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Payir - Sapling to Tree

It’s hard to picture an angry Senthil Gopalan, but there once was. At 47 he has devised ways to stand his ground without confrontation. In fact, he is far too modest and way too soft spoken that you wonder how he accomplishes all that he does, tucked away in a small village called Thenur (honey village) in the district of Perambalur. But ‘WE’ are behind all the work that he frontends.

It could have been the early years spent in the highly caste charged village of Sathanur (no, not the one with the dam), near Thuraiyur. It could have been the inspiration from extensive reading about Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Buddha, Vivekananda, and Gandhi. It could have been the friends that dreamed of social change as young teens at Akhilandeshwari Vidhyalaya (Trichy) and RSK (BHEL Campus, Trichy). It could also have been at RVS Engineering (Dindigul) where diversity meant largely lower middle-class children of farmers, teachers, textile shop owners. It all culminated into a ‘sabhatham’ (oath) of sorts at the graduation – to return after 10 years and work for social change.

10 years was an arbitrary time that Senthil believed would be enough to earn for a simple life (the minimalist that he was), support parents and family, and set aside more towards seed funding for his dream social enterprise. So, he packed his bags and headed halfway round the world to Plymouth, Michigan working at IBM and later Lason. The map in Senthil’s head always pointed back home near Trichy, as more friends (Indian and American) hopped on the social train. And another map was taking shape during the Plymouth days – a roadmap for Payir, the organization that would lay the seeds for change.

2004 was Homecoming year for the NRI to much speculation from family and friends, awaiting a U-Turn. Undeterred, Senthil embarked on a journey through India to equip himself with the rural non-profit landscape, its inner workings, its challenges and its rewards. Covering 20,000kms by road and train visiting grassroots organizations and their founders, the experience was rich to say the least. Many of these connections have been instrumental in laying Payir’s foundations, tailored to its own people and geography. To name a few – Gandhigram , Tribal Health Initiative (Dharmapuri), Shanthi Ashram, Ashwini (Gudalur), SVYM (Street theater program), VGKK (Karnataka), Dr.Johnny (Bissam Cuttack), Dr.Raj (Ottanchathuram). Payir was born on January 24th, 2005.

“Periyappa (Sethurathnam) never convinces but inspires”. You can feel the deep personal connection Senthil feels, every time he talks about Periyappa. A plantation farmer in the Perambalur district, Periyappa took him on a 2-day tour of 10-12 surrounding villages, discussing the various issues that plagued the area. Perambalur had the distinction of being carved out of Trichy because of its backwardness. And this Uncle-Nephew relationship further bonded when Periyappa donated his entire land in Thenur and joined the Board of Trustees.

Connections run deep in Senthil’s world, but he wanted to be married only to a cause. That is, until he crossed paths with Dr.Preethi, a homeopath, who matched his undying commitment to Social Justice. Love and a bond of social entrepreneurship has nurtured this couple since. They share a simple life since they moved to the village of Thenur in 2004. As of this writing they have added a third dimension to their enterprise – the newly adopted 10month old Tara. You are sure to hear her background music over the phone if you get to speak with either of them. They do begin young, these guys!

The people of Payir are all the same – with a belief in hope, humble to a fault and driven by their passion for social change. Among the trustees is Ramanathan, also relocated from the US and committed to both his IT job and Payir. Fortunately for Payir he came with his father Meenakshisundaram Uncle, a retired auditor who has created the entire financial framework, accounting to the last paisa. Dr.Regi Lalitha, founder of Tribal Health Initiative is another trustee. Ravikumar, also on the board flies the Payir flag in the US under the ‘Friends of Payir’ initiative. “And then there is Subash, Suresh, Sathish, Tanu, Bala, Kumaran, Sarav, Lokesh, RP, and many more” adds Senthil, hoping he got most of them.

And the friends that started together have stayed together in fulfilling the dream.

From 2005, Payir has been working to empower the marginalized sections of the village populations. Here there is a lot of intertwining. A child dropping out of school could be due to nutritional issues, parents’ physical/mental health, livelihood or even caste issues. Payir is in the business of doing composite work to provide holistic solutions, through various initiatives. The length, breadth and depth of the model is an ongoing fine-tuning process.

Grassroots work in rural India comes with its challenges and resistance. But at the district level, thanks to a few administrators, there is full co-operation and respect for the enormous efforts. Payir consciously keeps visibility at the planning commission level and less on paper, in an attempt to work with the system.

With a combined staff and volunteer strength of 65-100 at various times, Payir which started with 2 villages (Thenur and Thottiyapatti), now reaches 39 panchayats in a block on few initiatives and 4 blocks in the district of Perambalur in others. With work in progress to restore 800 acres of water bodies, 5000 saplings being tended into trees, this team is still looking at the glass half-empty.

“The idea is to create a ‘movement’ that covers multiple districts, villages/panchayats. We are committed to make the change we want to see”, says Senthil, an avid Gandhian. With support from likeminded change makers, this dream is in the making.

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