Prof.S.Rengasamy has been silently sensitising social work students so that they invest themselves in community service
“A teacher affects eternity, he can never tell where his influence stops” - Henry Adams, American historian and academic
Prof.Srinivasan Rengasamy stumps you when he says, “I am a failed teacher”. For 35 years he taught social work and community development at the Madurai Institute of Social Sciences. It is from his rich experience that he says, “ordinary people, and not books moulded me.”
When he studied for his degree in Social Work, it was education for the elites only. “I could never internalise my subject. When I took to teaching, I saw how the concepts taught from textbooks and the ground reality was an absolute mismatch,” he says.
The gap in theory and practice set him on a different mode of teaching to realise the ultimate purpose of education. “Teachers should make socially responsible and enlightened citizens out of their students. But do we really work that way?” he asks.
As a guide, mentor and teacher to thousands of students over the decades, Prof.Rengaswamy taught them to “learn to listen to the marginalised people and respect ordinary people.” As a teacher, he dedicated himself to community development.
“The significance of participatory rural appraisal as an important research tool in social work is often overlooked and so is the livelihood promotion concept,” he laments. He propagates the development of people and their community by giving them what they need with the help of what they have (the local resources). “Never give them what you want to,” he asserts.
Prof.Rengasamy recalls a project he was working on in the early 90s to identify community leaders for implementation of rural development schemes. “I was trying to explain migration to the villagers. One of the village elderly told me what I was explaining was actually not migration but displacement due to poverty. It was like a slap on my face. From then on, villagers have been my teachers, always helping me to understand academic concepts.”
Villagers have little or no knowledge but are blessed with inherent wisdom. The professor was impressed by their thoughts on climate change and weather, organic farming and water harvesting. “I have always tried to bring in positive changes in the perception of my students towards the rural areas and the rural poor,” he says citing another instance when he administered a questionnaire that asked the villagers whether they were taking three square meals a day.
“An old lady laughed and asked me to modify the questionnaire, whether it was meant for the rich or the poor and enquire about the type of meals. The rich can afford three hot meals a day but if a poor man can manage even one hot meal in a day, it is enough, she mocked at me.”
Why don’t politicians think beyond freebies?, wonders Prof.Rengasamy. “Our MLAs do not care to know about the potential and resources available in their constituencies. They are only listening to problems without understanding the difficulties from different perspectives,” he rues, adding that, collective peoples’ action and need and area-specific schemes alone can lead to growth and development.
Four years ago, he worked on a project on vegetable markets in Madurai and recommended ISO certification for them. “To attract more customers and generate more revenue, the unmanageable and unorganised vendors have to be disciplined. Assets of the vegetable market need to be identified, the area should be kept clean, there should be a provision for cold storage, the vendors should get identity cards and can even be trained to talk about health and medicinal benefits of vegetables,” Prof.Rengasamy lists out.
He says there are 1,500 vendors in the city who sell 80 tonnes of vegetables per day. “Why don’t we find out the city’s eating pattern by studying the sales of vegetables instead of harping on statistics on junk food or the number of cars or computers sold in the city?”
People may be longing for a change, he says, but the authorities have stopped listening to them. Everyone loves to live in a big city, ready to enjoy the advantages of city life but not accept the challenges posed by a city. Why? Prof.Rengasamy takes each of his student through a mesh of such thoughts.
“Understanding the nature of social work is crucial for social justice awareness among students. It is a skilful combination of science-based action guidelines and methods on one hand, and human rights and social justice as its ethical guidelines on the other.”
The professor’s heart aches for his million-plus city. Why is nobody thinking about rejuvenating river Vaigai? Why doesn’t anybody care to understand the urban slum? “Our authorities have ample information. If we want our city to be consciously administered, innovation has to be a continuous change,” he says.
Prof.Rengasamy’s endeavour has always been to get his students excited about the real life situations in light of different theoretical and philosophical perspectives to reach a deeper understanding of phenomenon that we just take for granted.
“Knowledge has its limitations and does not provide answers to human problems. Theory helps us to step outside of ourselves and develop rich insights into our work. But better ideas always come from the people.”
(Making a difference is a fortnightly column about ordinary people and events that leave an extraordinary impact on us. E-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org to tell about someone you know who is making a difference)