Published: 07th April 2021
From working in a brick kiln to doing a PhD on how Irula kids can study better, this TN man's story is inspiring
A former child labourer and a school dropout, Dhamodharan Muniyan has now completed his PhD thesis on the education levels of children in the Irula tribes
His wasn't a childhood that was filled with laughter and joy. It was rather grim. Dhamodharan Muniyan was a fifth-grader when he started going to the fields to help his mother pick out the weeds, harvest paddy and cut sugarcane in a village near Villupuram. His mother was the sole breadwinner in the family, that spent most of its life in utter poverty. "There were times when we would borrow rice and other essentials from our neighbours for a day's meal. My father was bedridden for a long time and it was indispensable for me, the eldest son of the family to help my mother out," he says. From the field, he would go straight to take a dip in the stream in his village and then head to school. He would go back to the field from school and then head home in the evening.
His current life would have seemed like a distant dream to Dhamodharan at that time. The director of Aid India, a Chennai-based NGO, this social worker has done quite a bit for the education of Irula children in Tamil Nadu. He also pursued a PhD on the same subject and had finished his viva successfully, a few days before we met. "My father wanted me to study well. Since I was the eldest in the family, he thought if I had gotten a government job, it would help our family be in a better position in society. But he was disappointed when I flunked in Mathematics in class X," Dhamodharan recalls. "I still remember him saying that it would have been better if we had a buffalo instead of me," he says. Ashamed and distressed, Dhamodharan decided to run away.
I have done almost every kind of labour. I had worked during the expansion of the railway line from Coimbatore to Walayar. Every time I travel through that route, I look at the lampposts that I fixed, with pride
Train to Aluva
Along with a few others from his village, he boarded a train to Aluva, a town in Kerala. "A lot of people from my village would go to Kerala to work in the brick kilns there. I joined them that night. We did not have a ticket. There were around 70 of us crammed up inside the goods compartment of a passenger train," he says. Barely 16, Dhamodharan started working in a brick kiln, until the monsoons. In fact, a few of his friends still work there. "Once the rain began, I would go home to work in the fields in our village. This went on for a few years. Around that time, I started noticing students going to school in Kerala and I thought I should give studies another shot. The next time I got back home, I attempted the Class X exams again," he says. However, he failed, yet again. The fourth time was, however, the charm for Dhamodharan.
What followed was a series of confusing options. "I did not know what to do and where to apply. This is something that a lot of first-generation learners face. This caused a delay in my applying for the next course," he says. Around the same time, Dhamodharan's mother became bedridden and 15 days later, she passed away. He tells us that even though he wanted to pursue a bachelor's degree, he was hesitant to do so, because they couldn't afford it. But one day, mustering all his courage, he asked his youngest brother if he could take care of the family while he is away. "He readily accepted. My father gave me the little money that he had saved. With that, I caught the train to Chennai," says Dhamodharan.
Staying at the college hostel was an expensive deal for Dhamodharan, who struggled to make both ends meet. So, along with his friends, he rented a room in a slum near Taramani. "That was when I got introduced to the volunteers of Aid India. They would come to the slum where I lived and teach the children. A lot of those children had childhoods similar to mine and I knew that I had to help them. Curious, I joined Aid India. Every day, after college, I would rush to come to the slum and teach these children," says Dhamodharan. While he had failed Mathematics at one point, here, he was designing a curriculum and teaching the subject to children.
While volunteering, he also happened to visit the colonies inhabited by Irula families, a primitive tribe that inhabits parts of Tamil Nadu. This was a life-changer for him. "Their living conditions were pathetic. Forget access to schools, most of them did not have houses or availability of drinking water," he says. So, in 2013, when Dhamodharan decided to do a research project at the University of Madras, he knew that he had to work for the betterment of the Irula community.
"Their houses did not have walls. A lot of their houses flooded often. A lot of them did not have the documents to the land where they inhabited, so there was no scope for the implementation of any government schemes," he says. But being a part of an NGO was advantageous for Dhamodharan, compared to other researchers. He says that he could implement solutions sooner, right after he identified problems. "After 20 days of manual effort, we constructed around 450 houses for the people in a settlement," he says.
The intervention must go on
Dhamodharan spent around eight years researching the problems of this community, especially the issues that plagued children's education. He says that continuous intervention is the only way to help with uploftment. While the dropout rate is high in the community, he says that a lot of children start working at a young age. Girls get married off as soon as they attain puberty. He chillingly narrates the tale of a child named Rasathy, who dropped out of school when she was 11. "Her teachers told her that she should rear pigs instead of going to school. She started working at a water park nearby initially. The last time I met her, she was 17 and had a three-year-old child," he says. He also remembers how 89 out of the 130 students whom he interviewed for a survey had dropped out of school within a few months.
A home constructed for an Irula family
Most of them, he notes, were not good at their studies. There are reasons. "These children think that they are not interested. But they lack proper intervention. Most of these children come from troubled homes. Some are abused, some are homeless and some are hunger-struck. They also lack proper pre-primary education and toys to play with. All of these are required for them to develop skills," he says. To solve a part of this issue, Aid India had organised a toy distribution drive for the Irula children in Tiruttani near Chennai.
The NGO has also organised peer-to-peer learning sessions. "In one of the cases, we asked a Class IX drop out to teach students from Classes I to V. This was successful," he says. In many cases, he says that caste and class discrimination also keep these children away from studies. In another step, they provided tablets to the students and got them to study through the e-learning app AhaGuru, started by Dhamodharan's wife Gomathi S and Dr Balaji Sampath.
But Dhamodharan knows that this isn't enough. "We need continuous intervention. We need to make sure that the student stays in school, gets special attention and learns. The intervention cannot stop until he gets a respectable job and earns a steady income," he says. Now that his PhD thesis is completed, we asked Dhamodharan if he wishes to pursue a career in teaching. He moves his head in disagreement, smiling. "I want to be on the ground with the underprivileged. I am waiting for the situation to normalise, so that I can travel to these settlements often. I only get to go once a month now. A lot still has to be done for the tribal children," he says.