The year was 1991, that was the time when Corporate Social Responsibility was unheard of. Life was simple, Corporates did just their business and made profits and Charity Organizations did not do any business but doling out welfare and feeding the poor and did not make any profit. The two entities functioned in their own spheres and nobody bothered or even thought that Business should engage with Community Organizations or vice versa.
In that period, I was working in an International Aid Agency's Non Formal Adult Education for Fishing Communities in Coastal Tamil Nadu. Total Literacy was the all encompassing Mantra and every district in Tamil Nadu was busy declaring themselves "100% Literate". In this backdrop, we got zero support from the Govt. when we said we wanted to educate the fisherfolk
I was joined in this mission impossible by a Catholic Priest, and a fiery character who had strong communist idealogies. We soldiered on against all odds and went about setting up non-formal education centres in fishing hamlets - where we also taught them to read and write. Predominantly, though the NFE centres were more a platform to discuss the aspirations, the joys and sorrows of the younger generation of the fishing community. We also were privy to the ocean like wisdom of the village heads who extended their full support and wanted their wards to be 'educated' not just literate.
It was no coincidence that the fishermen /women were as broad minded as the ocean itself. They had their priorities right and their approach to life was to face it with all its struggles and never back down or complain. They believed that the Ocean with its abundant treasures will take care of them – come what may. They also understood, that education is not just knowing to write down your name. They did not go to any classroom, but even a 5 year old in that village will tell the time by just looking at the position of the sun. They know when to venture out into the sea and when not to. They knew how to calculate the “profit -loss' for the day, and the women could make accurate guess on the weight of the fish caught even while it is being offloaded onto the shore.
Enthused by their active participation, the NFE centres became a centre of intense discussion on issues of community development like creating jobs, income generation, mainstream or formal education etc. Government meanwhile got wind of the happenings in these centres that they finally decided to close down all centres. The foreign Nation which was generously funding this activity was told rather bluntly that they cannot continue with a "literacy' program in a 100% literate State. The Development Counsellor fought valiantly, but had to succumb to bureucratic pressure and finally the project was abruptly shut down.
Back then there was no Govt. backing, no corporate funding, no fancy Public Private Partnership or fancier Citizenship Initiatives - but it was purely, unadulterated People's Participation that kept the project going. The fishing community supported the project not because it will help them write their names on a piece of paper, they understood that it will help build their community stronger.
The project also me a new perspective to life, They helped define my approach to life. Till this date, this conviction has helped me to work towards bringing out the true meaning of education and unearth the treasures of knowledge buried deep under the recess of rote learning and discover the joy of learning – something that the humble fisherfolk realized from day one.