Sakthi Vel N was on his way home from Kodambakkam on a busy night. He was stopped by the police personnel who asked him where he was from, to which he responded that he was from Vyasarpadi. Without any second thought, the police seized his bike. They asked him to go to the police station to collect his bike. “I had all my documents right there but that was apparently not enough. The fact that I am hailing from Vyasarpadi was enough for the police personnel to judge that there would be criminal cases against my name,” said Sakthi Vel.
This is not an isolated incident. People from Vyasarpadi, particularly children and youngsters face such discrimination in their schools, workplaces and their day-to-day lives all the time.
Over the years, Vyasarpadi, a place that is home to most of the manual workers of Chennai, has turned synonymous with drug addiction among schoolchildren. The people from the locality face discrimination for no fault of theirs as the root cause lies in a larger social issue. The parents of many school-going children are daily wage workers who toil hard to make ends meet. Besides, the houses in these localities are also very small and cannot provide a conducive environment for a child to study.
In such an environment, many children tend to fail the exams, after which they drop out of school to support their families financially. The dropout rate apparently increased during COVID-19 in many areas across Chennai.
But an initiative by the youngsters from Vyasarpadi is not only helping the children stay in school but also ensuring that they have a viable path to securing a college degree and employment.
Formation of Dr Ambedkar Pagutharivu Padasalai
Seven years ago, a group of first-generation graduates who were part of an initiative called Vyasai Thozhargal (Comrades of Vyasarpadi), decided to start a free tuition centre for school children in Chennai’s Vyasarpadi.
“Most of the children in our locality come from families with single mothers or alcoholic fathers or separated parents. As parents are out there working to make ends meet for the family, the children have nobody else to look after them. This lack of vigilance leads them to try drugs or get involved in other anti-social activities,” says Sunil, a member of Vyasai Thozhargal. “The only way to prevent these children from falling through the cracks was to ensure they get proper guidance about their education.”
To address the root cause, the youngsters started the free tuition centre named ‘Dr Ambedkar Pagutharivu Padasalai’. The effort was aimed at providing children in the community a safe space for learning when they are home from school.
Since they did not have an exclusive location, they conducted the free tuition at the rooftop of one of their houses. “There were hardly ten students coming to the tuition when we started it,” says Vijayalakshmi, the first teacher at the tuition, adding that the location meant they were unable to handle classes during rains.
“There was a piece of land which had an open well in it. The place was used for anti-social activities and many continued to die by suicide by jumping into that well. Since it was a public place, we needed authorisation and public consent to utilise the land in a better way. After many rounds of talks, with the help of the residents and authorities, we decided to utilise the land to build a tuition centre. The well was closed and we set up the Dr Ambedkar Pagutharivu Padasalai there,” says Sakthi Vel.
“Since we did not have funds for construction, most of the parents, who were construction workers, pitched in to use their labour in building the tuition centre. Similarly, those who were electricians and plumbers helped with their area of expertise,” he says.
The tuition centre has hundreds of children studying there now.
Read more: Life in the many Thideer Nagars of Chennai
How does the tuition centre in Chennai’s Vyasarpadi function?
Streamlining operations was the next challenge. Many enthusiastic first-generation graduates from the community are part of the efforts to pay it forward through the tuition centre.
Around 40 volunteers of Vyasai Thozhargal have formed different committees to take responsibility for each and every aspect of the running of the tuition centre in Vyasarpadi. This includes around 12 teachers who hold more than one degree.
The students in this tuition centre are categorised based on the classes they are in and each class has a designated teacher. Once school gets over, the students head home to change and come straight to the tuition. They clean the tuition centre and set up the room even before the teachers arrive.
Nancy, one of the teachers who has a postgraduate degree in mathematics, is currently training to become a teacher. She is in her college from 10 am to 4 pm. Her evenings are spent teaching children at the centre.
“I will be at the tuition centre till 9.30 pm and then get back home to my studies and other personal work,” she says.
Most of the volunteers here have full-time jobs after which they spend time teaching the kids at the tuition centre. The centre also has special classes for students appearing for board exams and also holds meetings with parents once a month.
“We teach the children in a way that they understand the concepts. It is not rote learning. It helps them to remember things in a better way,” notes Nancy.
“Most often the underlying reason for the child’s lack of concentration is family issues or some other issues at school. Since we know each and every child in person and since we talk to them as family, they tend to open up to us more easily. While it makes them feel that they have a safe space to share, it also helps us to address the issues that are bothering them,” says Sunil.
Sunil cites the example of a child in the tuition centre who looked very disturbed for a few days.
Her parents were separated and she was unable to pay her school fee. “When we enquired about this, she said that she has not been going to school as the fee was not paid. The volunteers then pitched in the fee amount and ensured that she was back in school,” he says.
How does this tuition centre in Chennai help the community?
Many children in the area tend to drop out of school after 10 or 12 as they would have failed in one or two subjects. However, over the past six years, the students from this tuition centre in Chennai have been able to pass all the subjects thanks to sustained focus.
S Keerthana, a student of Class 9, says, “My world was only home and school. I came to know about my area of interest in both education and sports only after coming here. Since the teachers here are very motivating and friendly, I am able to balance both education and sports,” she notes.
Nithya T, the mother of students in classes 6 and 7, says that both her children have got better in their studies after coming to the tuition centre. “While the schools do not concentrate on the slow learners who would fail in one or two subjects, the tuition centre has ensured all the children here pass the exams in all the subjects at least with the minimum marks and that is a huge relief for us,” she says.
Sujatha S, a parent whose child attends the centre regularly, notes that she feels safer when her children are in the tuition centre than elsewhere. “We are not finding enough time after the job to help the children with their studies. Many children get distracted from education and fall into the traps of antisocial activities or early marriages as many factors about their home environment contribute to it. Ever since I started sending my children to the tuition centre, I feel safe knowing that they will not get distracted,” she adds.
Going beyond academics
Apart from academic coaching, this tuition centre in Chennai also has sports activities designed for students of various age groups.
Speaking about it Sakthi Vel, who is a qualified Kabadi player, says, “We came up with the idea of providing sports coaching for our children as it would be helpful to discipline them. Earlier the tuition used to start at 6 pm. The two-hour window between 4 pm and 6 pm gave a chance for the children to get distracted in many ways. So we incorporated Kabadi, Silambam, Chess and Carrom classes in the mornings and evenings. Once we started providing sports coaching, we also realised that not many families were able to afford nutritious meals for their children. To address this, we started providing healthy snacks to the children.”
Tamil, a volunteer at the centre, says that over the years, the centre has helped to change the perspective of the parents towards education. “The parents were not able to take the time to check if the children have been progressing well in school and college but now they are convinced that education will help their children come up in life. This change in mentality is a big achievement,” he says.
Rasiya Banu A is one of the students from the first batch of the tuition centre. She is now in her final year of an undergraduate degree in Economics. “I did not know how to apply for college admission. It was the volunteers at the tuition centre who accompanied me to the college and taught me the process. They are like family to me. Today, give back by teaching at the same tuition centre where I grew up,” she says.
The volunteers at the centre are now also looking to ensure that the kids from schools are able to pursue a college education and also that the graduates in the community are able to secure jobs that they are qualified for.
Education is seen as the key tool to fighting poverty and discrimination. This is one of the key philosophies that drive the activities of the centre.
“We do not want the next generation to face the same discrimination and stigma that we faced growing up. We want to ensure that the children here feel heard and seen. We need to provide a safety net for them to build a future where our place, Vyasarpadi, is known for producing educated and well-informed citizens”, says Sakthi Vel.
Despite facing challenges in sourcing funds and carrying out the daily activities of the tuition centre, the volunteers remain hopeful. They are confident that their work in keeping children in school and ensuring their future is stable will yield results. So much so there are plans to replicate such models across the city wherever there is a need.
Though such tuition centres have been functioning in many other places, the initiative of the Vyasai Thozhargal stands out, largely because of the collective effort of the locals, a comprehensive plan to balance sports and education and the follow-up till the kids become adults and get gainful employment.