It was manna from heaven for the 63 Irula families leading a harsh life at a scrub jungle, 100km south of Chennai, off the scenic ECR Highway at Thiruporur taluk in Chengalpattu district. The scheduled tribes who are traditional snake catchers are now the proud owners of 63 spanking new 2 BHK houses, 650 sqft each, with domestic appliances and other facilities.
Now with the curtains going up at the Nallammai Ramanathan Kuyilkuppam Nagar, it is not surprising that Irulas worship PDG Abirami Ramanathan, the chief donor, and his wife Nallammai as demigods. They have hung up a framed picture of the Rotarian couple in their living rooms to mark their gratitude.
“For a very long time, I nurtured a big dream to create a new village or township from scratch. My long-felt wish is now fulfilled. We will continue to engage with the Irulas through vocational training to enhance their skills and educate their children, so that there is a complete transformation of their social and economic status,” said PDG Ramanathan, who has donated ₹4 crore as Directed Gift out of ₹8.5 crore of the project cost. The lead club, RC Madras Central, has put in ₹1.8 crore through three global grants, and the balance amount was a mix of contributions from Rotary clubs, Rotarians from RID 3232 and 3231, and private donors.
All the beneficiaries were roped in for creating this new village, thereby helping them to develop their skills in masonry, carpentry, plumbing and household electrical wiring.
— P B Ravikumar, project secretary, RC Madras Central
After each Irula family got a non-transferrable 3.5 cents of patta (title deed) land allotted to it, house construction began in mid-2018. But due to Covid pandemic, “our work was disrupted for two years. All the beneficiaries were roped in for creating this new village, thereby helping them to develop their skills in masonry, carpentry, plumbing and household electrical wiring. This will enable them to secure a livelihood,” recalled P B Ravikumar, project secretary, RC Madras Central. “We have donated 25 milch cows and a cooperative society was formed with Irulas as members. Four Rotarians will advise the cooperative.”
All the four parallel roads made of paver blocks have solar lighting and a sewage network links all the houses ensuring hygiene. Running water is ensured through a giant 5,000-litre overhead tank in the common area, thanks to a CSR grant of ₹10 lakh from Amphenol. Each house has three fans, lights, a fridge, TV, mixie, grinder, gas stove, pressure cooker, a set of cooking vessels, two beds with pillows, and a steel cupboard. The walls have tile guard up to five feet to protect them from stain and defacement.
To maintain the houses and the entire township spread over two sqkm, six Rotary clubs have adopted the 63 families; a Rotary team will visit Kuyilkuppam regularly and will help the Irula children in education, and find gainful work for the beneficiaries, said Ramanathan. Addressing a gathering of Irulas, PDGs and Rotarians, after distributing grocery kits to the new owners of Kuyilkuppam, the chief donor said, “during my early days of giving, I learnt quickly that only through unfettered giving and service one can really make a difference.” Quoting Tamil lyricist Kannadasan, he said, “we are not going to take anything when we leave this world.”
Citing the words of the 16th century French astrologer Nostradamus that ‘only a country surrounded by seas on all its three sides will rule the world’ in the coming decades, Ramanathan exuded confidence that “India will become a superpower soon by overcoming its growth challenges like housing, education and healthcare for all.” He urged the male Irulas to shun liquor and focus on their livelihood issues.
In this Rotary year with ‘create hope in the world’ as its theme, “we have created a new hope in the lives of Irulas who should work hard with intelligence to shape their future,” said Nallammai. She asked them to keep their houses and surroundings clean and hygienic. “The best maintained house will be awarded ₹5,000 by a Rotary team after regular inspections,” she said. “A community hall will be built at this village to train women in vocational skills like tailoring, computer data entry etc.”
PRID A S Venkatesh said that “while Ramanathan has done hundreds of service projects, this Kuyilkuppam project is special to him as he has created this through a joint effort with other Rotarians, for he wanted to share this good deed with others.” What is noteworthy is that the model village has got all the basic amenities like sewage lines and social infrastructure to support the community living of Irulas, he said.
Higher education is the key
There are 3.5 crore homeless citizens in the country, and around 10 lakh are in Tamil Nadu, said VIT University founder-chancellor G Viswanathan. “Every Indian aspires to own a house. To realise their dreams, we need to improve the per capita income of the country which is $2,600 at present and to do this, our economy has to progress which is possible only through higher education,” he said. But in India only 25 per cent of the youth (18–23 years) pursue higher education. the good news is that Tamil Nadu has crossed 50 per cent, “but we still have a long way to go in providing houses to all.”
As against the global benchmark of six per cent of GDP, India is allotting just three per cent of its national wealth for educational growth, he noted. In Vellore, Viswananthan has formed the Universal Higher Education Trust which is sponsoring higher education of poor students over the last 10 years. “So far, 7,000 educational grants were given to students, 50 per cent of them are girls.” Only 10 per cent of 1.45 billion are graduates, “but to remove poverty and ignorance, emphasis must be on higher education,” he added.
Expressing her gratitude to PDG Ramanathan, Latha, an Irula woman, took a pledge that “we will lead a responsible life, educate our children and keep our houses and village clean.” She looked back at her harsh life four years ago when they did menial jobs, “and now we have had a drastic makeover after the intervention of Rotary.”
In 2017, A G D Durairaj from RC Chengalpet took Ramanathan to the project site, then a barren scrub land with scattered mud, palmyra-roofed houses, to fulfil his dream. He had adopted Pulaankurichi village with 950 families in Sivaganga district where he spends ₹50 lakh each year. He has built four Nallammai Ramanathan Hospitals at Thirukazhukundram, Maraimalainagar, Vandavasi and Gudiyatham, besides opening a paediatric ward at the Government Hospital, Chengalpattu.
DGs Ravi Raman (RID 3232) and
P Bharanidharan (RID 3231), Thirporur MLA S S Balaji, rural industries minister T M Anbarasan, sports development minister Udhayanidhi Stalin and Chengalpattu district collector Rahul Nath felicitated Ramanathan and RC Madras Central for the Kuyilkuppam project.
Pictures by V Muthukumaran