenged people are valuable manpower resources, as this community mental health project proves

The ‘Kolaveri' song plays on FM radio as four men rhythmically bathe, pet and feed their dozen ‘friends' in the cow shed. “This is Ganga, this is Cauvery, that is Yamuna, Krishna…There is, Godavari, Mahanadi….” Karuppachamy gives a flawless introduction. Then he turns towards me, “These are the names of our rivers.”

Elsewhere, the remark may have stung me. I notice a tilt in Karuppachamy's head. I see an absent look in his friend Maheshwaran's eyes. But he smiles at me. Neethi Sekaran comes forward with a handshake, showing a slight limp when he walks. Alaguraja is quiet but stares at me as though wanting to speak.

These are four special people at the Bodi Chellamuthu Gardens campus. Run by the MS Chellamuthu Trust and Research Foundation at Alagarkoil, this centre houses 75 people with mental disabilities and tries to enhance the quality of their life through appropriate interventions.

What binds Alaguraja, Neethi, Maheshwaran and Karuppachamy is their disabled state of mind. And what also sets them apart from others is their state of mind now.

They fight real challenges when their minds and bodies do not cooperate. Despite the hindrances they have faced in their lives, they have displayed model team work in managing and running a dairy project successfully for the past three years.

All of them were forced to leave their homes and destiny brought them under the umbrella of the Trust in Madurai. As each was trying to live a new life through treatment and rehabilitation, they came together at the Bodi campus when the Trust was searching for a reliable and stable source of manpower.

“It is very difficult to get labour from outside these days. They charge more and are also irregular. That is when we felt that there is room for the differently abled people in employment,” says Mr. K.S.P. Janardhan Babu, Assistant Director (Programmes).

When these four proved themselves to be good workers, they were given the job of maintaining 12 milch cows donated by well-wishers to the Trust. Under the guidance of a Chemistry graduate, Ayyanar, the chosen team took on their job with ease. “They were so proud of what they were asked to do. They have a sense of belonging to the place and love caring for the animals,” adds Mr. Babu.

Through the novel idea, the Trust gave them dignity, self-confidence and a purpose. It made them productive and independent. It made them discover their potential. Such is their commitment that they have now become more expressive about their demands too. Laughs Neethi, “We don't ask anything for ourselves but for our cows. Mosquitoes trouble them a lot in the night. We burn neem leaves and spray herbal oils.”

The four have divided among themselves the responsibilities of milking, feeding, cleaning the shed, keeping to the immunization schedule, guarding the cows at night and conducting the gomatha puja. “They work in shifts and draw their own work charts. I monitor them,” says Ayyanar.

Each cow gives an average of eight litres of milk twice a day. Karuppachamy celebrates with a jig when the cows yield 100 to 110 litres in the morning. It meets the requirement of the 75 inmates at Bodhi and another 50 special children who attend school here. Till six months ago, extra milk was also sold to Aavin and other private dairies. It fetched a good price. But now it is supplied to inmates and staff of other centres run by the Trust.

The team is also very particular about the cows' feed. Each animal consumes a morning feed of four kilos of gruel made with rice, chickpeas, vegetables and other grains. The herd is taken for grazing twice a day by the team members, who take turns for this walk outside with much excitement. That is the time when they also get a peep into the outside world all by themselves and stop at a kiosk for a tea bought with their own money.

All the four are so well knit into their job now that they are constantly thinking about the well-being of their animals. They have even asked the management to get six more cows. These men have witnessed deliveries past midnight and taken care of the calf and the mother without disturbing anyone else in the campus.

Open-mindedness about manpower sources has given the Trust this wonder team. A team that has proved that there is nothing more disabling or enabling than oneself, and that if they get an opportunity, they too will proudly earn a living.

(Making a difference is a fortnightly column about ordinary people and events that leave an extraordinary impact on us. E-mail to somabasu@thehindu.co.in to tell about someone you know who is making a difference)