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Wednesday, August 04, 2021

Tamil Nadu: First graduate from remote hamlet, 20-year-old brings classroom to her village

Going to school in this hilly Tamil Nadu village involves walking through the forest full of wild animals. “I endured the difficulties. I know what it takes to get basic rights. So now, I will educate other kids in Chinnampathy,” Sandhya Shanmugam said.

Written by Nithya Pandian | Coimbatore |
Updated: June 24, 2021 6:53:03 pm
Apart from textbook lessons, Sandhya Shanmugam said she applies lessons from her own life in her classes. (Express)

Studying beyond primary school was never easy for the children of Chinnampathy, a tribal village in the hills above Coimbatore. Even before Covid-19 hit, going to secondary school meant taking the one government bus, or walking kilometres through forests full of elephants and leopards. Twenty-year-old Sandhya Shanmugam, as the first graduate from the village, knew these hardships only too well.

So after the pandemic closed school doors and patchy internet connection made online classes impractical, Shanmugam decided to do her bit for the village. “Schooling is very tough here. We have never had proper transport from our tribal village to the nearest villages or towns. Our kids go to school in the morning on the government bus, which returns only in the evening,” said Shanmugam. “I endured the difficulties. I know what it takes to get basic rights. So now, I have taken the responsibility to educate other kids in Chinnampathy.”

Chinnampathy is an Irula tribal hamlet located in Walayar, Coimbatore. Shanmugam persevered enough to get a BCom CA degree from a private college in Coimbatore, but understands not everyone would be able to, specially amid the pandemic.

“When Covid-19 broke out, I wanted to make sure the children in my village could study without a gap. Online classes aren’t an option here, as few families have phones they can spare for kids, and for proper internet coverage, one has to walk some distance,” Shanmugam said.

So the 20-year-old asked students to gather at a community building, and started taking classes herself.

Chinnampathy recently gained attention after it recorded zero Covid-19 cases. The hamlet, which has a population of 300 people with 58 kudis (houses), was able to achieve this by blocking off entry to outsiders. So Shanmugam’s ‘school’ could proceed with physical classes.

Apart from textbook lessons, she said she applies lessons from her own life in these classes.

“My main focus is teaching basic English. When I went to college, I struggled a lot with the second language. Hence I put extra effort in English for other students,” she told indianexpress.com over a phone call.

Shanmugam has been taking classes for 25 to 30 children daily, from last year. When the pandemic hit, she was in the second year of her Bachelor’s degree. She managed to finish college because she, unlike most other students in her village, owned a smartphone. Shanmugam then got a job in Tiruppur, which she left three months later and came back to her village.

Now, her classes start at 8 am, with students from the first grade to eighth grade. She teaches maths, science and social studies till 3 pm. In the evening, she takes special classes for the kids who needed extra attention.

When asked about the villagers’ reaction to her teaching project, Shanmugam said they are all very happy. “Parents encourage me, they prepare lunch for the kids, walk with them to this one-room school. I don’t take any tuition fee. They are my relatives, uncles, aunts. Everyone knows everyone here.”

For her classes, Shanmugam uses Tamil Nadu state board books. “Teaching is super easy and I love to do that. But the kids need more stationery items, so they can actively engage with the subjects they study. We have asked NGOs and political parties to provide notebooks, pencils, pens, and a blackboard,” she said.

However, students are yet to get books for this term. Mahendra Kumar (54), head master of Chinnampathy Primary School, told The Indian Express, “ In our school, we have 17 students and two teachers. Students have books, but for the previous term only. The education department is yet to dispatch the new term’s books.”

Kumar also spoke of the difficulties students will have to face to study beyond Shanmugam’s classes.

“After finishing elementary school, students from here go to Mavuthampathy, 10 km away, to study till Class 10. For higher secondary education, there are two schools in Madhukkarai and Kuniamuthur. The Madhukkarai school is located off the main bus route, so Kuniyamuthur government school is preferred. To get higher studies, students have to travel about 50 km up and down daily,” he said over a phone call.

KP Sudhir, Tamil Nadu state secretary of CPIML (Redstar), said they are planning to petition the state secretariat for a frequent bus service for the village.

“This village is located 7 km away from the main transport route. If children miss the one bus, they have to walk through a 7-km wildlife-bearing stretch. We are helping the kids with stationery. Also, Sandhya takes classes on the village’s property. Our team will improve the infrastructure of her classroom,” he said.

For college, the village students have to go to Coimbatore city or to Palakkad in Kerala.

“Kerala has a good schooling infrastructure too, but we can’t expect children to learn in Malayalam, right? We will keep requesting the AIADMK MLA and DMK functionaries to improve the schooling system in this area,” said Sudhir.

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