An able service to the disabled

His day begins at 3 a.m.

After going through important files for the next couple of hours, Sethu Ramachandran takes a brisk walk on his sprawling campus on the New Natham Road. After flipping through half-a-dozen newspapers, he is ready for the day's schedule, which is usually a series of meeting or inspections.

Born in a humble peasant family in Thanjavur district, he joined Government service in 1969. These 33 years in various departments helped him develop management skills and know the nuances of administration, which he is applying now as the Collector of Madurai district.

He made Madurai the "best disabled friendly district" in the country for which the Chief Minister, Jayalalithaa, honoured him at the Collectors' conference in Chennai recently. Amid his busy schedule, Mr. Ramachandran spoke to S. Vijay Kumar on how the district set exemplary standards in rehabilitating the physically challenged.

CARE FOR the disabled was redefined after Mr. Ramachandran took over the reins of the district administration in 2001. There was a steep rise in the number of wandering lunatics following the Erwadi tragedy. The worst-hit were the mentally unsound women who were deserted by their kin and left on the roads to the mercy of anti-social elements.

The Collector identified a shelter for such abandoned women and entrusted the task of rehabilitating them to the M.S. Chellamuthu Trust and Research Foundation, a pioneer in psycho-social rehabilitation in the southern districts. Around 30 mentally challenged women were handed over to the trust, which put them under vocational training.

Interestingly, these women now make `agarbathis', soft toys, soaps etc and the Collector has provided a shop on the Collectorate campus, first of its kind in the State, to enable them to sell the products.

Setting aside his individual interests and contribution, Mr. Ramachandran attributes the achievement to the team work put in by all officials and others involved in rehabilitation work. On his initiative, the District Mental Health Committee was formed during September to ensure that the victims were given basic amenities and proper treatment at the health centres.

As the Ex-officio Chairman of the District Disability Rehabilitation Centre (DDRC), a service model for the mentally ill, he drafted a plan of action to cover the entire disabled population in Madurai by way of conducting census in every habitat. This helped the DDRC to make an early intervention and provide economic rehabilitation. Besides training a team of fifty doctors, counselling was also done to the parents and kin of the disabled persons.

Hundreds of physically handicapped persons have been provided with appliances, designed and manufactured by the DDRC at its Villapuram workshop. "The idea is to eradicate the social stigma attached to disability and help out the disabled from being a liability to their families. We have to involve the victims in income generating activities and merge them with the mainstream of the nation's workforce," he says.

In a novel move, Mr. Ramachandran convened a meeting of industrialists and put across his view that every employer should recruit at least one disabled person in his/her organisation. A local sub-group led by the Centre for Entrepreneurship Development Member-Secretary, R. Jayaraman, was formed with representatives from the District Rehabilitation Office, TVS Srichakra and the M.S. Chellamuthu Trust and Research Foundation. This group has been entrusted with the task of preparing a list of available vacancies in the private sector and then identify qualified disabled persons matching the requirements of the employers. "Disability is no more a taboo and the people should come forward to extend a helping hand in rehabilitating the physically challenged persons," he says.

During the last four years, there has not been a single case of polio reported in Madurai. The pulse polio immunisation programme received the maximum attention of the officials who ensured that the drops reached every corner of the district. An awareness was created among the rural masses through multi-media campaign.

In order to enable the participation of the disabled persons, the public grievance day is being conducted at the ground floor of the Collectorate. A ramp would soon be constructed to make it convenient for them to reach the meeting hall. The DDRC is working on a 12-point programme to bring about a revolution in rehabilitating the disabled by rendering quality service, free of cost.

For having streered Madurai to receive the national award for the best district in India in providing rehabilitation services to the disabled, the State Government bestowed a rare honour on Mr. Ramachandran. He received a gold medal, a cash award of Rs. 25,000 and a citation in appreciation of his outstanding and commendable service from the Chief Minister.