Life & Style

An accidental crusader

MAKING A DIFFERENCE: Nimmu Vasanth with children Photo: M. Karunakaran

MAKING A DIFFERENCE: Nimmu Vasanth with children Photo: M. Karunakaran  

How the closure of a school changed the life of software consultant Nimmu Vasanth.

It is not everyday you wake up to realise that the future of 200 school children lies entirely in your hands. Even more atypical to respond by throwing open the doors of your home to them, abandoning your work to assist in their cause.

Nimmu Vasanth was never a social worker. She was an engineer, and ran a software consultancy firm of her own. One sunny morning in 1995, she heard that a school nearby was being closed down for want of space – she distractedly wondered where they would go. But by evening, the school teachers had approached her, asking for her help. Nimmu called everyone she knew, and knocked on several doors; but no one was ready to help.

“So one day, I woke up, and decided to take it over,” Nimmu said. “I have no idea why – I had neither the finances nor the time for it, but I couldn’t let these children lose their one chance at an education.” She gave them the only space she had – her own small house, where she lived with her husband and two children. But her house wasn’t big enough to accommodate more than 50 children, so her maid offered them the terrace of her house as well. “Every day, promptly at 8.30 a.m., these children would arrive, all washed and dressed for their day at school,” she smiles.

Nimmu also founded FICAS ( Foundation for Innovative CASe work On Education Economy & Environment) that year. Nine months later, the Slum Clearance Board allotted land for the school in the Kotturpuram slum, since most of the students lived there. But the years that followed were constant legal and land battles for Nimmu and FICAS. The land given to the school was constantly under threat, and they were forced to move several times; once, even to a garbage-dump yard, heaped with 15 tonnes of unsegregated waste. But the children kept coming, their attendance almost 100 per cent, dispelling myths about early dropouts from underprivileged families. “In two cases, we rehabilitated the children in homes, because there was too much domestic violence.”

In July 2004, the Kumbakonam incident occurred, in which more than 90 children died in a fire that consumed a school building. “The government issued an order that all unrecognised schools must be closed by September, and the media had a field day. They started calling them ‘illegal schools’; that day, knowledge became illegal,” she said.

In August, FICAS conducted a state-wide conference on non-formal education and its benefits, beseeching the government not to close the schools, since more than 25 lakh students were studying in different streams of informal education in the state. “We started getting calls from all over the country, about people running schools for children in places where other institutions were to far away, unaffordable, or inefficient. The school became a representative for the entire country.”

By this time, Nimmu had started to argue the cases on her own, because they couldn’t afford a lawyer. They succeeded in keeping the building, which had been re-christened the Vidya Nivas School.

Students from Vidya Nivas were usually rank holders in their new schools. This helped build momentum for the move towards accepting non-formal education. But in 2006, in blatant violation of court orders, bulldozers razed the newly-renovated school building to the ground. But classes have gone on, in a strip of land on the garbage dump they cleared.

“Any one who wishes get an education, whether it’s under a tree, on the beach or in an air-conditioned classroom, should be entitled to it. You cannot put learning in a closed room,” she said.

For the last two years, Nimmu has been conducting workshops for corporates as fundraising programs. “This has been my way of establishing a connection between businesspeople and the underprivileged.” On December 4, the first edition of their latest symposium, ‘Smart Rungs’, will be underway. The proceeds of this symposium will be channelised to FICAS.

“What started in a single-room school in Kotturpuram has transformed into a nation-wide movement to spread informal education,” she said. Her final commitment is simple. “I plan to restart my consultancy firm - because I plan to spend every penny I earn for this cause. When people wish to support us, let them. But I will not wait around for it.”

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Printable version | Feb 25, 2020 3:12:52 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/An-accidental-crusader/article16895048.ece

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