Children of Poongulamm

The Genesis

It was February 2002.

One of the team members of Vatsalyam was on a personal visit to Poongulam as a guest of G Sivaraman, a compassionate landlord inclined to help the poor and needy in the neighbourhood.

As the visitor from Chennai walked through the village known for its lush green fields copiously fed by water from deep bore wells, he saw school children in various age groups trekking the dusty road in the hot sun to reach their school some 4 kms away.

'Hmm…they take so much pain to attend school, but how long? One day they will drop out and be initiated into farm work", remarked Sivaraman in anguish.

On returning to Chennai, this Vatsalyam man ordered 100 pairs of footwear of assorted sizes that were dispatched to Poongulam to be distributed to the school children by Sivaraman.

It was an impulsive gesture and a one-time one as he thought at that moment.

The sight of impoverished, undernourished children walking down the dusty roads of the village in the scorching sun haunted him for days on end.

He returned around mid-may 2002 to understand the conditions, the mindset of the people and their problems. Long discussions with Sivaraman and interactions with the villagers convinced him of the need for a school in the village.

Getting the Government to start a school was the fist step. Sustaining it and providing incentives to the parents for sending their children to the school was to be taken up later.

The arrival of the school & the aftermath


Building of the temporary structure for the school

People working for the School

Protracted discussions with the personnel of the State Education Department at the district level and also in Chennai yielded results. The Education Department was willing to grant a school for the village under the Central Government sponsored Sarva Siksha Abhyan (SSA) Scheme. But the offer came with riders that seemed difficult to fulfill-

One, the village Panchayat has to identify a place- a plot of land without any encumbrances- for school construction and transfer it to the District Education Department through proper documentation. Two, the villagers would have to put up a temporary structure at least with a thatched roof.

Then began a hunt for the land in a village with sprawling stretches of unused and unclaimed land. A Good Samaritan among the local landlords, 'Srivanjiyam' Ramani readily agree to donate land by the side of the village tank. He took the initiative to meet the officials and complete all formalities related to the transfer of land to the District Education Department.

The second issue pertaining to putting up a temporary structure was also solved soon by Vatsalyam which found a sponsor - a compassionate Indian businessman based in Korea & a member of a cyber discussion group!

The initial reaction from the villagers was one of disbelief bordering on cynicism.

On an auspicious day, the bhoomi puja was held and the temporary structure for the school came up within 5 -days under the supervision of Sivaraman of Poongulam.

The Education Department officials were simply overwhelmed by the pace at which things were happening in a village known for its uneventful and listless routine.

The mid-day meal imbroglio


Mid-day meal

Two teachers were appointed under the SSA-Sarva Siksha Abhyan Scheme by the Education department, though the student strength was only an anemic 14, which later dwindled to 10 and dangerously kept oscillating between 8 & 9! On close scrutiny, the problem was diagnosed to be lack of arrangement for free mid-day meal, which is an incentive for parents to send their children to school.

That entailed another bout of discussions with Government officials who informed Vatsalyam that the school would not qualify for the Government’s free mid-day meal, as the number of students had not touched the statutory mark of 25! And a frenetic search for individuals and corporates to sponsor mid-day meal for 14 kids began. Moved by the efforts, Smt. Lalitha Sivaraman, the dutiful & dedicated wife of Sivaraman came forward to personally cook the meal for the kids and send it to the school everyday. This arrangement continued all through the academic year except holidays and weekends.

The 2 lady teachers appointed by the government were a dedicated lot. They went the extra mile to educate parents first and motivate them into sending their wards to school.

But they were facing a delicate problem that needed to be addressed immediately. There was no toilet for the school surrounded by coconut groves and paddy fields.

Again another member of the same cyber discussion forum from USA chipped in the funds to create a low-cost toilet abutting the school.

Efforts to involve people

Sustained effort of Vatsalyam resulted in the formation of a Parent-Teachers Association in the new school. Vatsalyam convened a meeting at the school premises to create awareness amongst parents on the need to send their children to the school and inculcate in them a sense of ownership. It also highlighted the good work done by the teachers and encouraged them to felicitate the teachers in appreciation of their services under difficult circumstances.

Vatsalyam bought a lot of play material and educational tools like maps and charts for the kids. A series of meets were organized to educate and encourage parents to participate in the school activities. As books were supplied free by the government, Vatsalyam organized stationery items, slates, crayons and pencils.

Uniform material for children


Distribution of Uniforms to children

Distribution of Uniforms to children

Vatsalyam adopted an interesting methodology when it provided free uniform material to all the students. First, it identified a lady tailor in a hamlet nearby to stitch the material and negotiated with her a fee of Rs. 40 per pair. Vatsalyam contributed Rs.20 per pair and the rest had to come from the parents. The task of collecting the parents' share was given to the teacher at the school.

So, in one shot two objectives were achieved:
It was a win-win situation for the poor tailor in the community and also the kids who got their uniform subsidized!

Meanwhile, the Govt. had allotted funds for the construction of a permanent structure for which foundation was laid. Again there was another hurdle. The government employees went on a strike and the matter was pending for over 4 months before the work resumed.

With the starting of the 2004 academic year, the school was seen as the most happening place in the locality and people started evincing interest in its activities.

The students' strength soared to 43, eighteen more than the magical number of 25 that would entitle children to a free mid-day meal from the Government!

Mid-day meal became a reality and children were fed with reasonably good food prepared in the community kitchen in Veedhividangan village nearby.

A few more hurdles


Temporary structure for the school

Things seemed to be settling down when the ill-fated Kumbakonam school fire tragedy in July 2004 that consumed the lives of hundreds of innocent children sent all the efforts on a tailspin. The Government came down heavily on schools operating under thatched roofs. The children had to be evacuated from the temporary structure put up by Vatsalyam at a huge cost. Classes were conducted in the shade of a tree nearby. The teachers extended full cooperation without demur and patiently put up with a lot of inconvenience.

At last …a permanent building for the school


The new school of Poongulam

Crossing all the hurdles, finally the new building came up under the stringent quality conscious eyes of Sivaraman. After a formal inauguration in presence of the village elders, the children beaming with joy proudly moved into their 'new' school which will remain there as a beacon of hope for them lighting up their lives with a better tomorrow.

Vatsalyam's Poongulam initiatives: an overview

1. Desilting of the tank

Tank before desilting

Desilting in progress

Tank after desilting

It was felt that the tank adjacent to the temple had to be desilted - an operation that had not been taken up for over 40 years now! Here again 'Vatsalyam' played a major role. Moving the matter with Thiruvarur Collectorate, it brought the Govt. agencies into desilting the tank. But unseasonal rains that year played spoilsport and the operation was successful only up to 85%. But this task encouraged people into participating with more enthusiasm.

2. Organized events for women’s self-help groups

Women's self-help groups

Women’s empowerment through collective efforts is an integral aspect of yam’s service endeavours. Realizing the immense potential of Women's Self-Help Groups as an instrument of social and economic emancipation, Vatsalyam did a programme for them. Inviting LIC officials from Thiruvarur to do a presentation on Rural Insurance Schemes that are available for premium amounts as paltry as Rs 25 a year!

3. Conducted Dental camp

Dental camp

A comprehensive dental camp by mobilizing 15 young dentists from Raga's Dental College, Chennai with full equipment was organized on August 15, 2003. It was a grand 2-day affair wherein the dentists performed complex operations involving cleaning, scaling, extraction and filling. Over 150 people attended this event.

4. Provided scholarship for a meritorious student
Vatsalyam got a sponsor for a poor Poongulam boy from a socially disadvantaged section who had joined Polytechnic College in Nagapattinam. Thanks to the organization’s effort, the boy gets his scholarship plus the hostel fee till date.

5. Special gynaeic camp for women
Another major event was the special Gynaeic camp for Womenfolk conducted by a team Gynaecologists led by Dr. Jayalakshmi, Chief Gynaecologist of Chennai Kaliappa Nursing Home, who is known as much for her service to society as for her diagnostic & surgical skills The turnout was way beyond Vatsalyam’s expectations. As against an estimated 200, the camp attracted 580 women from Poongulam and also other villages nearby. Medicines were distributed free. The doctor was kind enough to mobilise her scanner which was put to good use.

6. Got a free cardiac surgery done for a 12-year old girl


Sivaranjini, a bubbly 12-year old girl was spotted at the August 2005 medical camp at Poongulam She was suffering from acute cardiac rheumatism, a condition that involves erratic valve function. One of the two daughters of a landless farmer who has been driven to selling vegetables, her father was struggling to make both the ends meet. Vatsalyam identified a noble industrialist who came forward to bear the entire cost of the surgery- Rs. 1.80 lakhs. Sivaranjini was operated up on a by a leading hospital in Chennai on October 3, 2005. After a week’s post operative care, she returned to her village and back to school. The kind hearted industrialist is bearing the cost of medicines that she has been taking until today.

Rome, they say was not built in a day.
Well, neither Vatsalyam nor its Project Poongulam for that matter.

Copyright 20055

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