Imagine a group of Assamese children, who have little to eat and hence end up consuming 10 kg of betel nut a day to satisfy their hunger pangs. Not because they love betel nut or are addicted to it, but because heaps of these nuts are available at their doorstep, with their mothers shelling this commodity as part of their daily work in a village — Thenamannalur, about 21 km from Coimbatore.
These children belong to three or four groups of families that migrated from Assam in search of a livelihood. They were brought by agents to work for affluent landlords who own large farms growing betel nut. Thanks to the interest and intervention of RC Coimbatore Aakruthi, D 3201, and passionate help from one of its members Dr Meera Krishnan, many of these children are now getting better nutrition, healthcare and education in the local anganwadi and at the Government PRG Middle School.
I visit the PRG School and find a group of 5–6-year-old Assamese children recite a variety of rhymes in Tamil. “The children are taught English, Tamil and Math,” says Vatsala, a volunteer-teacher and RCC (Rotary Community Corps) member.
Zarina Iqbal, club president (2014–15) leads me into a migrants’ colony, where Halima and Reema, along with other women, are busy shelling
betel nuts, talking rapidly in Hindi and an Assamese dialect. An infant sleeps blissfully in a make-shift hammock hung from a wooden beam of the verandah and few young children, in dirty clothes and unkempt hair, play hopscotch outside. Initially shy, the women tell me they make about Rs 114 for shelling a quintal of betel nuts and collectively do about 50 kg a day. When I ask if that isn’t too less, Reema quickly says, “It is like working abroad. Back home, we’d earn only Rs 60–70 for similar hours of work.”
The women hesitate to speak as their employers have cautioned them against doing so. These Assamese groups are bound by a contract for a period for a meagre sum fixed by these agents. They are housed in these colonies during their contract period.
This club has formed RCCs in these villages to take care of the people’s welfare. The 40 women of RCC Kadambam is engaged in enrolling the children in the local schools/balwadis, educating the women on health and hygiene and giving them basic education to help them read and write and perform simple arithmetic. They are the bridge between the club and the villagers.
Zarina promises to bring new clothes for the women for Ramzan, but warns, “If you start chewing betel nut again, I shall not visit you.” Last year, she and her team succeeded in weaning these women from this unhealthy habit and conducted several dental camps to clean betel nut stains from their teeth. “They chew it to ward off hunger,” she explains. The Rotarians have provided toys and dresses for the children; vitamin supplements for the families, renovated balwadis and provided mats, books and play material. “We club our village visits with a picnic to get all members excited about the trip.”
She gives credit to Dr Meera Krishnan for a majority of welfare activities performed under this ‘Happy Villages’ project. An unassuming, generous and passionate social worker with a number of awards to her credit, including one from the National Commission for Women, gynaecologist Meera puts her medical education to good use.
She helped in conducting health screening for the children. “Thanks to the intake of so much of betel nut, we found their teeth stained, and first gave them a large quantity of toothbrushes and taught them how to brush their teeth. Later we found that their teeth is stained by the betel nut,” says Zarina. They also suffered from severe anaemia thanks to this diet.
What amazed the Rotarians was that once some of the children, who were just wasting their time at home, were put into the balwadis or the PRG School, they started learning very fast. “Within months they were speaking fluent Tamil,” says Zarina. And the midday meal at the anganwadi and school has improved their nutrition level and is perhaps the reason that one of the children, a girl, has started topping the class.
She added that when the Rotarians first visited this village, they found many of the children naked. “We were told that as they had only one set of clothes, they had to wait for that washed set to dry. So we gave them more clothes.” But the overall hygiene of these migrants is rather pathetic. As most of them are Muslim, Zarina, a devout Muslim herself, chided them for not performing regular namaz and “they told me that they did not have enough water to perform wuzu, but I told them this was not an excuse.”
Though they’d like to help these migrants much more, the problem is that “many of our members say that if we put up something permanent like toilets, we can’t be sure they will not migrate somewhere else,” she adds. But in the meantime, they are happy that “we are at least doing something good for the children. With better education and health, they will have a much better future than their parents.”
She is also toying with the idea of putting up some of the girls in Madrasas; “in Combatore we have some good Madrasas which will take care of these girls, educate them and get them married. Some of the parents are ready for this, but it is a huge responsibility so we will have to discuss this further.” adds Zarina.
She is open to the idea of this service being expanded with the involvement of more clubs, and gives credit to IPDG Venugopal Menon for “encouraging us all the time and mentioning our work at various platforms.”
Welfare in other villages
This all-women Rotary club (29 members) is involved in a variety of development activities in two Panchayats — Thennamanallur and Boluvampatti — with 14,000 population, comprising 14 villages. Building toilets for homes and schools, organising periodic medical camps and equipping schools with infrastructure are few of the activities undertaken by the club.
Dr Meera visits ailing villagers and provides treatment at their door. We visit the hut of Govindraj, who used to pluck coconuts but is now bedridden after a fall. Meera tends to his bedsores, gives him an injection and medicines, explaining to his wife how to administer them. The club has given him a wheel chair and constructed a ramp in front of his home to facilitate his movement. The kind doctor immunises the village children against Rubella and Hepatitis B and conducts de-addiction camps for men.
Even as we are on the road, Meera gets a call from an anxious villager saying that her husband is suffering from chest pain and she dashes off to attend to this emergency.
RC Aakruthi works in tandem with CORD (Chinmaya Organisation for Rural Development), Siruvani, in some of their projects too. They market the products of CORD’s SHGs thus helping these women enhance their income. Zarina places an order with Meera, who is Director of CORD Siruvani, for putting up a stall at the next club meeting for food items, wire bags, herbal food mixes, herbal pesticides and fertilisers, insect and rat traps that helps to save plants — all these made by the SHGs.
Meera has taught few villagers, including Govindraj and his wife, to make paper covers which are bought by the club for its packaging. Meenakshi, who was deserted by her husband, and Kavitha who has a bedridden spouse, now earn a decent livelihood by stitching blouses, skirts and sari falls with the help of sewing machines donated by the club. The Rotarians sponsor LIC premiums for needy women in these villages.
Most of the villages are clean and devoid of garbage dumped on the streets, thanks to the coloured dust bins (for waste segregation) and carts that the club has provided. It has also helped set up a compost pit in a school in one of the villages. “We keep the conservancy workers too in good spirit by gifting them new clothes,” says Zarina.
“It was a wonderful year and I intend to carry on Zarina’s work in my year too,” says Parvathi Ravichandran, the current year president and headmistress of a school for special children. Zarina explains, “We women can do amazing work, provided we have family support. I am lucky to have that.” Her husband, Haji Iqbal, is associated with RC Coimbatore Cosmopolitan.
Pictures by Jaishree