Using education for empowerment

Class in progress at the Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose Residential School in Karai village.

Class in progress at the Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose Residential School in Karai village. | Photo Credit: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

A narrow winding road from the Perambalur-Tiruchi highway leads to Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose ‘Undu Uraividapalli’ (residential school), in Malaiyappa Nagar, Karai village. This is an institution that has been educating children of the Narikurvar community since 1996. An English exam is in progress, and children are seated on the ground, heads bent in concentration.

“We have 52 boys and 48 girls drawn from the 120 Narikuravar families in this area, who study from Class 1 to 8 here. At least 45 of our alumni have become graduates; if the parents had been more enthusiastic, perhaps we could have had over a thousand of them by now,” Karai R. Subramanian, the community activist and entrepreneur who runs the free school, told The Hindu.

Getting children to attend school has been an uphill journey. “Parents do not want to pay fees. They also don’t see the need for modern education, and it is hard to convince the children when they get no encouragement from their parents. You send them for a four-day holiday break, and they will come back after a month,” said Mr. Subramanian. All the students are first-generation learners, not just in class, but also in other matters, such as toilet training and personal hygiene. “We had to teach them how to use the toilet and take care of their personal grooming because they had no exposure to these concepts before,” said an educator. The Narikuravars speak to each other in their native ‘Vaagri Booli’, an unclassified Indo-Aryan language. “As we get more modernised, our children are forgetting Vaagri Booli, and require Tamil translation to understand their mother tongue. I always advise our community folks to keep in touch with ‘Vaagri Booli,’” said Mr. Subramanian.

Mr. Subramanian, 50, was among the many Narikuravars who were settled in Karai by the government in 1954. “Like most men in our community, my father was a hunter, and we led a peripatetic life, moving from spot to spot. When hunting was banned after Independence, we had to look for new ways to make a living,” he said.

Mr. Subramanian took the advice of his friends and became a travelling salesman of religious artefacts in Singapore in the 1990s. “I would buy bead chains for ₹20,000 and earn over a lakh of rupees by selling them in Singapore. I took up export orders with my friends and made good money,” he said.

But it took a stint in jail to set him in an entirely new direction. “I participated in a march from Kanyakumari to Chennai in 1993 to demand the Scheduled Tribe (ST) status for our community, when a bunch of us were arrested and sent to jail. After being abused by friend and foe alike, I realised that education alone could help us to improve our lot,” said Mr. Subramanian, who decided to invest his savings in his school projects.

Before he shifted to Karai, he ran a small boarding facility for Narikuravar children in Siruvachur village. The school building in the Karai campus was built at a cost of ₹9 lakh with the aid of the Tiruchi district chapter of Sri Sathya Sai Seva Organisations Tamil Nadu from 2017 to 2019. It has four classrooms on the ground floor that also double up as the boys’ dormitories, and a girls’ hostel on the first floor.

All of Mr. Subramanian’s five children are college graduates. But there is a new challenge that he faces as an activist: getting educated Narikuravars jobs. “There have been numerous efforts to get our community the status of a scheduled tribe; each time, the political process is set in motion, there is very little progress on the ground. And now, when our children cannot find jobs, it seems we are back where we started,” he said.

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Printable version | Jul 5, 2022 3:18:15 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/Tiruchirapalli/using-education-for-empowerment/article65407544.ece