Developing a green cover is just one of the outdoor activities of Sigaram Foundation, started by Vishwanathan at Pappampatty, his home town, in 2004. Educating the rural poor is his main focus. He gives free tuitions for students from class I to XII, besides computer training and career guidance.
A 15-member club made up initially of people from neighbouring villages such as Peedampalli, Nadupalayam and Edayarpalayam, Sigaram is today a 5,000-member strong foundation, spread across Tamil Nadu and Puducherry. The core team includes K. Sampath Kumar (President), V. Rajendran (Vice-President) and A. Rajan (Secretary). They have a minimum of 10 volunteers in every village, and a co-ordinator for every block.
Vishwanathan and his brother Rajendran studied at the PSG Sarvajana School Maanavar Illam orphanage. “Our teacher Srinivasan sir was our guide. We want to provide guidance to other poor children in villages,” he says. Sigaram joined hands with VOYCE (Voice of Youth for Clean Environment), founded in 2006 by R. Chakravarthy. It creates awareness on a clean and green environment and promotes patriotism. “We have over 10,000 members in Voyce,” says Vishwanathan, who is its international co-ordinator.
Sundays are for cleaning up. They choose an area in the village, for example a library or a school, sweep and mop up the place, remove plastics, weeds and make the surroundings spic and span. During the week, they talk to students in colleges and schools on environment, road safety, and global warming. “There’s no point in discussing global warming in AC rooms. Every student has to plant a tree, avoid plastics and actively prevent global warming. We are the ‘Seyal Veerargal’ who can bring about the change,” says Vishwanathan. They also screen short films and documentaries. Sigaram enrols new members on SMS. A student who is willing can type ‘Yes’ with his name and address to 09894544778. “We build our database with specific area codes. Every member gets an SMS update on a proposed activity. Students from Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and from some states in the North, who enrol with us, go back and implement the ideas in their villages. We have over 75,000 volunteers across India.”
Speaking of education, Vishwanathan rues how it is not a priority in many rural homes as most parents work as daily labourers. In Pappampatty alone, about 500 families are into sheep rearing. Most children study till class V, after which they are given away on sheep rearing contracts, he says. “We went individually to every home and spoke to the parents on educating their children. In the last three years, 14 dropouts have now joined regular schooling,” says Vishwanathan says with pride. They tell the students about government education schemes, educational loans, and scholarships, and motivate them to go for higher studies. “We also act as a catalyst, a connecting bridge between students and sponsors,” says Rajendran. As a result, more than 100 students from Pappampatty, Peedampalli, Nadupalayam, Idayarpalayam, Kallapalayam and Chinnakuyilai, have enrolled in bio-technology, engineering and aeronautical studies. “Some of the students are the first in the family to enter a college,” says Vishwanathan. He explains how they tell these students, “We support you, make sure you support another needy student.” And many of them volunteer to give free tuitions.
Pillars of strength
Sigaram, he says, is taking baby steps towards a better tomorrow. “Our capital is the youth. They are the change makers, our pillars of strength. We ask them first to plant a sapling on their birthday. Then, we tell them how there is food shortage as so much of the agricultural lands have been turned into real estate’. ‘Be the change you want to see’ is our mantra.”
“A creative approach to education is the key,” observes Sampath Kumar. “It shouldn’t be driven by textbooks. Education should develop a child holistically,” he adds. It is sad that parents no longer talk to children about patriotism and human values. “Sometimes I recite simple ditties. For example, on plastic litter… ‘ Use and throw, adhukku thaan intha theruvo ?’ I ask,” says Sampath. Rajan wants the children to raise their voice against corruption and bribery. “I won a legal case without paying any bribe. I share my story with students.”
All the members are self-employed, and they run Sigaram with their money. They want to nurture the youth. Sampath Kumar sums it up nicely: “ Veetukku oru maram valarppom…veetukku oru manidharai Valarppom ”
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Our capital is the youth. They are the change makers, our pillars of strength. We want to see them at libraries, not at TASMAC shops and hospitals. Youth are the heartbeat of India