Rishiyur Site Visit Report -- 20th Nov. 2004

After our trip to Thiruvarur (see site visit report by Sundaram) we went to Rishiyur on the 20th Nov morning. The good rains this year meant a feast for our eyes as we went past the green fields. We reached Rishiyur by about 9:45. We were initially thinking that we will finish the visit by lunch time and then head to Thanjavur to do some sight-seeing. But the amount of efforts the people there had taken kept us engaged till 5:00 pm and very happily so.

The school certainly looked improved from my previous couple of visits. The school was full of teachers and the children were all brightly dressed in the uniforms we had provided them. One new Asha teacher, Kamakshi has been added a few months earlier. The government teachers were not present. They had to go to a monthly meeting with the DEO. Recently government had changed the headmistress at the school. They had further appointed two more teachers bringing the government staff strength to 4. Out of these four one teacher was expected to leave shortly on transfer. Therefore we continue to have our 5 teachers. Also the school operates seven classes now and would have eight classes next year.

We talked to the Asha teachers for a while. They showed us the things Asha has purchased for the school. They also explained to us how they were using the classrooms. The biggest problem right now is space. The new building from SSA is completed and available but is atleast 1.5 Kms away. It would be difficult to run the school from two places. Other than that some of the things we have bought for them last year, esp. the sports materials have gone bad. I asked them to give me a list of things they think would be necessary. They have given me such a list. I informed them about the trip by Asha volunteers in December with some materials as well as the RightStart training in the end of December.

Per our request they had asked all the recepients of Asha Chennai scholarships to come to the school. We met with them. We also met some 8 more students who were also hoping for scholarships. We told them that it is unlikely that they would get scholarships this year and they would need to wait till next year and study well. In both these groups of students the marks were very low. They were generally getting about 600 to 700 out of 1200. They were having problems in many subjects. Many of them had problems in Accountancy and Economics. We asked Neelamegam to see if he can teach these students in the evenings since he has an MCom. He was willing. Lack of English knowledge was not so much of an issue for college students here because in the college given all the students were from tamil medium schools, the teaching is in a mixture of Tamil and English. The question paper would be in English but they are allowed to answer in Tamil! I really think good coaching/tuition is a more important need for higher education in Rishiyur than scholarships. I think we should not expand the scholarships but make some facilities for tuition available for the students here.

We then visited the other income generation ventures started by Arjun in this village. Note these have been done by Arjun and his family and not by Asha. They have made some very good progress. There is a regular tailoring school. There were 5 girls studying tailoring under a master. The earlier students are able to earn some money using their skills. Stitchin Asha uniforms (for the Rishiyur schools and Purna Vidya) is also providing them with a good opportunity for earning. I think we should use their skills for all our uniform needs. We should also spread this work to other Asha projects in Tamilnadu and elsewhere.

After a good lunch we also saw in operation the cow loan scheme started by Arjun. He has given loans for 40 cows to poor scheduled caste people. What is remarkable is that within 8 months he has collected the full loan amounts for all the cows he had given initially! This is an excellent example of micro-credit in action. This was done in conjunction with SBI, Mannargudi. The bank gave the loans with Arjun as the guarantor. A team of youngsters employed by Arjun buy the milk from these people every day and directly deduct the money due for the loan before giving the rest to the people. Thus the likelihood of non-payments is eliminated. The people who have purchased the cows are also now full owners of their cows and its calves. Arjun had also insured the cows as soon as the loans were given ensuring that the death of the cow would not leave Arjun and the owner of the cow in a spot. This did come handy in the case of one of the cows.

We saw the SSA building for the middle school. This building was quite far from the existing building. In a way this was good. This was situated in the middle of the schedule caste area. Most of the people who attend this school come from these hamlets. Also this is at the other end of the town to the other newly started primary school. The building looked good. It has got completed just one week back. There are three class rooms and one HM's office. The ground on which this was situated was totally flooded and that made it impossible for us to go and see the insides of the building. The village thalaivar, Maruthamuthu promised that they would put some 20 or 30 loads of desilted soil from the nearby canal and raise the land. They intend to do this once the rains stopped. So it remains for Asha to build another building with 6 classrooms to make this place the new school. We could also see the longer term plan for the school. They plan to acquire an additional 2.5 acres to make a total of 3 acres of land. That would really make the facilities for this school as good as any.

We stepped into the Balwadi there for just a few minutes. We havent done much to the Balwadi except to provide uniforms to the children there. They looked sweet in those uniforms. The building looks alright. I think this year we should provide them the materials and concentrate on the quality of education there.

We then went to see the other primary school at the other end of Rishiyur. This school has been started in this academic year. It is a small primary school with about 28 students and just one teacher. We are not really sure if this is required. Asha is only involved in this school to the extent of providing
uniforms for the children there. We held a small ceremony there to distribute the uniforms to the children. This school building looked fancy with two hexagonal shaped rooms. But for the money spent (4.5 Lakhs) this clearly was small. Further we heard the building quality was not that good. In this case the contract was awarded to someone by the BDO without any consultation with this village panchayat. The other school building on the Asha donated land was done with close consultation of the village panchayat and was clearly better. The second primary school building was also inaccessible because of the rains. What is odd and sad is that it is in operation unlike the other newly constructed building. It is difficult to imagine how the kids must be going to this school. Anyway they are also planning to raise the level of this land when the rains stop. On the way back we could see another wasteful expense of the government. They have built a toilet in the middle of the fields for the people to use at a cost of a few lakhs. It is completely unused because 1. it is atleast 100 or 200 meters more from the hamlet for which it is intended which as you can imagine is a long distance to a toilet, 2. it is sorrounded by fields on all sides making it treacherous to go there in the night, 3. the villagers prefer doing it au naturale.

After this we returned back to the middle school. By this time the government teachers had also come back from their DEO meeting. We met the new HM for this school for the first time. She also seems fairly dedicated and welcome the assitance provided by Asha. But she seemed just a little less enthusiastic than the previous HM with whom we had a very good relationship. I think we should be able to continue our engagement with this school through the new HM. In a village school like this the relationship with the village people is much more important for a sustained partnership.

The teachers there had organised a function there impromptu because we were coming. They had really taken a lot of trouble. They had held several competitions leading up to the children's day. When they found that we were coming, they witheld the prize distributions. They had requested the prize winners to perform. The children danced and sang well. One really impressive thing was, they accidentally played the wrong song for two 3rd standard girls. But these girls did not bat an eyelid and just as easily danced for this wrong song!!! Shows how malleable these young minds are. What cannot be accomplished by them! It was a joy to see these kids perform and just as much a joy to see the young teachers organising the children bringing back memories of my own singing days in school functions! Especially two teachers Kamakshi and Maharani stood out for their energy and organising.

It was a bit sad to note that most of the prize winners were from the same small set of students. The teacher also remarked that the bright kids participate and do well in everything. The teachers and indirectly we need to find ways to bring out the best in all the students and not just the gifted ones. Further we noted that the prizes given for these children out of the generosity of Senthil (son of Maruthamuthu and the part of the first group of youngsters to come to Chennai and talk to the Asha volunteers), were all things like pencils or ballpoint pens or empty pencil boxes. I did feel we should allocate more money for these and also provide for some token gifts for all children.

Finally after a good time spent in Rishiyur we started for Thanjavur by 5:00 pm. We also noted some caste and other minor group politics surfacing in the village. There are some tensions in who controls what. While these are not serious they need to be paid attention to in order for them to not become problems in the coming months and years.