Published: 05th July 2020
How Karthikeyan started a farm in Tamil Nadu to transform the lives of hundreds of intellectually-challenged youth
The Foundation situated in Villupuram, is an inclusive society where all people with intellectual and developmental disabilities are respected, valued and have choices to lead a holistic and dignified
A while after G Karthikeyan started the Sristi Foundation in Villupuram, an inclusive residential community for people with intellectual disabilities, a woman approached him for help.
Her son, Senthil, who was intellectually disabled, had asked his mother if she could get him married after seeing two of his own brothers tie the knot. His mother had dismissed him saying he didn’t have a job, so there was no way he could afford to maintain a wife or family. The young man tried to go looking for a job but as expected didn’t find one because no employer wanted to hire someone with an intellectual disability. The police found him loitering and ended up arresting him. Sethil became frustrated and started to turn violent. After this, Senthil’s brothers refused to let him stay home and the desperate mother, after running out of options, admitted him to an old age home.
A 30-year old was stuck in an old-age home.
Claiming that Senthil had become too violent, the authorities at the home insisted that he be locked up in a room. His mother had come to Karthikeyan because she had not been allowed to see her son in three years. “I was shocked to hear this. How can a mother be stopped from meeting her own son?” Karthikeyan wondered. When they visited the home, the authorities refused to let them in. After they threatened legal action, Karthikeyan and Senthil’s mother were finally given a key to the room. When they opened the door, Senthil was seated right in the middle of the dark and dirty room. Flies, food and a stench filled the place, “If he washed his plate, then they would take it away from under the door. If he didn’t, the food would remain inside the room. He was dirty, his nails were overgrown, he had a long shabby beard and hair. He was in a truly deplorable condition.”
Karthikeyan brought him back to his campus. Senthil got a shave, cut his nails, bathed and began to live there. Karthikeyan noticed that Senthil would often keep touching his neck, when he consulted a psychiatrist about it, he was told that Senthil had most likely tried to hang himself several times while trapped in the room.
What was particularly stark though was that the young man was quiet, nobody had heard him speak. And when he remained quiet for three whole years, people began to think that maybe he had lost his voice entirely.
Then things changed a little, “It was my birthday and everyone gathered around in a circle and they were all taking turns to wish me. Senthil was part of this circle, which was itself a huge deal for us because he’s mostly on his own. Suddenly he said - ‘Karthikeyan says we should not waste food and we should not feed plastic to the earth’. That was the first thing that he said in three years of staying there, the very first thing and we were all stunned. We finally heard what he sounded like and he had chosen these words to be his first,” Karthikeyan said recalling how he had been moved to tears.
Sristi was set up in Konamangalam Village in 2013 by Karthikeyan who had spent close to 15 years working with children and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. The decision to work in this field was taken when Karthikeyan was a young boy. Having grown up in an orphanage himself, since his parents could not afford to keep him with them, Karthikeyan had begun to interact with the intellectually and physically disabled from a young age. “We all were treated equally and grew up learning to feel equal to each other. And that all just suddenly changed when we turned 18. Even though inside the walls of the orphanage, we were equal. Outside, the world didn’t see us the same way,” he tells us. He saw how the world refused to bring the handicapped into the mainstream, so he grew up wanting to change this.
“While I was working on a government programme under the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, the first question parents of intellectually disabled kids ask is what will happen to their children after they pass away. Even if one is physically disabled, they have a sound mind and can ask people what they need. But the same can’t be said about the intellectually disabled. In 1991, the government answered this question by coming up with a Guardianship Act, which entailed that an individual can have a guardian after they turn 18. The district collector would be the head and the local level committees would be involved,” he explained. “I travelled to many places and institutions. Found that there were many amazing schools but whatever the students learnt, after they turned 18 they had little use for them. Since they were idle, they would create trouble. Sometimes well-to-do parents will hire caretakers and they stare at a TV all day, some can’t afford to and end up finding residential care and some even abandon them on the streets.”
Karthikeyan recalled one such case, where a young boy was admitted to a hospital with a fever and on the day of his discharge, nobody came to take him back home, “He was crying when we arrived and the family had left behind a false address so we could not trace them. He couldn’t understand what was happening. This is how many people are abandoned. A lot of them live in rural areas where they have no facilities even to seek help.”
After years of travelling across the country, working and dealing with and learning about the lives and challenges of the intellectually disabled, Karthikeyan returned to Tamil Nadu. He began to work at the orphanage he grew up in, “An intellectual disability is unlike physical disability, which still allows you to have focus and have a future in certain professions. Till they turn 18, the students will be given good training and education but once they become majors they end up going back to their homes. Then the parents start to complain about violent behaviour. But this behaviour comes from frustration - the frustration of not having any aim in their lives or any purpose. This angers them and this anger can turn violent,” he explained. At the orphanage, Karthikeyan began to set up training programmes that would enable the student to learn something new - this included vocations like plumbing, tailoring, automobile engineering. Karthikeyan was also trying to place these individuals in appropriate jobs. “Sometimes, they would get in and then the employer would meet them and find out they had a disability and turn them away. When I approached them and asked why they were doing this, their response was that even though the candidates might be good they would still be slower than the others in their work. They were also worried because they had big machinery and were sceptical of the candidates being able to handle them. They wanted people who were super fast at their work,” he explained.
During his time at the orphanage, Karthikeyan set up a small garden and began to get the students to learn a bit of farming, “I felt farming was the one profession where you didn’t need to have speed and didn’t pose any hazard to the student. It could be done slowly and you would still yield the same results.” One of Karthikeyan’s students watched as the volunteers set up the garden and he kept quizzing him on what was happening and how he could help, “He planted some seeds and would water it everyday without fail. One day, as I was working he ran to my desk and excitedly asked me to go along with him. He dragged me to the garden and showed me how two leaves had spurted out of the soil from the seeds that he had sowed. He was so thrilled and that’s the first time I saw confidence in his eyes. That’s when I realised that realising the fruits of their labour could drastically change the way that an intellectually disabled person could lead their lives.”
Soon, all of the inmates at the orphanage started getting equally involved and did the gardening with utmost dedication, “One day I heard a racket in the kitchen. When I entered I found the inmates arguing with the cook about what was on the menu. They insisted that since they were the ones growing the vegetables, they would decide what the menu would be as well. It was so heartening to see them all get so involved and interactive. They all had a renewed confidence in themselves,” Karthikeyan noticed.
Later, the inmates started wearing clothes that would be comfortable to do the gardening, they had a schedule, tools and the entire scenario changed. “What these students want is a role to play. They want to be able to be productive. And if they see their efforts be rewarded, they are content,” Karthikeyan tells us.
Finally, Karthikeyan figured out that he could reach out to more students and enhance more lives by setting up a large farm for his students to be able to cultivate and produce vegetables and other crops. After acquiring a grant of Rs 5 lakh, Karthikeyan set out to buy some land. He decided he wanted to set up the campus in a rural area where the locals did not have any facilities. “But with my long hair and kurtas, the locals thought that I was some sadhu who was looking to set up an ashram and they were all wary of me. Even finding a place to stay was difficult. However, I did find a plot of land,” Karthikeyan recalled. The owner was ready to sell and Karthikeyan handed over the entire amount of money that he had. Soon after, the owner changed his mind and decided that he wanted to sell all of his 9 acres to a single person and didn’t wish to sell just one acre to Karthikeyan. “There was no way I could afford that much money. We took the matter to the Panchayat and that is when they came to know that I was there to build a school. So they told me that since the owner needed 10 lakh to buy a tractor, I should give him another 5 lakh in ten days and then I could take my time to pay the rest of the money. Which was good but where could I go for another 5 lakh? I could barely pay my rent of 1000 rupees,” Karthikeyan tells me. But life has a strange way of working out and Karthikeyan is a big believer in honest intentions always resulting in miracles, “A friend invited me over for lunch one day and handed me a cheque for Rs 5 lakh and said I didn’t need to pay him back if I couldn’t. And that’s how Sristi came to be.”
Even though Karthikeyan might have felt like he had overcome a huge obstacle, an even bigger one was awaiting him. “One day as I was walking around the land, an old lady came up to me and said, ‘I heard you’re setting up a farm here. Do you know people have been giving up farming and moving to the cities because there is no water in this land anymore?’ I just broke down when I heard that,” Karthikeyan recounts. The psychologist then brought down water management experts to survey the land, “This time, an old man who was grazing his sheep came to me and asked me what was happening and when I told him, he held me by the hand and pointed out to some damp areas in the soil and said - no land is ever barren. All land is fertile in one way or the other. You dig a pond here.’ When the report from the experts, they told me the exact same thing as the old man,” he said. That's that was the second big miracle.
Over the last seven years, Karthikeyan’s team has converted 9 acres of dry land into a working inclusive village, eco-care farm and special school where every person feels valued and can lead a dignified and holistic life. At present, 35 members are involved in the program and engaged in the farming activities to productively channel their energy and help them to lead a good life. The village members are provided vocational, pre-vocational and secondary level of education according to their assessment result. They are divided into three groups to help them to perform their farm activities and other programs accordingly.
“We have a three-year course for the students and depending on what they’re good at, we help them find jobs. Recently, I urged a friend to give a student an internship and said he needn’t have to pay him but at least he would have a job. A few weeks later, the same person called me and said that the student was doing so much work that they had decided to pay him. There are other similar cases too, one boy wasn’t able to get a job but we got him two cows and now he takes care of them. He still doesn’t know how to milk them but he’s learning. He has a responsibility and that makes him happy,” the psychologist said.
Life has drastically changed for hundreds who have passed through the farmlands of Sristi, “Once a boy’s parents came to me and said that their son watched television all day and asked if we could help. I visited their home and watched TV all day with the boy. His eyes didn’t waver at all. So when I brought him to Sristi, I brought the TV along too. It remains in the place that I left it at when he came here, gathering dust. No one has switched it on ever since,” Karthikeyan says with pride.
The parents can’t believe how independent their children have become today. “They learn the Thirukurral, basic language, they learn concepts like time management, and learn to read the time. They do meditation. They only spend two hours in a classroom to do some reading, learn Tamil and do some arithmetic, otherwise, they are out and about. Engaging in activities. They are given the responsibility of going to the shops, getting the receipts and bills - and even water harvesting. We discuss plants and manure,” Karthikeyan explains.
The produce from the farms goes directly to the kitchen, but if there are extra products, then we allow the student to sell it and the money that they make goes directly into their bank accounts. “They all just need a little bit of support so they can become a little mature and independent and they can be a part of the mainstream. They should be a part of our mainstream life and through these programmes we hope to bring them into it,” he believes.
Karthikeyan is mostly involved in fundraising while the rest of his staff are involved in running the show at the campus. But he has also made sure that the locals are an integral part of the working of the Foundation, “I want to ensure that it carries on without me and even after me, that’s why I’ve ensured that it is a community-based programme.” Fundraising is not easy, but Karthikeyan, as we mentioned, is a firm believer in honest intentions and hard work, “No matter how tough the situation, things always seem to work out if you have honest and good intentions. So I don’t worry about it too much,” he says.
What he does worry about is the well-being of those at Sristi and the many others who deserve a similar environment. He is happy to notice the small changes in people’s lives, “The other day it was raining heavily and I saw somebody standing at the farm and watering the crops. It was Senthil, I told him he didn’t need to water the plants since it was raining. But he said, ‘This is my duty - rain or shine, it is my duty to water the plants’.
And that’s what makes Sristi such a grounded success story.