Kuthambakkam, the path-breaking panchayat 35 km west of Chennai in the neighbouring Thiruvallur district has launched perhaps the first academy in Tamil Nadu for rural skill building, with assistance from Britain.
The Deputy High Commissioner for Britain, Mr.Stuart Innes handed over on July 1, 2004 a cheque for Rs.8,23,300 given under the Small Grants Scheme to Panchayat president Mr.Rangasamy Ilango, at a ceremony that was attended by members of far-flung panchayats in the State, self-help groups (SHG) and other non-governmental agencies.
The grant will "help the panchayat share good practice on building a sustainable, land-based village economy by involving panchayat leaders, women SHGs and village youth, a statement issued on the occasion said.
Kuthambakkam shot into the national limelight after achieving significant successes in poverty reduction and other social indicators. Mr.Ilango, a former science professional with the Government of India and resident of the same village, has pursued policies to reduce caste rivalries, alcoholism and divisive tendencies by spurring economic growth.
His all-embracing initiatives include low cost and eco-friendly housing, agro-based micro projects such as setting up of bakeries, units making 'toor' dal and groundnut processing. In other areas, they have set up units producing dairy products, jute, leather, handlooms and soaps.
Kuthambakkam also has the distinction of being one of the few villages in Tamil Nadu that successfully implemented the Samathuvapuram scheme of the erstwhile DMK Government. The scheme encouraged people of different castes to live as a community, in a specially promoted housing enclave.
India's Constitution, amended by the 73rd and 74th Amendments to encourage grassroots democracy, envisaged a basic tier of panchayats (villages) where elections would be without party affiliations coming into play. Thus, party symbols and leadership structures cannot be used to influence the elections to this tier of local self-governance. Mr.Ilango has kept away from party politics, and won more than one election to the local presidency.
Highlighting the goals that receive support under the Small Grants Scheme, Mr.Innes said these included :
The training modules and workshops to be conducted by the new Academy will seek to increase awareness among villagers about their rights, upgrade capacity to select and implement cost-effective technologies and generate employment for themselves. Around 360 panchayats are targeted for coverage in the first year, with a focus on such issues as child literacy, budgeting, planning, health, sanitation and energy efficiency, the Deputy High Commission statement said.
The Deputy Head of Mission, BDHC, Chennai, Mr.David Abbot made the opening remarks and Mr.Ilango, who is the managing trustee of the Academy, outlined his vision of its programmes.
At an interaction with the members who attended today's inauguration, many women representing SHGs said they had acquired small land holdings and even built structures, but could not get micro-credit to launch their ventures. Others said they could not make progress in identifying good projects to generate incomes for all their members. All speakers affirmed their determination to press ahead and assert their rights.
Some women said they had entered the fray despite opposition from their husbands, which made it clear that they faced difficult odds in achieving success in their efforts through SHGs.
Speaking privately, a few Panchayat presidents said many SHGs did not have sound business models and were in effect functioning as lending institutions themselves, making small profits from the interest income. They needed good skills and support to make their ventures sustainable.
Mr.Elango and the Kuthambakkam Panchayat can be reached on telephone at: +91 44 25016595 and Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
This report is produced by the Development Communication Initiative,Chennai