Mitraniketan kicks off its 57th anniversary celebrations today. Founder-director K. Viswanathan and his wife, Sethu, explain how the NGO continues to improve the quality of life of the rural community

K. Viswanathan empowered a region by opening a new chapter in rural development and put Vellanad on the map with the establishment of Mitraniketan. The festivities that begin today in Mitraniketan, in connection with its anniversary, encompasses a community that has benefitted from the various works of the non-governmental organisation (NGO) that has won several national awards for its pioneering work in education, agriculture and development.

On this sprawling green campus, about 25 km from the capital city, dotted with red brick buildings and clean open spaces, lives are made and destinies changed for the better, thanks to the gritty determination of a Gandhian who believes that education holds the key to empowerment. For him, education does not circumscribe learning within the walls of a class or the pages of a book. Education, he says, is also about equipping youngsters with life skills and vocational training. A sense of purpose motivates employees and volunteers because they are aware that their work can make a difference to improve living conditions of the underprivileged in society.

“It was on the day of Thiruvonam (August, 1956) that we began Mitraniketan. In those days, all that there was in Vellanad were two provision stores and two teashops. There was no tree cover and all the water just rushed off the barren hillside in gullies and small streams,” recalls the octogenarian, who has been honoured with the Padma Shri.

In 1956, Viswanathan, an avid Gandhian returned from Santiniketan and his travels abroad, to begin Mitraniketan, a school for the disadvantaged in society. Along with a group of friends who thought alike, he put into practice a system of education that was rooted in the soil and gave its students vocational training while teaching them the three Rs. Taking a leaf from Arthur Morgan and the Danish system of folk learning, Viswanathan created a school and a school of thought that empower rural communities by giving them the tools to learn and earn a living.

Looking back on those eventful years, his wife Sethu, says: “I have been told by Valiyannan (as she calls her husband) told me how they built bunds to conserve rain water and planted all kinds of trees. After my marriage, when I came here 44 years ago, my heart sank. Coming from Vanchiyoor, I was used to the comforts of an urban home. Here, there was no electricity or running water. It was Valiyannan’s commitment that motivated me to complete a course in teacher’s training and join the school here,” Gradually I immersed myself in the activities of the school,” she says, taking in the canopy of greenery around their circular cottage built by Laurie Baker.

Five of the first batch of 15 students came all the way from Wayanad and had to be coaxed to attend classes. A month or so later, the police came looking for Viswanthan as he was charged with kidnapping the tribal children. “Once they saw our classes and interacted with the students, they were convinced that we were not into any kind of nefarious activities and left the place. But the real encouragement came when the students returned to school after their annual vacation with 25 of their friends and neighbours,” reminisces Viswanathan.

Covering about 60-plus acres, Mitraniketan’s umbrella of activities include Mitraniketan People’s College, a Krishi Vigyan Kendra (KVK), a training centre for women, a fully-equipped bakery, pottery centre, and a technology transfer programme.

All activities on the campus are tailored to meet the requirements of the community. Since Vellanad is predominantly an agrarian economy, Viswanathan’s crusading efforts to help the predominantly agrarian community benefit from breakthroughs in agriculture led to the establishment of the first KVK under an NGO in India. “The lab-to-land idea has done wonders in agrarian societies like the one at Vellanad,” he says.

Benefits of tissue culture, mushroom cultivation, latest developments in agriculture, poultry and dairy farming are passed on famers in and around the area

Today, Mitraniketan is home to 240 students, including students from Wayanad district and places such as Kottoor and Amboori in Thiruvananthapuram district. “We have space for 300 students but funds don’t permit that,” admits Viswanathan.

“I worry about its future after my days are over. It is my dedicated team that gives me hope that the work we have begun will be carried forwards,” he adds.

However, during Onam season, there are no long faces at Mitraniketan. It is awash in festivities as students and staff members of all ages come together to celebrate its existence and all that it stands for.

Changing lives

One of Mitraniketan’s recent successes at the technology transfer centre under it is a mechanism that reduces the labour involved in operating Chinese fishing nets. “It was developed by engineers at Mitraniketan and is being used in seven places in Azheekal. We plan to apply for a patent for it and try to get more funds for the project,” says Raghu Ramdas, project coordinator, Mitraniketan. Value-addition to jackfruit, encouragement of homestead vegetable farming and cultivation of tubers, and food processing are some of the recent activities to help women become self-sufficient.

Lending a helping hand

“It was wonderful… it was very nice, very educative…an eye-opener…” Laura Wilkinson, a student of Economics of the University of Edinburgh, finds it difficult to find the right words to describe her experience in Mitraniketan. She was in Vellanad along with four of her friends for a project they had chosen as part of the Edinburgh Global Partnership. It was begun in 1990 to encourage links between students in Scotland and communities around the world.

“Dignity of labour,” she says, looking pleased with her ability to find the right expression. Along with Gillain Yoman, Natasha Senior, Christropher Trimble and Rebecca Carahar, she was busy setting up biogas plants for 25 families at Vellanad. The students had raised the funds for their project, travel and stay on their own and had chosen the projects from the many submissions that had been sent to their website.

“It was a hands-on project wherein the students had to build, install and show the women how to work the stoves. It exposed us to a completely different style of living,” she says.

Her previous expedition was to Malawi.