CHATLINE The founder of Nethrodaya believes that being honest, having standards and following best practices is the way to make yourself credible, says PRINCE FREDERICK

C. Govindakrishnan, better known as Gopi, has many virtues, but mealy-mouthed diplomacy is not one of them. Nethrodaya — the trail-blazing organisation he founded, primarily for the visually-impaired, offering free food, accommodation, study material and a wealth of other life-enhancing resources — can accommodate 75 differently-abled students, but there are only 53 right now. “Nethrodaya is not a shelter home,” says Gopi somewhat bluntly, before softening the blow with an entirely plausible line of reasoning. “Being visually-impaired or disabled in other ways does not automatically qualify someone for admission. Academic excellence is among the other essentials. People should have a definite purpose for entering our fold.” He prefers the term “resource centre”.

This forthrightness, this unflinching clarity of purpose has landed him in trouble in his 20 years of social service and nine years of running Nethrodaya. And yet, these qualities have also earned him lifetime friendships across a cross-section of people. Most importantly, they have given Nethrodaya credibility in the eyes of the public.

“I have never played the numbers game to receive funding,” says Gopi. In fact, he has consistently steered clear of certain sources of financial support for fear of having to compromise on quality and values. Gopi has consistently displayed an ability to mobilise resources through individuals and corporate houses.

From its birth in a rented space at Spartan Nagar in Mogappair to its sprawling growth today, across seven grounds in Nolambur Phase II (Mogappair West), Nethrodaya has managed to win neighbours over to its cause. The majority of its benefactors are in and around Mogappair. Venkatesh, a hair dresser from Mogappair, visits the centre regularly and gives the students free haircuts. General practitioner Vasundhra and dentist Arun — who practise in Mogappair and Anna Nagar — offer medical services for free. People in the neighbourhood are inspired to help in novel ways. “When Ramakrishnan, a local resident, was hit by a motorist at the Anna arch, he spoke to the traffic policeman and talked him out of filing a case against the motorist,” says Gopi. “He walked up to the man who had caused the accident and told him to donate money to Nethrodaya as a way of making amends.”

Not all neighbours however are as sympathetic towards Gopi's mission. “The land where the present facility stands was allotted to us by the State Government in November 2006,” says Gopi. “From the word go, local authorities and some residents have made us feel unwelcome. They wanted us out and dragged us to court, filing as many as 16 cases which were based on flimsy objections and did not stand up in a court of law.” However, due to this resistance, the first concrete step towards constructing a home was taken only in 2008.

The hostility finally broke down and the students of Nethrodaya now feel at home in this neighbourhood. Gopi believes that the exemplary growth of the organisation has brought about a change of heart among the neighbours. “Seeing is believing. When they noticed that we go to colleges and are well-equipped to take care of ourselves, they began to see us in a different light.”

Gopi has been fighting similar battles for a long time. In the past, his proposals for the visually-impaired were often met with scepticism. It was unimaginable that a man with partial vision could carry out the mammoth mission of running a shelter-cum-resource-centre for the visually-impaired. “Being our own ambassadors and going directly to those who can help us have made our requests irresistible. It's more effective than the able-bodied taking up our cause,” explains Gopi. To minimise the reliance on the able-bodied for services such as reading books, Gopi looked at the option of sheltering poor but deserving students with other disabilities and letting them read to the visually-impaired inmates of Nethrodaya. “Out of the 53, 16 are people with other disabilities,” he says.

Gopi admits that he developed his managerial and strategising skills before Nethrodaya was born. Forty-one now, Gopi had worked as an activist and social worker for 11 years before establishing Nethrodaya on October 2, 2002. He was on the warpath for five years, frequently staging sit-ins to draw attention to questions of accessibility and education for the differently-abled. He settled into a life of concerted social work, following a visit to Banyan, a home for destitute women. “It was my father's 16th-day ceremony and I went to Banyan to donate food. Shortly after that, I became one of its staff members. The six years I spent at Banyan was a time of great learning. It was hands-on training in the service of the unfortunate.”

For Gopi, the most valuable lesson from the last 20 years is this: “An organisation that follows best practices does not have to worry about finding benefactors. They will beat a path to its door.”

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