Village Bells - an NGO for a noteworthy cause founded by Nivetha Venkatesan and Gowtham Kannan - took shape after an epiphany jolted Gowtham awake from his half-asleep state in the middle of the night.
Nivetha Venkatesan (29) and Gowtham Kannan (39) belong to Ayakudi - a panchayat town in the Dindigul district in the state of Tamil Nadu, India.
To best describe Nivetha and Gowtham’s inspiring journey, I’m borrowing one of my favourite dialogues from one of my favourite television shows, ‘This Is Us’: they took the sourest lemons that life had to offer and turned it into something resembling lemonade.
“My life in the past hadn’t been the easiest - from academic failure to depression to being diagnosed with a brain tumour, I have experienced several life-altering difficulties. In each of these challenging times, my friends from college were an invaluable source of strength, encouragement, and support for me. One night, while recalling how the selfless acts of my friends had enabled me to persevere and prevail over life's obstacles each time, it occurred to me that there could be several necessitous individuals in our country who are also earnestly in need of genuine aid and assistance for living a life with human dignity. It was this realization that made ‘Village Bells’ come into existence. My wife Nivetha and I established 'Village Bells' to help the underprivileged communities; it was, in a manner, our way of paying forward the kindness and generosity we were showered with during our difficult times,” Gowtham expressed.
The first initiative ‘Village Bells’ undertook was to address the pressing issue of food insecurity that, unfortunately, forces the poverty-stricken to live with hunger as their constant companion. Using only quality ingredients, Nivetha would single-handedly cook large portions of wholesome traditional food that the two would distribute for free to one hundred disadvantaged individuals in their town three days a week. This philanthropic initiative hit a break when COVID, uninvitedly, devoured everyone’s routine life. However, they continued providing groceries for free to many daily-wage workers affected by the pandemic who knew of the couple’s work and would come by their home in need of a helping hand.
The duo mentioned that amidst all this, a news segment came to their attention about a tribal community called ‘Kutti Karudu’ in the Dindigul district that survived only on tea for seven whole days owing to the pandemic and the lockdown. The philanthropists stated, “After thorough contemplation, knowing that the government and other local organizations will undoubtedly assist the underprivileged in the city, we decided to offer help to the indigenous people who might not be on the priority list of many of those extending aid to the needy.”
The ‘Village Bells’ founders shared with me how on their first visit to the ‘Kutti Karudu’ tribal land, they were dumbfounded to discover people living life without a solid roof over their heads or proper clothes to cover their bodies and without electricity or nourishing food and water, despite the advancements of the present time. The founders added that upon first meeting the tribe, each tribe member moved far away from them as fast as possible. Only after a long day of proper acquaintance did Gowtham and Nivetha learn the reason for that behaviour - - it was fear! Fear of people who weren’t part of their clan. The fear that got instilled in them after being treated as untouchables, being made to feel inferior, being discriminated against and forced to walk shirtless (only boys/men) and barefoot when entering city limits, being pelted stones at, and being ruthlessly treated like mountain animals by those perceived as “superior” by the society. Having been marginalized by society for belonging to the tribal community, also considered lower caste, the men, women, and children of the ‘Kutti Karudu’ tribe were repeatedly subjected to such ill-treatment.
It was well understood by Nivetha and Gowtham that this kind of victimization was not restricted to this particular group; indigenous communities in India have been facing social, economic, and geographic exclusion for centuries. Overwhelmed by the plight of the tribal communities, the two decided to shift the focus of their NGO to the socio-economic empowerment of tribals (also known as Adivasis in India). They said they knew they had to approach this work with cultural sensitivity and a long-term commitment to make a meaningful impact.
They later explained how they addressed the issue. Nivetha said, “The core of the problem was apparent to us - the lack of education among the indigenous members led to a lack of awareness of their rights. We knew only through education could we equip these individuals to question the systemic oppression they have been at the receiving end of. But here was the challenge - how do we convince someone who literally runs away from us to trust us to help them rise above their difficulties? Our aim - after identifying all the Adivasi villages in the Dindugal district, learning about their lifestyle, understanding how each clan would react to us, and preparing ourselves accordingly - was to win their trust. Fortunately, through our frequent interaction and the aid we provided them with during the lockdown, we succeeded in our sincere efforts to form a strong bond with the members of several villages.”
With the help of competent officials from the anti-naxalite, police, and forest departments, the couple to date supports 56 villages out of 83 tribal villages in the district - enrolling 120 students in schools, 30 students in colleges, building several homes, providing basic amenities and medical assistance, and creating employment opportunities, amongst other things. The steady flow of information from the anti-naxalite officer Mr.Jai Ganesh, constant monetary assistance from Gowtham’s friends from his college via the Village Bells Fund, occasional yet efficient work by empathetic volunteers, and steadfast support from good samaritans bolster the couple's commitment to tribal empowerment.
Nivetha and Gowtham communicated that while they distributed free groceries/food to several tribal villages during the pandemic, they were also mindful to stop the constant supply of essentials once the COVID restrictions ended in order not to encourage the communities to adopt laziness and stop working to earn their living. They stated, “We, now, apart from our routine visits, offer them aid only when required. The anti-naxalite officer Mr.Jai Ganesh updates us daily on each village’s activities, well-being, and concerns, and we plan our efforts accordingly. We travel to a different village every day as a new problem arises daily that demands our immediate attention.”
They then spoke about a time when they pawned their gold jewelry to gather funds to help a woman on the verge of ending her life as she couldn’t repay the unattainable money she owed to a powerful moneylender. Many times, the couple spends several days staying with the tribal communities persuading honor students, burdened by various factors, to return to their college/employment training each time they come home during breaks. In another instance, they welcomed an honor student to stay at their home and hired a tutor to help her study well for the impending final exam that, if done well, would secure her a well-paying job immediately after.
About the funds for their extensive philanthropic efforts - even after using all their income and donations for this worthy cause, the duo often incurs a shortage of money. “Several companies have contacted me to offer financial support as part of their CSR activity. Once that happens, things will be easier. Until then, we’ll have to make do with things as we have been until now,” Gowtham highlighted.
Despite facing challenging situations regularly, Nivetha and Gowtham remain undeterred from their purpose.
The powerful pair further added, “We are well aware that our work only scratches the surface in improving all their lives. The Tamil Nadu government extends comprehensive support for the welfare of the Adivasi community. However, what they need is safe facilities located closer to the villages. People here often refuse to study as they’ll need to journey through long, life-threatening paths to reach the institutions. This, along with the fear of being discriminated against and fear for their safety in hostels while studying/working, only worsens things. Many lives are also lost due to insufficient medical facilities nearby.”
They continued, “Humanity in people outside of these communities is also the need of the hour. We know of a tribal village where the members hide inside self-made burrows in the mud and maintain pin-drop silence at the slightest suspicion of human intrusion into their vicinity; they do this out of fear of the torture they might have to endure at the hands of the non-tribals. Many women still get sexually exploited by upper-caste men. A recent trend here is getting young educated tribal girls wedded to old, upper-caste unmarried men who want to maintain their image in society. You have matchmakers brainwashing these girls to quit their studies and accept these marriage proposals by tempting them with false hopes of a dignified life. It is obvious how these men will treat these tribal girls after marriage; therefore, we are now figuring out ways to end this gross charade.”
When a teary-eyed me concluded this moving interview by asking what they thought was the solution to all this and what they intended to do next, Nivetha and Gowtham, together, compellingly replied: “Education! Equipping these marginalized groups with quality education and empowering them to hold positions of authority in various departments is crucial for positive change. We are now committed to educating as many children and young adults as possible. A humane approach and policy-based actions are also imperative to promote tribal development.”
Gowtham Kannan and Nivetha Venkatesan also advocate eating traditional foods made from organic, local products to lead a healthy, ailment-free life. After Gowtham cured his brain tumour with food alone and Nivetha healed her arthritis the same way - by eliminating modern foods like bread, chips, refined oil, and more and consuming only traditional, organic, locally-sourced items, they are now helping others by educating about the health benefits of this type of diet.
More power to the dynamic duo!
Article by Deepika Kamalesh for Art.Knowledge
Do extend your support to The Village Bells Foundation, NGO, Dindigul, Tamilnadu, India