Meenakshi Amma – Director Puvidham, Dharmapuri,Tamil Nadu
Puvidham Rural Development Trust is a registered organization that works on developing effective organic farming techniques and providing a humane and child-centered education environment for children in the Nagarkoodal area of Dharmapuri, Tamil Nadu, India. It was an initiative which began in 1992 and since then has taken strong roots. It is the culmination of a dream, of Umesh, a mechanical engineer and Meenakshi, an architect who went about to build a community of people whose passion in farming and education could be translated into local opportunities. The activities have now evolved into Puvidham Farm, Puvidham Learning Centre and Puvidham Development Centre and are run under the umbrella of Puvidham Rural Development Trust. Today, Puvidham is managed by 80 strong family of committed children and individuals who are working to change the harsh and arid landscape into a sustainable and resource rich area. These initiatives are guided by well wishers and Trustees who have had exposure to realities of rural India, its concerns and potential.
Conversation with Meenakshi Amma……..
Some strive, learn from what life throws at them and emerge successful. Then there are others like Meenakshi Amma, who goes looking for what is best for one’s body, soul and spirit.
Life in Mumbai
I was born in Mumbai and completed my degree in Architecture from Mumbai itself. During the course of my architecture studies, I got to see a lot more of the city of Mumbai and I was very disturbed by the disparity between the rich and the poor.
Questions like, why some people don’t even get their basic needs, when on the other hand there is a lot of food that gets thrown away; started playing in my head. As a result of these questions and discussions with my father, I often came to the conclusion that this is a reality that we need to live with. It is something about which we could not do much.
But, I felt if we alter ourselves for the better, we can be clear in conscience and live a peaceful life as well. That was the continuous stream of advice from my father the gist of which was to make a change; we need to be the change. As I grew up I realized that the city wasn’t changing much. I just didn’t want to be in the city anymore. The more environment conscious I got, I felt living in the city was poisoning my body, my mind and poisoning the future of my children too. At that time, I felt the best thing to do was to walk out of that kind of life where you have no control over what is happening. No matter what you do in places like that, it could perhaps, improve the lives of a few people; but, things don’t change drastically.
I felt that effective work could be more realised in the rural areas where you could perhaps take control over certain things and your children can feel secure.
I felt, by your very presence in a village you make a difference. The idea was that we come to a rural location, grow our own food because you need food to stay alive.
SIR JJ School of Art, Mumbai
First three years of my life at JJ School of Art was honestly, worrying. I didn’t know why I was doing that course because I didn’t want to create concrete buildings etc. By the third year I was quite sure that I wanted to drop it. I realised that the only way we could bring about a change is through children. So, I thought I will work in a school. I, however, didn’t want to work in a normal school because I didn’t feel I would connect there.
I wrote to Shantiniketan asking if I could work with them though I didn’t have a degree. I believe that Rabindranath Tagore’s style of learning from nature, with nature, in nature is wonderful. They responded welcoming me. I had the post card in my hand and was all set to go because I was tired of everything I was doing. But, nature takes its own course because at that point there was this programme from HUDCO. Four students were sponsored from many colleges to go and meet Laurie Baker and a trip to Auroville. I thought I might as well use this opportunity to travel a bit before I dropped out. So, I went to Thiruvananthapuram for a 15-day exposure trip. That changed everything for me. Meeting somebody like Laurie Baker is a total inspiration.
At Auroville, I saw this house of an architect called Poppo Pingel. I fell in love with the work and I felt I should complete my architecture course. I started seeing possibilities.
To this day, I think more than the college, it was the opportunity to meet people who dared to work differently and become pioneers in their right.
I have observed that farmers, in general, are not respected. There is a mind-set that the task of growing food is delegated to those who are considered incapable of doing anything else. All these things bothered us and we wanted to understand the life of a farmer. We felt that we have no right to advice a farmer if we didn’t know and understand their ways of living. So, we started farming. We bought a plot of land in Dharmapuri.
My husband and I were
fresh graduates and had not worked in any companies to earn money. There are
people who tell themselves that they will earn enough money before plunging
into something like this. My take was that in such scenarios nothing happens.
You don’t do anything after earning money. By the time, you have earned enough,
land gets pricier. So, we decided to buy a plot of land with the money we had
at that point. We had
Rs 45,000/- with us and we decided to go for whatever land we get for that money. We believed we could work on the land and change it over time. So, we bought this 12 acres of land for Rs. 30000/-.
Dharmapuri is more or less the driest district in Tamil Nadu. Our average yield point is about 500 in our location though in the Dharmapuri town it is about 800. The plot we bought was a wasteland. We did soil and water conservation work, levelled the land to make it arable and gradually began farming. We started with millets and traditional crops. In those days, the farmers around us were still doing multi cropping. There were 7-10 varieties of different crops in one field. This was in 1992. My agricultural experience was nil. I have always been an architect and was in Mumbai all my life. The only exposure I had with agriculture was when I went to my grandmother’s place in Uttar Pradesh every year for our summer vacation. The 2 months I was there used to make me very happy. That also contributed to me thinking that something was wrong with the social structure in a city environment. You can’t find happiness there.
A New Leaf
When I first came here to Dharmapuri, everything was new – the place, the language, the people – everything! So, once we had this plot of land, the first thing we needed to do was soil and water conservation work because we had very little soil. Most of our land was hard rock and stones.
We used the stones itself to create crescent bunds to arrest erosion, slow down the pace of water on the slopes. We have around 30-40 degree slope on the land. Then, we made some bunds etc. along the edges of the fields that we were levelling.
In a couple of years, we had soil where we could plant trees. Overtime, we planted at least 1000-2000 trees per year out of which about 500 survived. I used to plant a tree and feed it with 1 litre of water in 3 days because that was all the water we had. We had no ground water. We had an open well that gave us just enough water – about 50-60 litres a day, which I had to draw manually. With that water, and our conversations with nature we watered our plants telling them that, that was the best we could do and urging them to do their best, given the situation.
By doing just that, nature has been very supportive. We now have a young forest and enough space where we can grow our food. We have a lot of varieties of trees on our land and a lot of natural regeneration of local species has happened on our land.
In the long run, for our family, we grew to be more than self-sustaining. We had enough to eat and sell.
The birth of Puvidham
Once we started our school in 2000, and with the hostel and children staying with us, we couldn’t sell anymore. In fact we had to even purchase from local farmers to fulfil our needs. We had about 40 children. Initially it was all local children, my two children included. We had a teacher whose son also used to come along and a few drop-out children who used to watch us while grazing their animals.
Our house is an open space. You can see our big veranda where we did our school activities that involved theatre and singing, etc. There were children who got inquisitive seeing these things and came enquiring if they could also learn something. So, word of mouth from child to child made it known that there was a school running. Children started coming with their parents.
Learning was from 11am to 2pm, because in the mornings, we are all out on the farm, working and taking care of animals. In the evening again we are very busy watering our plants and ushering the cows in. In the afternoon also we have education happening. Couple of parents mentioned that that was the first time their child showed interest in studies.
The parents were okay with our school timings as long as it helped their children. So, in our first year, we had 7 children – 4 drop outs and my 2 children and the teacher’s son. The following year we had 15 children, which grew gradually. At some point we had about 150 children.
Initially we didn’t take any remuneration. But overtime, we had to put down a fee structure to keep it going. We realised that people needed to value what they got. When things are free, it tend to be taken for granted. We observe the same fee structure that we had back then, today as well. The earnings of one day makes up for a month’s fees and earnings for 5 days makes the hostel fee for a month. There are, of course, people who couldn’t pay because of genuine reasons. For them, we don’t press on the remuneration much. But, most people pay up.
The Puvidham Rural Development Trust
The Trust was formed after the school took birth, in 2002. We had about 35 children and we realized that we could not fund it ourselves anymore and hence, the Trust. The members of the Trust are our friends, from Bangalore and Chennai. There is this organization called Asha for Education who has been supporting us from the beginning till date.
The Challenging Ride
Initially, there were a lot of challenges. Besides the challenges to develop the land we had, our neighbours created issues because this land was a waste land that they used as grazing land for their own animals. Once we bought this piece of land, we fenced it and tried protecting it. We didn’t want to use metal and stone and we didn’t have the money either. Thorn bushes worked better for us. So, they did try to pull that down, pull out our saplings etc.
We took it in our stride -it wasn’t a path of roses. We just kept planting. We didn’t see any point fighting with them or feeling bad about it. We continued planting. When we started planting seeds, it was more difficult to be pulled out. And then gradually, they finally gave up.
Slowly, we had conversations with our neighbours. We told them that they could come and cut grass for their animals, if they wanted it. So, that led to developing a relationship with them. At times, they can be totally unreasonable. But, when you are in the right direction, things will eventually shape up.
Once the school started, people’s outlook began to change. They felt something good happening. Slowly, the message went out that we didn’t want to bother anybody neither be bothered. Now, nobody bothers us. They approach us if they need help. But, they don’t want to create a bad relationship. They want to be in good terms with us – a huge thing, indeed!
The way of life in a rural set up is hard. It was hard and it is till date. But, if we don’t live a life exercising our body fully then we tend to lose contact with our soul. Our soul tends to achieve whatever it is supposed to through our body. If we put our body on a couch and sit in an air conditioned room, the soul loses out. So, working with the body is the only way of human evolution through which the evolution of spirit also can be achieved. It is enjoyable. When you work the whole day in the sun, sleep embraces you in the night. In the days when we used to level the land, we used to work from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. As soon as we got home, took a bath, ate and lay down, we were asleep. There was no space for worry or tension. We woke up to a completely new day, fresh thoughts and went enthusiastically back to the same work.
Today, we have a lot of local people who have begun interacting with us with school activities etc. We are Gandhiyans. I am a stalwart who believes that we should live a very minimalistic life. If we want to give back anything to nature, then we have to take as little as needed.
Puvidham – The School
Our school is a minimalist school. The children are taught to reuse, recycle, manufacture from whatever they find. The children do a lot of physical work. At school, until 11 they are all in the garden doing something physical. If we are building something, we have materials being transported, working with the masons, etc. Every afternoon we are producing something – soaps, clay articles, we make something from wood, spinning yarn,etc. We are working all the time. Then, there is cleaning and maintenance of the place. There is very little time for academics and there is very little need for it too. I think we get into unnecessary information which doesn’t have any link with life.
We are a primary school, located 20 kms from Dharmapuri town. We also run a bridge program through the Central Government, which is called the National Child Labor Prevention Programme. We had lots of children who used to work in this area. We got them to pass through their Std 8 and join 9th and 10th at a government school. We still have that. We have now registered with NIOS.
Now, we have children from very different places also. We have children from Coimbatore, Bangalore, Chennai, Erode, etc. These are children whose parents feel that the current education system doesn’t impart happiness, or knowledge, for that matter. These parents and children choose to come here and be part of nature. They want to learn a way of life that is self-reliant. That is what we focus on.
At Puvidham, we don’t promise marks. We focus on developing complete individuals with as much humanity as possible and with as much capability and ability that one’s body can support. This enables children to do whatever it is they want in life. If your ideas are to work with nature and enhance your space, then you will be learning everything that you need to.
Life Outside the School
I used to be at the school most of the time until about 4-5 years back. Now, I have handed over the school to the team that is here. I have started my architecture work again. I work with Earth Construction.
I do buildings with mud. I have begun a little bit of that activity. Then, I have meetings to attend to and sharing a little bit about Puvidham. I have never done all this before.
I am grateful every minute of the day that I am able to do what I am doing – no regrets at all. I feel that hard work, though it may be, there is a lot of peace in this way of life. It is toiling for the body, wonderful for the mind and beautiful for the spirit.