Tamil Nadu, India - February 2017
This was an exciting opportunity to return to SCAD in Tamil Nadu – one of AidCamps’ first partner NGOs. Given the tremendous success of SCAD over the 14 years AidCamps has worked with them, this was an AidCamp with a difference. Volunteers got the opportunity to assist in the creation and development of a much-needed agricultural distribution centre to support farmers and villagers in a rural area near the SCAD Campus. The centre will provide an opportunity for farmers to access affordable equipment and materials to enable them to improve their livelihoods and those of the people and communities they support. This project offered a greater degree of comfort than is usually the case on an AidCamp due to the excellent facilities at SCAD. The project also offered extensive opportunities to see other projects successfully developed by SCAD and to visit a wide variety of cultural and heritage sites across Tamil Nadu.
This report was written by Myra (or Malabar as she is affectionately known) one of our volunteers on the three-week project. The project will support struggling farmers from up to a dozen villages in the area near Cheranmahadevi. The volunteers raised sufficient funds to construct the building and equip it ready to start offering support and advice as well as access to affordable seeds and effective micro-organisms to enhance the soil, protect the crops and improve yield without relying on expensive and potentially harmful chemicals. The report is in Malabar’s own words.
“The key word of our whole experience was ‘education.’ SCAD – Social Change and Development, an Indian charity – uses education as a basic plank in their endeavour to change the condition of the ‘unreachable’ people in southern India.
A team of 16 UK AidCamps members, plus another from Ireland, went out ready to put their backs into helping SCAD provide a centre for agricultural aid. It would help the local farmers make better use of their land without the use of chemicals.
Our initial reaction was surprise. In this 38 to 83 age group, we found our accommodation to be well above that usually provided by the nongovernmental organisations AidCamps usually works with. Indeed, we had very decent accommodation by any standard – and we were quick to forgive the bathrooms with floors that sloped away from the shower plughole. Paddling about in a wet-room isn’t too bad when the local daily temperature hits 38 degrees. We were well fed, and plenty of it, any variation of curry you could wish, three times a day. As usual, some of us put in a plea for a porridge option at breakfast, and sometimes we got it.
We were in for a bigger surprise when we were bused to our working area: we were in a college campus of the type you see in Hollywood movies – palatial white buildings from whence hundreds of boys of all ages erupted at lunch time and strolled with their friends, and watched us with ill disguised amusement. What on earth were we doing here?
We were providing a building, that’s what. Our donation to funds, after paying our fares, had provided the money to have the building built and now we would paint it inside and out in the prescribed exotic colours so loved in the tropics. We would climb rough-looking, locally-made ladders, carry cement in steel dishes by way of a chain gang, and carry the large size floor tiles required by the Indian floor layers. Then we would grout them in, and lay another lot of smaller tiles for the terrace.
Then came the day we handed over the building – our building, and we were feted by the whole of the local community. There was no doubt that there was an army of local builders who could have done the job in half the time, but SCAD knew that we wanted to do it ourselves, and with the minimum of help we got it done right on time. Now for some more education. We would learn what SCAD was all about.
In the interior of Tamil Nadu where the rains are minimal and life is hard, the monsoon had failed again this year. We visited a one room school for children who would otherwise have had no schooling. Five grades in one room, and two teachers. The children were taught, and fed and had water to drink while their parents scraped what living they could. A huge concrete tank, built by SCAD, had only small puddles left. What happens now if it doesn’t rain, we asked? A shrug. A smile, those people smiled through everything. It was very hard to keep from tears.
We went to the salt pans at the coast, where men and women dug up the salt with mattocks and then heaved up the laden steel pans and placed them on their head, and carried them to the carefully shaded salt bins. Over and over and over again. They had ulcerated feet from the constant salt and wet, and cataracts caused by the glare – and they smiled, and they were thrilled to meet us, and they said that it had been so much worse before SCAD had come to negotiate for them a better wage.
SCAD had got them out of the hands of the moneylenders who thrived on these poor people. That was at a risk to their own lives. SCAD had pressured the government to improve the lives of the thousands of people who needed the jobs that we would have had nightmares about.
Next we met the women’s groups. They came from the villages all around. It is not sexist to say that SCAD always dealt with the women – the women cared for the family, worked on the land and in the rice fields, and up until then their wages had gone to the husband to do with as he wished. SCAD organised the women into cooperatives, 20 to a group, one in charge of each group. They were persuaded to save a small amount of their combined wage into a bank account, where it accrued a small profit. If they met a target, SCAD would give them a top up, and profit money would always be spent to benefit the village. Everybody wins!
We asked a lot of questions. We learned that this whole operation had been started in 1985 by Dr. Cletus Babu, who had risen from humble beginnings by entrepreneurial skills, and who had married a social worker. Together they set out to help the disadvantaged – by way of education. A boys’ technical college was started – fee paying for those who could afford it, and free for poor village boys. More schools provided more opportunity and from small acorns mighty oaks did grow. We met Dr. Babu and his wife, and his lack of self importance and sense of humour was a lesson for us.
If you are wondering why seriously rich people in India don’t look after the poor – well it seems that so many just don’t – and it’s left to SCAD, and people like them to make life a little bit better for ‘the people who can’t be reached.’ Our AidCamps International Group was proud to have been a small part of it.”