From medicine, sanitation, waste management, vocational training, skill development, education, to organic farming — Dr Meera’s impact can be seen across Thennamanallur in Coimbatore.
The tiny village of Thennamanallur is decked up for a wedding. As we walk its clean, cobbled street flanked by trees, we are stopped often.
While a farmer slows his bike to greet our guide Dr Meera Krishna, a group of women stop her to discuss their self-help classes.
When Dr Meera came to Thennamanallur in 2006, only 15 percent of its houses had toilets. There was no waste collection system and villagers were little aware of health and hygiene practices.
Today, the streets of Thennamanallur are clean of litter, the roads are paved, and almost all the houses have toilets. The reforms go beyond the visible — alcoholism and smoking is largely under control; women today have sustainable sources of livelihood; girl child education and menstrual hygiene is focussed upon. Further, the village with a population of 6,000, boasts of multiple members who participate in micro-financing, and are mini-entrepreneurs in their own rights.
This transformation has been possible through 60 self-help groups, 11 farmers clubs and 42 Mahila Mandals in the Thondamuthur block spread across three village panchayats — Ikkarai Boluvampatti, Vellimalaipattinam, and Thennamanallur.
A doctor by profession, 54-year-old Dr Meera has dedicated her life to the upliftment of the village.
She is the Project Coordinator for the Siruvani branch of Chinmaya Organisation for Rural Development (CORD). In March 2013, the National Commission for Women recognised her “selfless” service and honoured her with the “Outstanding Woman” award.
Empowering Mahila Mandals
Dr Meera was first introduced to Thennamanallur when she moved from Chennai to Coimbatore for her daughter’s education. “I would pass by the village whenever I dropped my daughter at Chinmaya International Residential School in Siruvani. I first volunteered here for a year,” she recalled.
Now she has a team of community development workers who work at grass-roots level for the vulnerable. They mobilise the underprivileged through Mahila Mandals and empower the villagers through CORD-run initiatives.
The welfare, the benefits are not charity. It is development work; you teach them how to fish so that they can sustain themselves for a lifetime. Earlier I was a gynaecologist. I knew only about medicine but now I have been working on other aspects like sanitation, economic improvement, creating awareness on government schemes, health, and other issues, she tells us.
One of the first initiatives started by Dr Meera was the composition of Mahila Mandals (Magalir Mandrams) — a forum for the women in the village to discuss various problems faced by them and collectively move towards a practical solution. The Mahila Mandals have also made these ladies self-sustainable and empowered them through vocational training and skill development.
Nidha, a resident of Thendral Nagar and member of a Mahila Mandal, says, “Earlier I was a homemaker. Working with these women have made me aware of what is happening around me and the problems they face. Today, I can save a minimum amount every month. We also have micro-financing. For every Rs 1,500 we invest, we get a profit of approximately Rs 1,000.”
Each Mahila Mandal unit comprises of minimum 12 women and everyone has to make a mandatory contribution of Rs 10 monthly. This amount is then used collectively by the group to help each member deal with unannounced financial crises, be it medical emergency, death, or even marriage.
Each one of us is also empowered with a skill set, and when we earn from that, our families get to flourish. Free medical treatment is also being provided. Tailoring and embroidery training were given to the women to start a business out of it and survive, explains Nidha who is also the president of a self-help group.
The CORD centre became the training hub where women learned to make products like pain balm, incense stick (agarbattis), handicrafts, paper crafts, coil baskets, spices, organic oil, and sanitary napkins. These items are sold by the women themselves in their locality. At times, they partner with the local kirana shop or exhibit their products at local events and functions.
Medical and psychological support
Dr Meera extends medical support to the villagers; the CORD centre doubles as a clinic and a medical shop. Along with regular blood tests, diabetes care and child care support is extended by the volunteers.
Upon the insistence of Dr Meera, Dr Usha, a retired plastic surgeon and an HOD at Stanley Medical college, started visiting the centre once a week. “I have been a village doctor for five years now,” she says.
Working with the villages has been an eye-opening experience in a lot of ways. I got to know firsthand the problems and struggles related to alcoholism. Children, who come here, talk about the problems they face at school including abuse.
Dr Meera and Dr Usha also take up the roles of counsellors and guides for the incoming patients to help them cope with emotional and physical challenges. Alcoholism was one of the major problems that plagued this village.
The women complained that their husbands spent maximum time and money on alcohol, failing to provide financial support to the family. The women had to eventually become not just the breadwinners by working in the fields, but also take care of other errands and cook at the same time.
“The husbands would even throw their medicines and continue drinking. Wife beating was a common problem. They never thought that their wives could fall sick; they weren’t even aware if their wives had diabetes or hypertension,” Dr Usha adds.
Dr Meera and Dr Usha intervened and started addressing men through weekly meetings. They visited individual houses and tried to explain to them the ill-effects of drinking, including its impact on their children’s lives.
Veerappan (50), who started drinking in his early 20s, recently quit alcohol after Dr Meera’s intervention. He says,
I kept drinking even after the kids were born. They grew up scared of me and did not want to spend time with me. However, Dr Meera got me into a de-addiction programme and changed my life for good. I have been away from alcohol for a few years now, which has helped rekindle my relationship with my children. Both my sons have finished graduation and are working.
Sustainable waste management
The village meetings also advocate the need for environment sustainability, solid waste management, and lake and well rejuvenation projects. Through public meetings, the villagers are made aware of degradable and non-degradable waste. Due to this sustained campaign, each household today collects degradable waste in a pit which is later used as compost. Non-degradable waste is collected by Residents Awareness Association of Coimbatore (RAAC) for recycling.
A passerby overhears our discussion and adds, “We were also taught about the importance of separating degradable and non-degradable waste from our houses; how it contributes to pollution and causes health issues including cancer.”
Kaushika, a grade VII student, explains that the practice of waste management has been a part of her household since her preschool days.
Every weekend we have classes wherein Dr Meera and other volunteers teach us the importance of environment safety, health, and personal hygiene. I too have started to volunteer at the Bal-Vihars (weekly gathering of children aged between five to fifteen aimed at building their overall well being) and teach younger kids about the importance of recycling. We also train them for computer skills.
The village tries to avoid using plastic bags and instead uses bags made from paper or cloths.
CORD has also started a unit to make biodegradable sanitary napkins. Twice a month, they conduct awareness sessions for adolescent girls where menstrual hygiene is discussed and knowledge on how to use a sanitary pad is imparted.
Vision for empowerment
Dr Meera believes that development needs to capture every sector, and there is a need to make villagers realise their own potential. She says,
It is all about social, economic, and political development; and CORD’s mission is to develop the rural poor, through women empowerment. We work in every ward, because a ward is the basic unit of self-governance. We work with panchayats in a focussed way so that all the wards are covered.
Leaving a 16-year-long career in Chennai, and living and working in a village has been an experience that makes Dr Meera very proud. It has been over ten years, and she has never looked back.