Vaikalpalayam is a small village with humble homes and asphalt roads punctuated with potholes. At the entrance to the village stands a small brick building that is bursting with the shouts of a dozen happy children. It houses one of the ten kindergartens or Bala Shanti Kendra which the Gandhian institution Shanti Ashram opened over the years in the region of Coimbatore, in Tamil Nadu, South India, close to the borders with Kerala.
This Bala Shanti Kendra is one of the ten kindergartens which are part of a project named Bala Shanti. When it began twenty years ago the kindergarten had a precise goal: to begin an educational process among dalit, the outcaste whom Mahatma Gandhi named Harijans, children of God, in order to give them a chance at a more dignified life. What happened then has been called by some a veritable revolution. In India, the dalit live on the edge of the towns, they may not draw water from the same well as the other villagers and, until only a few decades ago, it was unthinkable that they should enter the same temples. In Vaikalpalayam today, dalit children and those of the superior caste study, eat and pray side by side. Their mothers sit beside those of the other students at meetings for the parents of the 220 children who attend kindergartens founded and run by this Gandhian organization that was begun twenty-five years ago by Dr Aram, a nominated member of the Upper House of the Indian Parliament, pacifist and top level Indian educator.
The goals of the Bala Shanti project as a whole include:
- Develop a holistic development initiative in the 3-18 age group
- Provide children in the pre-school age with education, nutrition & health services through the Bala Shanti Kendras
- Create a child-centered platform for advancing Peace & Inter-religious cooperation
- Coordinate a monthly Children’s Parliament : ‘Ondru Seruvom’ for rural boys & girls who graduated from the pre-school program
- Ensure the Rights & Responsibilities of Children in partnership with children, families, communities & institutions working for children
Today nearly 1500 children who graduated from the Bala Shanti Kendras participate in the ‘Ondru Seruvom’ or Monthly Children’s Parliament, contributing their commitment and service for the welfare of their village. A dedicated team of teachers, social workers, and child development experts have worked hard for two decades to realize the vision of the program.
The local families can only afford one meal a day with a monthly salary of more or less sixty dollars.
In recent years, with the great industrial development that is taking place in Coimbatore, new settlements of temporary workers have arisen. Many of the migrant workers are also economically very vulnerable and belong to all religious traditions, the Muslim, the Hindu and the Christian traditions. Many social problems including alcoholism and domestic violence affect the families, requiring thus not only education of the child, but also of the families. Bala Shanti Program serves the community in three ways, Assistance to Children, Assistance to family and Assistance to Community.
A group of mothers have been integrated in a micro-credit project. But also throughout their educational experience, the children participate in lessons aimed at teaching them how to save
Last year, four year-old Karuna was able to save three thousand rupees in her piggy bank, the same amount as her father’s monthly salary. In the balashanti they learn the rules of hygiene care, which helps to prevent those illnesses that are often caused by poverty. Dr Aram and his wife Minoti are clear on the fact that in order to build a lasting peace it was necessary to start with the little ones. This is where the idea of the kindergartens came from. “The children are often the ones who are able to break the mechanism of family violence and create peace,” recounts Mrs Murthy who has followed the project for more than twenty years. Recently, Divya, a kindergartner at the balashanti went to sit in her father’s arms during a family quarrel. She said to him: “Daddy, violence is like the devil!”
Moreover, the children are taught respect for each faith. The morning starts with a Hindu, Muslim and Christian prayer and so the children begin to grow without the barriers and prejudices that have separated groups and communities from this part of India for centuries, and created social tension that often erupted into violent and bloody clashes.
The Focolare have been working in this project since the late nineties, when Minoti Aram felt the need to ensure food and nutritional supplements to the children of the balashanti. At that time the New Families and the Gandhian Shanti Ashram joined together on this project, and this gave birth to a brotherhood between the two movements that has opened to religious dialogue and to peace education for the new generations. Gandhi had said: “If you want to teach real peace (…) you should begin with the children.”
In its 20th year, the program will deepen and expand its service to vulnerable children, train and improved capacities of community workers and document experience and findings for policy change, says Shri. A. Devaraj, the current Head of the Bala Shanti Program.
(From an insert in Città Nuova (5) – 2012)