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Rural reconstruction - The Gandhian way

On the occasion of Martyr's Day, SOMA BASU visits the Gandhi Niketan Ashram at Kallupatti, near Madurai, to find people who work at keeping the Mahatma's ideals alive.

Belief in the dignity of labour... students work on the campus.

THERE is always something magical in the ordinary. An ordinary place marked by its striking simplicity and quietness, ordinary people helping in nation building or an ordinary man touching peoples' lives with his words and actions. All these have combined to become an extraordinary force transforming a small place called Kallupatti.

Tucked away in southwestern pocket of Madurai district in Tamil Nadu, it is a corner hardly seen on the country's map. But it is "another India"— perhaps the real India worthy of tribute.

The approach road, an offshoot from NH 208, throws up fleeting images till the sound of juvenile recitations breaks the thought process. Welcome to the Gandhi Niketan Ashram (GNA), one of the few functioning Gandhian institutions today.

The sprawling 45-acre campus is brimming with activity. About 3,500 students are attending school. The Institute of Rural Technology and Development (IRTD) works to rejuvenate rural economy. Under the shade of neem and sapota trees, silence descends on two revered spots. The Gandhi Mandapam and a quaint little cottage-cum-library, which was home to Dr. J.C. Kumarappa, Gandhian, economist and a pioneer in contemporary environmental movement from 1956 to 1960.

Soon an unbelievable sight unfurls. The campus with vast open space is full of uniformed children in green and white khadi. Sporting brooms, mugs and buckets of water, they are everywhere — watering plants, cleaning the playground, sweeping classrooms, verandahs, staffroom, hostel, garden, toilets. This is no stunt. There are no raised brows, only giggles making work fun.

"This is not a preparation for any function but a routine affair," says English teacher P. Thilagavathi. "We practise dignity of labour here. The 1,500 primary school day scholars and 2,000 higher secondary students, including the hostellers, come an hour before the school starts at 8-30 a.m. and clean the premises daily. The school authorities have not appointed anyone for this."

Soma Basu

This school accords priority to the poorest and academically weak children from 40-odd surrounding villages and does not charge any fee or donation. No student is detained. The curriculum focuses, not on examinations, but on building traits like honesty and confidence. Students write their exams in the absence of invigilators. Private tuitions are not allowed and slow learners are encouraged to come up instead of being condemned. Children of various castes rub shoulders here and are taught to take on life with a tangible passion.

People like Thilagavathi happily travel 80 km daily. Her commitment has not waned in 25 years. "The place beckoned me from the day I first came for an interview. I was impressed that not a panel but students selected the teachers. Everybody is very courteous and respectful and always treats one another like family."

The ashram's core activity is imparting good value education system and technical training for rural reconstruction. The villagers — who are on a self-reliant mode here — credit the ashram with enriching their lives. But the GNA Secretary of 12 years, Dr. D. Paulraj is modest: "It is possible only when people participate actively."

In his opinion, poverty has not been eradicated and poverty alleviation measures have not worked due to lack of peoples' involvement." The septuagenarian Gandhian demonstrates how Gandhiji's ideas of village renewal can work and how people can become self-reliant. It is a lesson in "reconstruction of civilised rural living."

Dr. Paulraj, whose association with GNA spans five decades, has also served as the Headmaster of the school for 34 years. He did not have any personal interaction with either Gandhiji or Dr. Kumarappa but is a follower of both. Preoccupied with khadi, naturopathy, education as a tool for social change and the philosophy of sarvodaya way of life, he carefully nurtures the ashram with grand aspirations and concrete plans.

Dr. Paulraj was the recipient of the State Award for Best Teacher in 1975 followed by the National Award in 1988 and has also won the prestigious Dr. Jamnalal Bajaj Award for Outstanding Work in Rural Area.

Dr. PAulraj... grand aspirations and concrete plans.

"The ashram has pulled so many of us out of abject poverty," says 40-year-old Rajeswari. She, like 500 other women, is employed at one of the 14 textool centres run by the ashram at Kallupatti, Kalligudi and Sedapatti. Another 200 weaver families also invigorated their dying economy through jobs at these centres, which collectively produce Rs.80 lakhs worth khadi every year.

Success takes many forms at GNA. In comparison to one Government-run and two private schools in the town panchayat of Kallupatti, the GNA students score top ranks in State Board examinations every year. On an average, 30 students get seats in medical and engineering colleges but many dedicate themselves to the ashram.

"There is an indefinable attraction to this place," says Bhima Raja, the ashram's Rector. A native of Kallupatti, he did his schooling at GNA and joined the ashram's central godown as an assistant in 1976. Like him, there is many an alumnus working as true votaries of Gandhiji.

The GNA was established in 1940 by another disciple of Gandhiji, G. Venkatachalapathy. Initially it was where hundreds of freedom fighters were trained to take part in the independence movement following Gandhiji's basic tenets and principles of Satyagraha and non-violence. The school was started immediately after independence, while the IRTD named after Dr. Kumarappa came up in 1956.

According to the Principal, R. Rajendran, the IRTD furthers the Khadi Village Industries Commission (KVIC) motto of providing desirable and appropriate knowledge and skills to offer wage earning or self-employment opportunities with low capital investment in rural areas and acting as bulwark against migration to cities. Training is offered in a host of areas like designing and weaving, bee keeping, leather tanning and goods manufacturing, soap making, paper conversion, book binding, pottery and servicing of electrical appliances and electronic items.

A four-tier funding makes the GNA "financially sound". The State Government meets the staff salary of about Rs.8,00,000. The National Council of Rural Institutions provides Rs.40,00,000 every three years for the multidisciplinary training programmes. The KVIC allots Rs.17,00,000 annually for producing saleable articles under the khadi fold. The ashram generates two crore rupees a year from its produce.

Besides running and maintaining the various activities undertaken by the ashram, Dr. Paulraj steadfastly focuses on giving "high standard of education" to his students. Since most village children are first generation learners, he feels that the uniform syllabus of the State is a "major deficiency in the education system and also the main reason for high drop-out rate because the subject content is in no way related to actual life situation of these children."

The ashram trains uneducated and unemployed youths for entrepreneurship programmes in 23 disciplines. "We give them stipend during the training programme and also provide the initial fund to start a business. This way the under-privileged rural youth is constructively engaged," says Dr. Paulraj. In the event of a social or communal flare-up, the ashram inmates undertake padayatras and initiate people into the peace process through dialogue. "Solution to all problems is found only in the Gandhian way," he asserts.

Yet, this Gandhian is worried about the glut in khadi industry. He laments the industry's inability to provide a market for its produce. With declining purchasing power, a big company's discounted price of Rs.150 for a shirt is a sure buy as against a khadi shirt worth Rs.300.

Only diehard heirs and disciples — like this small community of Gandhians — can afford not to be bogged down by failures and continue to derive pleasure from the work they do. The GNA at Kallupatti continues its silent work leaving posterity to judge. Away from media blitzkrieg or political trappings, those living, working and studying in GNA believe and practise "simple living and high thinking". Hope the ashram and its mission become a model for replication across the country.

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