Lifting the lives of destitutes

Lifting the lives of destitutes

Alchemy of ideas of three noble persons

Students assemble for prayer at the school.

Dilip Kumar’s parents are farm-hands on daily wages. So is R Deepa, a first generation learner in a North Tamil Nadu village.  Indira’s case is even more poignant. She lost her father at a very young age. The girl has no siblings while her mother works as a domestic help. A look at the background of another bright girl K Meena reveals her father
deserted her family and her mother lives doing domestic chores.

The plight of Meena’s two other classmates – R Purushothaman and S Gomathi - is no better. Both their parents are agriculture daily wage earners and none in their family has any educational qualification to speak of.

But today all these “children of a lesser god” have a new social identity of their own and a purpose to live for. They are on the proud roll of honour of Sevalaya’s ‘Mahakavi Bharathiyar School’, being among its toppers in the Tamil Nadu State Board 10th Grade
Exams this year, all scoring over 470 marks out of a total of 500 marks in the recently held school public exam. Rural India may not be shining, but these destitute, orphaned and poor children from several villages of Thiruvallur district, who would have
otherwise been forced into child labour, now have a self-esteeming passport to hopefully better, decent lives, thanks to ‘Sevalaya’ which runs the school.

“Right from my school days my mind was churned by the ideals of Mahatma Gandhi, Swami Vivekananda and the Tamil Nationalist poet Bharathiyar,” says V Muralidharan, Sevalaya’s founder-trustee, who gave up a lucrative job in TCS to plunge full-time into social and charitable work.

“I picked up one key ideal from each of them – village development from Gandhiji, feeding the hungry from Swami Vivekananda and educate the poor from poet Bharathi - to set up this free Tamil medium school, solely “for orphan, destitute and under-privileged children,” explained Muralidharan on this unique “alchemy of this triumvirate of noble ideas”.

The project took a concrete shape when he first set up the ‘Sevalaya’ Trust in 1988 and then the school in 1991 in Kasuva village, six km from Thirunindravur in Thiruvallur district. In the initial years, Muralidharan, an alumnus of Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, had to keep his high-profile TCS job, “as running a free school needs lots of money”.
As ‘Quality Head’ for the Southern region in TCS, the globe-trotting job also enabled Muralidharan to network with like-minded people abroad to take forward his dream-school project. But “when I completed 25 years in TCS in March 2009, I called it quits and plunged full - time into charitable work,” he said. There is cause for immense joy as ‘Sevalaya’ boys and girls have this year also secured 100 per cent passes in both Tenth and ‘Plus Two’ examinations.

And in the recent past, quite a number of ‘Sevalaya’ students also managed to get into Anna University engineering courses, some of whom have taken up jobs even abroad, Muralidharan told Deccan Herald with quiet pride.

When ‘Sevalaya’ was started, children of school-going age in other nearby villages were kids of either agriculture workers or of ‘bonded labourers’ in brick-kilns for which Thiruvallur district is known for.

Despite lack of any Government support, this school enrolled all these children charging no fee at all. It even runs an orphanage and gives noon-meal for 150-200 poor students. “Everybody comes to our school now and there is no child labour in 20 surrounding villages,” adds Muralidharan. Now, nearly 1,300 children are enrolled into it in all classes put together.

How has ‘Sevalaya’ made a real difference in social engineering, when state education authorities are struggling to define a “neighbourhood” for any school under the Centre’s ‘Right To Compulsory Education (RTE) Act’ to include kids in the age-group of 6 to 14 years as mandated under the Act?

In fact, though the highly progressive RTE Act is in place, several states, including Tamil Nadu, are yet to notify the ‘state-specific rules’ to enable the Central Act’s implementation in all its details. This shortcoming was brought to light by Aruna Rathnam,
education specialist with UNICEF in Tamil Nadu, at a recent roundtable on ‘Will Right to Education

Become a Reality?’

Even before the RTE became a reality, fired by an ethical ideal that “underprivileged children can do well in school and come up in life if they get the same type of facilities as other children get,” Muralidharan discovered that ‘neighbourhood’ with a band of
dedicated teachers. There are very few such free private schools for abandoned children in Tamil Nadu, says Muarlidharan. His model has triggered a social dynamics of its own in Thiruvallur district, more by the example it sets than by words.

‘Sevalaya’ has proved the great American Educationist, John Dewy right that a “school is fundamentally an institution to exercise a certain function in maintaining life and advancing the welfare of society.” ‘Sevalaya’ needs more help from civil society. (Those  wishing to support this children’s education programme may contact its founder at ‘sevalayamurali­@gmail.com’.)

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