On this Vishu day, Sundari flashes an enchanting smile. She is nearing 80 and in good spirits. She does not remember her native place except that it is somewhere in Tamil Nadu. Little Akash, a nine-year-old from Kannur and a nephew of “Poornachandran” (well-known to Keralites as Amaavaasee, the boy who lost his arm and an eye in a bomb explosion in 1998) is near her. He too is in smiles.
At the Sai Gramam, a beatific self-sustaining village run by the Sri Sathya Sai Orphanage Trust, Kerala’s largest non-governmental organisation, they are bound to each other like members of a close-knit family.
There are at least 40 elderly men and women, an equal number of boys and mentally challenged people who live in Sai Gramam now. This Vishu has been special —there had been no Covid case for the inmates of this village community, just 22 km from Thiruvananthapuram, though testing was done four times.
Spread over about 27 acres, the village is the most important project of the Trust which has 117 on-going activities all over Kerala. The Thonnakkal centre is self-reliant. It has a rain-water harvesting unit, a biogas plant, solar street lights, own dairy farm, vegetable and flower gardens, paddy fields from where the rice for the community is harvested, an arts village, a pottery unit,cottage units for producing soaps and detergents, a weaving unit for making dhotis, a school, college, temples, multi-religious prayer halls and dispensaries for various systems of medicine.
There are a few streams, a number of wells and water bodies on the campus which is nestled in a valley between two hills. The view from the top-most point in Sai Gramam is a breath-taking ocean of greenery, a fast-diminishing feature of the typical Kerala landscape. Though it is just about 15 km from the Thiruvananthapuram International Airport, the place is idyllic in its charm.
It all began 26 years ago with the Trust being formed by the late Justice T. Chandrasekhara Menon and his nephew K.N. Ananda Kumar. “In fact, when we started our social service activities, it was with a small orphanage sheltering 9 homeless boys in a rented building at Kowdiar, in June 1996. Today we offer all our services free, whether it is food for all guests at the Sai Gramam, dialysis for about 100 patients daily all over Kerala or education at our latest institution, the Arts and Science College inside the campus at Sai Gramam,” says Ananda Kumar, now the Executive Director and moving spirit behind the Trust.
In fact, the Arts and Science College under the University of Kerala is the only aided college which has given it in writing that it does not want management seats. About 400 students are attached to the college, all on merit admitted by the Government.
The foundation stone for this exclusive self-reliant community was laid by cricket legend Sunil Gavaskar in 2005. “At that time, we did not have even ownership of this land. We borrowed from Canara Bank to acquire this property. I would say that each time we take up a social service activity we do not know for sure from where the funds will come but somehow invariably we have found resources coming from somewhere,” recalls Ananda Kumar. Our support has come from all sources including a pushcart pea-nut vendor from Chirayinkeezhu who came with Rs 9000 as support for providing food.”
The Trust has many successes. It partnered with the Thiruvananthapuram Corporation to make the capital a begging-free city. The attempt has been largely successful. In Kerala’s capital, it is difficult to spot alms-seekers unlike, say Delhi or Mumbai, two of the largest metros in India. Recently, it launched Punarjani, a project for the rehabilitation of addicts among tribals at Attappady, in Palakkad district, in coordination with the Government of Kerala.
“ With constant and dedicated efforts, we have been able to work with many families and get them interested in agriculture. Today, as many men, women and children happily look after their crops, we see a ray of change in them,” Ananda Kumar says.
Celebrated civil servant, Dr. Ananda Bose who is currently Advisor and consultant to Governments, says the concept of a “heritage village” could be seen in action at the Sai Gramam. “The country’s soft power needs to be show-cased to the international community and this self-reliant village is a model which ought to be supported,” remarked Dr. Bose, addressing a function on Vishu day here.
The Trust has plans to spread its wings further but there is nothing like a visit to Sai Gramam to see what one man and his tireless striving can achieve.
S. Adikesavan is a Chief General Manager with SBI, working out of Thiruvananthapuram. Views are personal.