At the peakof Independencestruggle in the 1920s, Gandhiji initiated and encouraged many of his disciples to start production of khadi – a hand-spun and hand-woven fabric as “Khadi”, In the words of Pandit Nehru, “The livery of freedom”. Khadi was introduced as a political weapon and as the best instrument for giving concrete expression to the Swadeshi Spirit to boycott foreign goods. Khadi rendered an opportunity to every man, woman and child to cultivate self-discipline and self-sacrifice as a part of the non-cooperation movement.
One such famous Gandhian couple were the founders of Gandhigram, Dr. T.S. Soundram and Dr. G. Ramachandran.
Dr. Soundram had a long history of organising and participating in welfare services for the deprived class and Dr. Ramachandran, as an educationist and a Gandhian reform worker had etched a place for himself in history. When Kasturba Gandhi passed away the Nation felt a memorial was to be constructed for her. Plenty of donations came in; Dr. Sarojini Naidu gave a cheque for Rs. 1 Crore in a prayer meeting to Gandhiji expressing the Nations’ wish. Gandhiji in the same meeting announced that a Trust be formed in Kasturba’s name and that the money should be utilised to start centres in remote rural areas and that women, especially young widows and deserted women should be trained as Arogya Sevikas in these centres.
Accordingly, Kasturba Gandhi National Trust was started and Gandhiji himself was the first chairman with head office in Indore. Gandhiji nominated Dr. Soundram as the agent of this Trust in Southern India by handing over her a portrait of Kasturba in a public meeting in Madras.
She was asked to set-up a rural institution, in a remote place, to serve the most deprived of people, to provide them with skills and support to revive village industries and thereby strengthen the rural community and their self-confidence. This was Gandhiji’s vision and his specific message of blessing to Gandhigram was “Success attends where truth reigns”. Formally Gandhigarm was launched on 7th October 1947.
One of the earliest tasks of the Kasturba Hospital at Gandhigram was to train the Arogya Sevikas; students after their training were posted in remote rural areas. They served as teachers where there was no school, as doctors where there was no hospital and as social workers in places where there were communal riots.
Dr. T.S. Soundram and Dr. G. Ramachandran started Gandhigram to help the rural poor for their growth and development in the fields of health, education, economic development and social welfare. It was this vision which manifested into the various institutions. Every time a difficult situation arose within the local community, it was addressed through an initiative. This initiative was then strengthened and institutionalised.
During the early days after Independence, the task of Gandhigram was to provide service, to nurse and build strength in the rural neighbourhood which was incapacitated due to colonial onslaught. Eradicating illiteracy and ignorance through education was yet another important step. Nation building through specific programmes for youth was another major area of work. In the 1960s, Gandhigram played a crucial role by coordinating and training youth as Shanthi Sena (peace warriors). Read more about the Shanti Sena and its current relevance at http://www.nonviolentpeaceforce.org/research/shanti_sena.htm.
Catering to the welfare of the women and children was a major thrust area under the leadership of Dr. Soundram. Sowbhagya Illam and Sevikashram were two of her favourite projects. Though village community interaction has been a major part of the work since 1947, a formal ‘Village Extension Unit’ was started in 1999 to increase its scope of work and interaction.
The health services were launched in the earlyIndependencedays to take care of malnutrition and severe health problems in the neighbourhood. TheKasturbaHospitalprovides its health services even today at a very nominal fee to the rural community. For those who cannot afford even the nominal charges, the services are free of cost.
One of the education initiatives in the earlier days was Gandhigram Rural Institute. It has since then branched off into the prestigious Gandhigram Rural Institute – Deemed University, in 1976.
Addressing the livelihood needs of the village community was one of the earliest priorities of Gandhigram. Today, Gandhigram Trust takes care of the health, welfare and educational initiatives, while the Lakshmi Seva Sangh and the Gandhigram Khadi Trust manage employment generation programmes through Khadi and village industries.
The Khadi and village industrial units provide the villagers a place to hone their skills and express it through their work. The village extension work started in 1999. It takes the knowledge of village industries directly into the midst of village communities as an extension programme. The agricultural extension programme conceives various projects in agriculture and natural resource management to serve and strengthen the village community.