Friday, 9 August 2019

The People at the Heart of Change in Tamil Nadu

Tamil Nadu is a Southern Indian state of phenomenal natural beauty and vibrant cultural heritage. From the bustling mega-city of Chennai, where the land meets the turquoise sea of the Bay of Bengal, to the rolling hills that give way to rural in-land villages, you will find people who are welcoming, friendly, and living colourful and interesting lives even in sometimes difficult circumstances.

Me with some of the students at St Antony's.

But Tamil Nadu is also a state that faces many significant challenges. Successive dry monsoon seasons have resulted in a serious drought that has led Chennai, the state’s largest city, to run out of water. The city’s 10 million inhabitants are now dependant on government deliveries of water from neighbouring areas, but across the state the water crisis is deepening, and rural, more sparsely populated areas should not expect the same government response to their need. Widespread corruption and mismanagement, both at the state and national levels, has left vast swathes of Tamil Nadu with little faith that they can count on any support as they struggle to find clean drinking and bathing water, or grow crops and feed livestock, on their parched land. Whilst the state’s economy is rapidly growing, this is at an uneven rate and inequality is rising, leaving many – particularly those in rural areas – behind.

One of Chennai's four main reservoirs - completely drained of water due to several weak monsoon seasons. Photo credit: The Independent.

As the environmental crisis unfolds across the state, community leaders are standing up to educate and advocate for those individuals that the system has forgotten. Ordinary people are making real change at the ground level every day, and through my role as a trustee of The Kanji Project, I was fortunate enough to meet some of these community leaders over the last two weeks as we celebrated the 25th anniversary of St Antony’s Matriculation School. Founded in 1994 by Maria Rayappan and now run by her nephew Lourdusamy Michael, the school has grown from a two-room building with 3 teachers and 40 students to a campus that now educates over 1,500 students from surrounding villages and employs over 100 local people as teachers, drivers, cooks, groundskeepers, and more. St Antony’s Foundlings (SAF), the charity responsible for the school and for Shanti Lumin Children’s Home, run by Maria and now home to 40 girls, many of whom are orphaned, also provides meals to local villagers who are unable to support themselves, and has taken its mission to educate outside of the school walls and into the streets.

Through St Antony’s Eco Club, over 100 students have planted more than 1,500 trees in the school grounds and in their villages, as well as engaging in recycling education campaigns and taking part in marches to teach local people about water preservation. Following Cyclone Gaja, which tore through southern Tamil Nadu last year, Lourdusamy used his local and school connections to provide immediate humanitarian relief to the worst-affected villages, driving five hours to deliver food and shelter to those that had lost everything. This was viewed not just as a charitable act for those caught in the storm, but an educational opportunity for the students at St Antony’s who saw several of their teachers heading off to help in any way they could, and who helped to stock the relief vehicle. Alongside their usual English, maths, science, and other lessons, the values of compassion and collective action are being instilled in these remarkable students.

Planting trees is one of the best ways to combat the looming climate emergency that grips Tamil Nadu (and many other areas worldwide)

Down the road in Pudupalayam, another village in Thiruvannaamalai district, about 12km from Kanji, stands the campus of Idhaya College, an all-girls university run by the Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (known colloquially as the Rose Sisters). The Rose Sisters also operate the Sunshine Special School from this campus, supported by The Kanji Project. Providing day care and education to 16 physically and mentally disabled children, the Special School gives its students a chance to grow and to develop, learning not just Tamil but English, as well as learning creative activities and skills that will set them up for regular schooling and to cope with life as they grow up. This support for disabled people from the Sisters extends to the surrounding villages, where they advocate for disability rights, aid individuals in achieving government grants for support, and setting up cooperatives to increase community awareness and connectedness.

This theme of empowerment runs through all of the Rose Sisters’ work, particular through their children’s and youth parliaments, where they organise children and young people from the villages to discuss and act on issues affecting them. As with St Antony’s, tackling the environmental crisis and severe water shortage is of key importance, with children learning about the issues and then advocating in their communities for water preservation, appropriate waste disposal and recycling. The young people also lobby local government to make changes to support their neighbours and friends. In addition to this, the Rose Sisters have set up women’s cooperatives and groups to help vulnerable women to manage finance and learn skills that can make them less financially dependant on men, giving greater opportunities to escape abusive relationships and to survive alone in a culture in which it is in many ways still very difficult to be a woman.

Some of the young people from The Rose Sisters' Children's Parliaments

St Antony’s Foundlings and the Rose Sisters are making real change every single day, with very little resources and with very little outside support. We at the Kanji Project, and our partners in Enfants de Kanji in France, provide what we can to keep these programmes running, but with what is frankly very minimal financial backing, these amazing individuals are not only educating young people and advocating for those who need support, but they are changing the lives of thousands of people across the district.

Every student that attends St Antony’s or participates in the village children’s parliaments, every girl that gets a second chance at Shanti Lumin, and every disabled child at the Sunshine School and adult supported by the Rose Sisters is exposed to new possibilities and a brighter future thanks to a handful of inspirational, humble, and hardworking people.

Community-led projects like these are not just helping young and disadvantaged people. They are building the future. Life in Tamil Nadu has its challenges, and some of them are significant. Not least the environmental degradation, water shortages, government corruption and widespread poverty are all serious obstacles for the people of Thiruvannaamalai district to overcome, but with SAF and the Rose Sisters leading the charge to build a new generation of environmentally conscious, politically aware and compassionate citizens and community leaders, the future of the villages looks bright.

I was extremely fortunate to see first-hand the immeasurable impact that just one or two dedicated people can have on an entire community.

To Lourdusamy, Maria, all of the teachers and staff at St Antony’s and Shanti Lumin, the Rose Sisters and their supporting staff at the Sunshine School and in the villages, and to every single student and community member that welcomed me into their neighbourhoods and homes and told me their stories, I want to say thank you.

Henna drawings on the kindergarten children at St Antony's

It is tempting to see the current state of the world and think that positive change is impossible. What difference can one person really make? But one person can inspire many others, and with a little support that inspiration can build a community, and that community can build a movement. And that movement can change lives, change neighbourhoods, and eventually can change the world.

It was an honour to spend time with such incredible and dedicated people. It doesn’t take a million pounds to make a real difference. It takes compassion, it takes time, and it takes humanity.

This short introduction to my experience in Kanji cannot even scratch the surface of the amazing work being done by our fantastic partners in India. They are truly inspirational. We at The Kanji Project are just a tiny cog in the machine that truly changes lives across Tamil Nadu and is driven by local people working in very difficult circumstances. We want to be able to continue to support their projects as best we can, and for that we need your help. Please check out our website, follow us on Facebookspread the word and if you can spare anything at all view our donations page (94% of all donations go directly to the projects supported in India). Thank you.

1 comment:

  1. Inspiring stuff. There is good in the world after all