P Kumari, 14, goes to a corporation school in Pallavaram block (Kancheepuram district), near Chennai, Tamil Nadu, and is a high achiever. She was enrolled in the corporation school after topping Class 8 in the panchayat (village council) school in Thirusoolam, an area near the Chennai International Airport. But the road to Pallavaram has been anything but smooth.
Kumari is one of a family of five, originally from an agricultural area. Although she attended school, her life was no better or worse than thousands of others of her ilk in rural India. Driven by poverty and debt, her father moved to the city with his wife and three children - two boys and Kumari - to earn a living. He became a loadman in a quarry in Thirusoolam, set among hills where quarrying is widespread. Kumari's mother started crushing stones while she and her siblings did what most children in the area do: pick up iron filings after dynamite blasts in quarries to sell for meager sums. School soon became a distant memory.
But in 2004, Kaingkarya, a Chennai-based NGO, inspired Kumari to learn again. Kaingkarya, which means 'help' in Sanskrit, has a vision of empowering women and children through education, training and employment.
The organization identified the quarries of Thirusoolam as an area requiring urgent help. Men, women and children here live in appalling poverty, fighting for every breath in the dust-choked atmosphere. They live with the reality that death or disfigurement could come any moment via a carelessly placed dynamite stick or a speeding lorry. Toddlers playing around their busy mothers often slip and drown in the huge water-filled mining craters, while others suffer severe eye injuries caused by flying stone chips.
Yet, it is difficult to convince parents to send their children to school, says Kaveri Natarajan, who founded Kaingkarya in 1991. For the workers, it is a question of economics. They value even a tiny pair of hands, as it makes it that much easier to execute the work contracts they are bound by.
Take the case of Pashupathi, 8, who cannot talk or hear. His parents, who saw education as a waste, did not send him to school. It took Kaingkarya staff close to three months to convince them otherwise. Then came the wearisome task of getting paperwork together. The child had no documents. With the help of a sponsor, they got him assessed by an ENT specialist, and enrolled him in a charitable residential school for the hearing impaired. Barely three months later, the child's father took him back to the quarries, says L Thenmozhi, a Kaingkarya staffer. Pashupathi, who briefly saw a brighter future beckoning, is back to square one.
Fortunately, Pashupathi's case is one of Kaingkarya's few failures.
Natarajan, a qualified social worker who taught for almost 20 years, started Kaingkarya with like-minded people such as Jayashree, also a social worker.
They mobilized information from municipal schools in their neighborhood, Ashok Nagar, in Chennai. Although the schools were staffed by trained teachers, there was no motivation, and the drop out rate was distressingly high. Financial constraints forced the children to enter domestic service and other employment.
Kaingkarya `adopted' various corporation schools in the locality and started out by encouraging teachers to take an interest in the lives of students outside the classroom. Armed with knowledge of their family background, the teachers were able to coax children to stay in school. Once drop out rates were curbed, it was found that exploitation of children in all its forms, as well as delinquency rates, were automatically reduced. Encouraged, Kaingkarya embarked on vocational training programs for the poor women of the locality. Besides tailoring, housekeeping skills were taught, so that even if they went to work as domestic helpers, they could command better pay.
An HIV/AIDS awareness programme conducted among workers in export garment units at the Guindy industrial estate (close to Chennai city) also served to underline the vulnerability of uneducated young women and girls who had no skills to their credit.
Kaingkarya then decided to focus on education and training for women and children, and found a crying need in the Thirusoolam area. A transit school was set up, with the aim of offering a bridge course to enable children of quarry workers to be absorbed into full-fledged schools. It started out with four children. Now, many children studying in local schools say proudly that they come from Kaingkarya.
The 70-odd quarries in Thirusoolam are spread over an area of 5-6 km. Initially, one problem Kaingkarya staff faced was in enrolling pupils because of the distance involved. This was solved with the help of the Japanese consulate, which donated a vehicle to ferry the children from and to their homes, and also funded a building for the institution. This building houses not only the transit school but also a crï¿½che, which encourages parents to send their daughters to school instead of keeping them back to mind babies.
Yoga classes and devotional singing sessions are part of the curriculum. A residential camp for workers' children is also conducted now, where they are looked after for about six months before being absorbed into formal educational institutions.
Vocational courses for women - also held in the building - include a nursing aid training programme, a computer course and training in tailoring, jute and leather work. The nursing aid programme has been a great success, and many of those who participate go on to take further training and work in top city hospitals.
Kaingkarya provides another much-needed facility - it runs a health clinic where some 200 patients are treated every week for problems like eye infection, respiratory ailments, asthma and TB. Vaccination and health camps are organized for school children and health camps are conducted at the quarry sites.
Kaingkarya is funded by CRY, Concern India, Asha for Education (a US-based organization), Shakthi Foundation, the Japanese Consulate and individual sponsors. But perhaps the most charming mode of contribution comes from the Vivekananda Vidyalaya, Chromepet (in Chennai). Children of the school bring one handful of rice each day from their homes, under a programme known as "Oru Piddi Arisi Thittum" (A Handful Of Rice Scheme). The school provides all the rice that Kaingkarya needs to supply food for children under its care.
Kaingkarya has already put some 300-400 children on the path to education in the Thirusoolam area, and provided many young women with skills to earn a decent living.
Natarajan and her dedicated team of 12 have a dream of transforming society into a just and equal one where everybody has the same opportunities for growth and development. They have made a difference at the micro level, and see it as but a step towards the bigger picture.