Sarvodaya Day Conference – A few memories

Published in Sarvodaya magazine, May 2016.


The death anniversary of the Gandhian leader, Jagannathan, who played a crucial role in the Sarvodaya movement, is commemorated every year (on February 10,11,12), in a way that is refreshingly different. Instead of reducing it to a series of homages to an individual, or tributes to a leader who was indeed loved by all, these three days are converted into an exploration of the social change that he desired. This year, the conference was anchored around education and healthcare. Experts and young students came together to think, converse, exchange ideas and return with renewed enthusiasm.

The first day began with a welcome address by Dr.Bhoomikumar. K.M.Natarajan delivered the inaugural address. He shared his memories of Jagannathan. He spoke of how Jagannathan, when he was a teacher, donated his wrist watch to Mahatma Gandhi for the Harijan Seva Fund. He also pointed out that various Sarvodaya leaders like M.Arunachalam were mentored by him. He further recalled Jagannathan’s educational initiatives in Javvadu Hills.

Dr. Pankajam, ex-Vice Chancellor of Gandhigram University, who spoke next, focussed on Basic Education – she declared with pride that she completed her entire education, from school to graduation, through the Nai Talim method. She emphasized that the future educational strategy has to evolve from the students. She listed out the challenges faced in the field of education today: deprivation of education for many, exclusion of quality education for the poor, high drop out rates from schools in the rural areas, unemployment of the educated, drain of skilled manpower and lowering standards of teaching. She charted out the required changes in education: Basic education has to be altered in line with changing times; researches should be solution-oriented and not intended for promotions and degrees; Delhi should not be making the curriculum – it should instead be evolved locally; talent should be identified at an early age; maximum stimulus should be provided at the pre-primary stage; various alternatives should be made available to the students; we need to move towards sustainable development.

The next speaker was Dr.Jennifer Lad, who runs the organization, Class Action, in the USA. She remarked that we have to view education in the context of economic changes happening all over the world, the climate change, the over dependence on and exhaustion  of fossil fuels, and raised the question on how we can create resilient communities. She identified six foundations for education: (i) Light is in each of us, and the objective of education is bring out that light;  (ii) Adaptability to the times and conditions; (iii) Systems thinking that will encompass family, community and history, health, food and transportation; (iv) Education has to be transformative, and make us think out of the box; (v) Sustainability should be at the core of our thinking, and all our decisions should be assessed based on the impact 7 generations down;  (vi) Courage and strength of heart.

Jennifer went on to facilitate a discussion with me and my wife, Nedya, which turned out to be a surprising and pleasant experience for us. She focussed on our move to quit the corporate-urban life, and shift to the village to take up farming and teaching the village children, and our experiences around home schooling our daughter.

Later, all the participants broke up into smaller sub-groups, to discuss within themselves and present their views on education. The deliberations could be summarized as follows:

Education should be decentralized.
On the lines of Nai Talim, education should be centered around crafts ad physical work.
Morals and values have to be inculcated.
Students should not be assessed only based on marks.
Equal educational opportunities should be available for everyone.
Mother tongue should be the medium of instruction.
Teachers training and evaluation should undergo significant changes.
Quality of education in government schools has to be improved.
All Children should learn without fear.

The theme for the second day was healthcare, and Dr.Sathya coordinated the events. Dr.Nachiar, one of the co-founders of Aravind Eyecare Hospital, narrated the social journey of her organization. She opined that blindness has afflicted 39 million people globally and 12 million in India, and 80% of it is treatable. She mentioned that Aravind Hospitals reaches the people directly through the 56 primary care centres in villages. The village centers are more important than the large hospitals in cities and locals have to be trained and employed in those primary care centres; even if healthcare is offered free, it is not free for the patient who has to bear certain direct and indirect costs to avail that free treatment. This challenged my perspective on freebies.

Dr.Ramasubramanian, founder of M.S.Chellamuthu Trust, shared his experiences in community psychiatry. He lamented that mental disorders are viewed by the society as a curse or as black magic; it is not just the individual but the entire family that is affected. A vast majority don’t seek medical help from psychiatrists because of ignorance, fear of stigma and high cost. However, all mental illnesses, if detected early enough, are curable, he said. He gave the background behind starting a mental care hospital at Musundagiripatti village, through his Trust. Initially, cooperation from the villagers was not forthcoming; but after he managed to cure a local patient, and employed the same person, the villagers started trusting him. After the fire accident at Yervadi, he tied up with the religious institutions there, and made them refer the patients to qualified psychiatrists. This seemed to be an excellent strategy to use when social initiatives are in conflict with religious faith.

Jone Schanche Olsen, a psychiatrist with Stavenger University Hospital’s Transcultural Centre in Norway, shared his harrowing experiences with refugees affected by war. Refugees have been streaming into Norway from African countries, such as Eritrea, for many years. Now there is a sudden influx from Syria. These refugees have to cross many countries on land and by water. Many of them are children and teenagers. Due to the many gory sights that they have seen, and sexual exploitation, they experience severe mental trauma. Nurses and social activists are trained to work with them. Group therapy is provided for them.

David Albert has been a regular visitor to India for the last 40 years. He has had a long association with the Krishnammal-Jagannathan couple.  He has written important books on Homeschooling. He has been engaged in efforts to bring hygienic drinking water to African countries and India, through his organization, Friendly Water for the World. He spoke about the relationship between education, health and water. In India, the quality of water is worse than it was 40 years ago. The ground water level has gone down. 48% babies are stunted at birth due to malnutrition. Children are damaged the most due to water. Even in the United States, malnutrition among black children is at the same level of India; their mortality rate is similar to that of India. Our educational institutions have failed to impart the knowledge about water filtering and water management. Every teacher should be seen to be cleaning toilets; every child should be taught about clean water and cleaning hands; Gandhi’s experiments with latrines were experiments with truth; Corruption and acceptance of unsanitary conditions are mental illnesses. David touched upon many disparate topics and established their connection with water.

The third day (February 12) was the death anniversary of Jagannathan. It is celebrated as Sarvodaya Day. This is a day that brings together many Gandhian workers. Many villagers from Nagapattinam region, who have benefitted through the works of Krishnammal and Jagannathan, had also come. Dr. M.P.Gurusamy, Dr. Padamuthu, Dr. Markandan and Dr.Jeevanantham spoke. Inamul Hasan and Rajendran narrated their experiences during flood relief operations in Chennai and Cuddalore. Dr.Kausalya Devi, who has been rendering great service in the medical field, and Vengayyan who has, through his stirring songs, played an active role in Sarovodaya movements, were honoured with Sarvodaya Awards. Dr.Natarajan, Vice Chancellor of Gandhigram University spoke about Dr.Kausalya Devi and K.M.Natarajan about Vengayyan.

These three days gave fresh impetus to our current efforts, and motivation to take up more. The incident that capped the three memorable days happened on the last day, when the morning session was coming to a close. After hearing many delegates speak, and with the lunch time approaching, the attentiveness of the group had started sagging. It was time for Krishnammal Jagannathan to speak. She rose from the stage, and started walking ahead; she rushed to centre of the hall, sang a small prayer and started speaking emotively in colloquial Tamil. She brushed aside the mike that was offered to her, and someone had to insist on holding it. The American friend, next to me, who out of respect for the speakers was sitting patiently and diligently, though she couldn’t understand the language, was up on her feet, exclaiming, “This is the way to do it.” Krishnammal recounted how, during 1948, in the same location, she was a warden in a hostel for poor women, and helped them to become nurses; of how, many years later, at the same place, she heard of the massacre at Keezha Venmani and rushed there, stayed there and started off the initiative to procure land for landless Dalits. “I saw in newspapers – on the eve of Pongal, rice, jaggery and piece of sugarcane was distributed for all…have you all become so despondent, that you queue up to get rice, jaggery and sugarcane for 10 rupees? What work have those who were in power for 60 years done? Did they give land to the people, did they build them houses, or educate them? Whatever left is the tag, ‘lower caste’,” she stopped abruptly and turned back. The stillness of the room stretched out for a few more seconds, and then dissolved in the applause. For those few moments, the atmosphere there was electric.

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