This is no child's play

Place the degrees acquired end-to-end, and they stretch longer than his name. A B.Sc in Botany, B. Ed, M.Ed, M.A in Social Work, MA in Psychology, M. Phil, MBA, BL and a Ph.D.

His typical day is crammed with teaching (social work students), guiding (Ph.D. scholars), and fighting (for the rights of underprivileged children).

"His birthday is on Labour Day, even that's a sign of his pro-poor focus," says a student.

On some days, Prof. K. Shanmugavelayutham disappears behind piles of papers and files on his desk. Dhanya Parthasarathy steps into the staffroom at the Loyola College for an interview.

"THE KUMBAKONAM fire tragedy is only a symptom," he says discussing the burning issue in Tamil Nadu.

"For the last 20 years, the Government has neglected the education sector - in terms of number of teachers, regular inspections, infrastructure and financial allocation."

He pulls out a report from one of the files staked precariously in his room.

"This is a statistics from the 2003- S.V. Chitti Babu report on matriculation schools in the State."

"More than 65 per cent schools are built on less than one acre of land. Only 43 per cent of schools have pucca buildings.

Most don't have libraries and a majority of them have playgrounds less than 1,000 sq. ft. Where's the space for a child to play?"

He's on to his second term as the convenor of TN-FORCES (Forum for Creche and Child Care Services in Tamil Nadu), a network of more than 100 organisations committed to working for women and children in the unorganised sector.

As Forum for Creche and Child Care Services in Tamil Nadu's convener, Prof. Shanmugavelayutham has in mind the interests of the "most vulnerable, voiceless group that doesn't have voting rights" - children below six years.

(He's one of five Indians going to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child in September.)

"In developed countries, the thrust is on early childhood education. Here in India we neglect early education and wake up only when the child is older."

"But that's too late. Eighty per cent of brain development happens below the age of six," he says.

And his work starts right from canvassing for maternity leave for construction workers, to making posters on the importance of breast milk and getting child-friendly toilets built in anganwadis.

Now he's looking for involvement of people from one more quarter - the community.

"Take a place like Nungambakkam, for instance. The community must feel a sense of ownership for its anganwadis. The mothers of the babies could be part of a group. They can monitor the place, see what it needs, maybe a mat for the children, or plates to eat. Or just help out by sweeping the place," he says.

He points a finger at the Government for creating "a dependency syndrome".

People think whatever comes from the Government is free without feeling part of it.

"But true empowerment comes only with participation," he says.

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