With a plain yet powerful philosophy, M.A. Balasubramanian has galvanised numerous groups and individuals into social action. Prince Frederick meets the founder of Nallor Vattam
Spindly and soft-spoken, M.A. Balasubramanian hardly looks and talks like a man who has dozens of people doing his bidding. However, in a snap of fingers, he can get bands of volunteers to rally around him. He derives this power from a disarming geniality and a rejection of titles.
In Nallor Vattam, a loosely-structured but growing group of volunteers that he formed in 2000, he has not claimed for himself any position of authority. In fact, he has created a team that avoids functioning by the totem pole: it has no president, general secretary, committee members and followers.
“It is not a registered group. It has no funding. No bank balance. Key players in any work are called just organisers: they are not entitled to any special privileges, expect that they are called upon to serve harder,” explains Balasubramanian, as we ease into a conversation about this organisation.
Focused on improving living conditions in neighbourhoods by inculcating the spirit of volunteering in residents, Nallor Vattam facilitates the creation of locality- and street-based units that function along the same principles.
These groups meet once a week. For example, there is one at Oil Monger Street in Triplicane that holds a meeting every Thursday and another at Patel Street in Perumbur, every Sunday.
These hyperlocal units that are offshoots of Nallar Vattam attend to problems in their backyard, driven by the ideal ‘Our Street. Our Responsibility’.
“The goal is to put a panchayat-type system in place, where residents consider themselves accountable for the state of their streets,” says Balasubramanian.
While encouraging its sub-groups to function autonomously, Nallor Vattam however promotes cross-pollination of ideas by encouraging them to attend a joint meeting every Sunday at Kodambakkam, between 4.30 p.m. and 5.30 p.m.
Unification of other social activist groups is another ideal Nallor Vattam always has in its sight. It seems to have succeeded greatly in this objective. “Around 100 service organisations are members of Nallor Vattam. Every last Saturday, representatives of these groups meet,” says Balasubramanian.
The willingness to make common cause with other groups that are guided by the same principles seems to have contributed to the success of a majority of its initiatives.
“One of our major programmes is Athiradhi Sevai, which is all about carrying out a social activity on a war footing. For example, if an area is in dire need of clean-up work, a group of us converge on it on a Sunday and do the job. Sending out messages to volunteers, many of them belonging to other volunteer groups, is all it takes to raise an army of workers for it” says Balasubramanian.
Nallor Vattam’s flexible structure and strict philosophy of money management make it easy for these groups to align themselves with it.
“Nallor Vattam simply means circle of good people: anybody or any group genuinely committed to the goals of nation-building and social service are welcome to work with us. Whenever a work has to be done, the cost is estimated. A few hands go up, offering to meet the expenditure. Only the money required to accomplish the task is collected,” says Balasubramanian.
A good number of groups that work closely with Nallor Vattam were formed in the first place, inspired by its model. “A majority of these groups are largely constituted by youngsters. Their sense of responsibility towards society is incredible. We help them do their social activity in a disciplined and consistent manner: teaching them how to plan and execute the tasks. We also help them document the efforts so that they can track the progress they are making and spot areas where they have to improve,” says the 63-year-old social worker.
The imagination of these youngsters is fired by the fact that Balasubramanian could make an impact, despite his modest background. Until two years ago, he was running a tiffin centre on Sivan Koil Centre at Kodambakkam. “I had decided that after sixty I would engage entirely in social work, letting nothing distract me from it. Two years ago, I left the management of the centre with my children,” he says.
Balasubramanian, who calls himself an agnostic, believes purpose and meaning can be found by appreciating our interconnectedness and building up society.
He says: “Man is a social being. For a fulfilling life, an individual has to lean on society. The dress I work and the house I live in have come from a variety of processes at work in society. The challenge before every individual, irrespective of his station, is to contribute to society in a manner that values this interconnectedness of its members. And he should know that honesty is the greatest virtue. Without honesty, people cannot live together.”