July 05, 2020
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Nobody's Child Goes To School

Revathi Radhakrishnan, 28, filmmaker: Hero for helping an ignored and belittled community find its bearings

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Nobody's Child Goes To School
G. Sivaperumal
Nobody's Child Goes To School
While the tsunami stimulated the charity hormones of many, few made it a long-term cause. Few dropped anchor. One of those who did was Revathi Radhakrishnan. The filmmaker, journalist and activist landed in Nagapattinam as a volunteer and worked ten days. On January 7, ’05, she had a chance encounter with Malliga and her baby Lakshmi at the local bus-stand. The mother was begging and the child was sick. Revathi wondered why someone was begging when food and relief was in excess of requirements. Malliga was an Aadiyan, an itinerant community, which considers begging and selling plastic wares as its kulathozhil (caste occupation). Malliga led Revathi to the larger Aadiyan group of 43 families who were all huddled in a park since no official relief camp gave them room.

Seven years ago, the Aadiyans had ‘settled’ in MGR Nagar along the sea. The tsunami had swallowed all their kuccha houses. Since their pre-tsunami life wasn’t fixed, the administration quickly decided that the Aadiyans were not ‘tsunami-affected’. Revathi also realised that only one in five of the community had been to school. By March, Revathi and a group of independent volunteers tried to put about 40 Aadiyan kids into local schools.

"Only seven kids with previous school experience were admitted. But they were abused and ridiculed. Other children made fun of their dry-brown hair...they were even made to sit separately. In such a hostile atmosphere, the children could hardly learn," says Revathi. The Aadiyans have ration cards and voting rights but no community certificate. The government refuses to classify them as a Scheduled Tribe; in fact, they refuse to classify them as anything. "Their inability to pursue education owes mainly to not having a community certificate and hence no reservation," reasons Revathi. "We are now lobbying to get them ST certificates."

By April, the children stopped attending school and could be seen begging near the bus stand again. "That’s when we thought of setting up a bridge school, a temporary one that would enable them to fit into mainstream schools later." The stigma the children faced and Lakshmi’s death due to malnutrition gave Revathi and her friends a new resolve: to start a school where the children would also be well-fed, since it was the lack of food that made them beg. "On May 14, we hired a house and by June 6, the nameless school began functioning. I put in Rs 20,000. My friends Payal and Dinesh pitched in with Rs 10,000."

Initially, no one was willing to even rent out a place. Double the normal rent had to be paid and they were forced to shift the school once. In consultation with the children, the school was named ‘Vanavil’ (Rainbow). "Very soon, we realised a bridge school for one year will not do. Such long-term neglect cannot be addressed in a year. So we formed the Vanavil Trust."

By July, Revathi and her team encountered the Narikkoravars, another gypsy community, which had fled Nagapattinam after the tsunami only to return after five months. "They too were not entitled to any relief. So 18 Narikkoravar children were also enrolled in Vanavil. Today, there are 70 kids enrolled," says Revathi. The Vanavil Trust (www.vanavil.org) has accepted donations only from individuals and today has a corpus of Rs 7 lakh. Vanavil follows the state board syllabus with three qualified teachers on the rolls. "Yet, it’s a real challenge," says Revathi, pointing to 12-year-old Selvarani who used to beg at Chennai’s Gemini Flyover.

Says A. Manian, an Aadiyan leader whose three daughters study in Vanavil: "We hope at least this generation studies and stops doing demeaning jobs." For the Aadiyans, at least, there is now a rainbow of hope.

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