(The writer of this article is Mr.V.Mariappan, a former Senior Assistant Editor in ‘The Hindu’ and ‘The New Indian Express’ in Chennai.)
CHENNAI: She is a woman achiever honoured with several awards including the Vikatan Award, Buddy Foundation Award by film personality Suhasini Maniratnam, Manitha Neya Kalvi Ara Kattalai Award from Saidai Duraisamy’s IAS Academy, NSS-CEG Anna University Award. The awards speak volumes for her tremendous social activism she’s been engaged in for over a decade.
But one may raise eyebrows, if they come to know that she was a school drop-out after class 6 and her auto driver hubby educated up to class 10. The feeling of surprise may get intense when hearing that the couple have been educating the kids in Kannagi Nagar, situated a few kilometers from
the Rajiv Gandhi Salai (OMR) – an area that conjures up a picture of resettlement neighborhood teeming with underprivileged people and children missing mainstream education. She is giving a turning point to many children from Thoraipakkam area in Chennai.
The origins of the Baba Saheb Ambedkar Free Education School were quite simple and had an unlikely beginning. V Uma Maheshwari, now in her early forties found herself in dire straits, unable to pay fees for her own three kids when her hubby Vasudevan was injured in an accident.
Then she began teaching her children on the ‘verandah’ of her house in evenings when kids from the neighbourhood also joined the informal class. Over the days, the number of children in the evening class began swelling. Then the verandha shifted to the roadside where she made the children sit on tarpaulins and taught them.
Recalling the old days, she says, “As the number of students began swelling, there was some opposition from certain quarters to the ‘encroachment’ on the roadside. But, understanding the value of bringing knowledge within reach of the underprivileged sections of the society, several residents and donors started extending a helping hand to my initiative.”
Today, the informal school under moonlight is being held in a shed, from which many students such as Revathy and Rajesh ‘graduated’ into full-fledged students in city colleges.
In May last year, Uma was in the news when she fought the discrimination that a government school in Okkiam Thoraipakkam showed towards the Kannagi Nagar children by denying them seats in Plus-Two English medium courses.
Apart from free education to the poor children of that area, Uma has been actively engaged in conducting free medical camp for senior citizens, helping the destitute widows and providing free food, notebooks and clothes to the students.
RECOGNITION AND AWARDS:
Uma feels proud that her free education centre has started attracting attention from several quarters and getting recognition from the mainstream institutions. For instance, apart from the several awards she got from various institutions, she shows a certificate of appreciation – rather a letter- that the headmistress of Lady Sivaswami Ayyar Girls’ Higher Secondary School, Mylapore, wrote to her in 2017. The letter praised her saying, “It is noteworthy that our students, who regularly attend your free evening classes, excel in education and discipline. On behalf of our school, we convey our congratulations and wishes to your social work through the Kannagi Nagar Social Welfare Trust.”
She cherishes with sense of pride the words of praise that top journalist N Ram, Chairman, Kasturi and Sons Ltd. (of The Hindu newspaper), heaped on her when presenting the award for best social work to her on behalf of the Rotary Club of Chennai Velachery. She says he sought support for her cause of education to the economically backward children in Kannagi Nagar and he also made a personal contribution of Rs. one lakh there to her education efforts.
“Several students who studied at this centre are taking classes here as a token of gratitude”, says Uma.
However, the education centre is still struggling for paucity of funds and Uma expects more Good Samaritans to chip in with their contributions to make the Kannagi Nagar neighbourhood shed its negative tag and turn a posh hub of education.
“There are miles to go and promises to keep before I sleep,” she says in a humble tone.