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It was Pongal with a difference for Ram Krishnan, an alumnus of the
Indian Institute of Technology - Madras, who spent it in Vilathikulam,
a village in Tamil Nadu.
Vilathikulam in Ramanathapuram district is one of the driest regions
in the state. On an average, it receives only nine days of rainfall in
But the parched village has seven million litres of water in three
ponds today, thanks to Ram Krishnan's efforts.
His involvement with Vilathikulam started four years ago. Today, the
villagers are like his family. In fact, he had invited many of them to
the Pan IIT conference in Chennai in December and also arranged rural
visits for the alumni, hoping to motivate some of them into working
for the betterment of poor Indian villages.
**The villagers are like Ram Krishnan's family**
Ram Krishnan, 62, migrated to the United States over 30 years ago and
lives with his family in St Paul, Minnesota.
Like most IIT graduates, he opted for a well-paying job abroad after
finishing his studies. But the severe water shortage in IIT-Madras
forced him to realise the gravity of the problem. He was reminded of
his childhood days when his mother had to wake up at 3 am everyday to
collect the limited water supplied by the municipal corporation in
Dr Sekhar Raghavan, a physics professor, started a door-to-door
campaign in some residential areas in Chennai to popularise the
concept of rainwater harvesting. He convinced over 500 homes,
industries and charitable institutions to implement rainwater
**The Gujarat earthquake changed his life**
January 23, 2009
When Ram Krishnan learnt of Dr Raghavan's efforts, he got in touch
with the professor and the duo formed the Akash Ganga Trust, a
citizens' action group comprising 10 persons who harvested rainwater
in Chennai. Ram Krishnan, the president of the North America IIT
Alumni Association, became the overseas coordinator of the project.
He invested Rs 4 lakh (Rs 400,000) to set up a model house called the
Akash Ganga Rain Centre to create awareness about rain water
Ram Krishnan admits that he didn't venture out to villages to spread
awareness about rain water harvesting as there were no comfortable
hotels for him to stay. But his attitude changed after he paid a visit
to a village in Gujarat, which had been devastated by the January 26,
2001 earthquake. Ram Krishnan and many of his friends raised money to
rebuild the village.
**'There is no Tamil Nadu in Chennai'**
"That was my first visit to an Indian village," he recalls. "Those
people had lost everything. There were 208 houses in the village, and
203 had collapsed. When we went there, we didn't know anything about
what awaited us. I went there as a volunteer of Care International."
"As I was leaving the village, two old women told me, 'Till the
earthquake happened, nobody came to help us. Nobody bothered about
us'. That changed my attitude towards villages. I saw the terrible
situation that villagers face in our country, and how we do nothing to
improve their situation. I felt ashamed of myself," he added.
He then chose Vilathikulam in Tamil Nadu as his karmabhoomi.
Elaborating on his decision to work in a village instead of the state
capital, Ram Krishnan says, "There is no Tamil Nadu in Chennai. It's
another big city. It has nothing to do with Tamil Nadu."
**'Everybody warned me that nothing grows here'**
Four years ago, Ram Krishnan, along with 17 of his friends from US,
went on a five-day trip to the Tamil Nadu countryside. After
travelling through many dry villages, they realised that
Ramanathapuram and Thoothukudi were the driest places in Tamil Nadu.
Ram Krishnan chose to start his work in Vilathikulam. "Everybody
warned me that nothing grows in Vilathikulam. I was wasting my time
there as it rains only nine days a year," he says.
Today, Vilathikulam has donned a new look. The villagers have
collected 7 million litres of water in three ponds, which can be used
for agricultural purposes, drinking as well as shared with three
Ram Krishnan plans to clean the water, collect in it 20 litre cans and
ferry it to other villages in a bullock cart! Vilathikulam has
sufficient water supply till the next monsoon.
**'Villagers are not happy with plentiful harvest'**
Ram Krishnan also plans to build a warehouse to store the grains
produced by the farmers.
"On the day of the harvest, farmers don't get anything for themselves.
The entire grain is under debt to the bank. So, a plentiful harvest is
bad news for them because the price goes down. We city dwellers are
happy with a plentiful harvest but they are not. They can store half
of their harvest in the godowns, so that they can reap the benefits,"
Ram Krishnan has also started a community centre -- the Bharatiyar
Community Centre -- for the villagers, where farmers are taught
various things including organising health camps, Self Help Groups,
improving agricultural production etc. IIT engineer-turned-farmer R
Madhavan is helping him in this endeavour. At the centre, farmers also
try out the methods adopted by Madhavan for first-hand knowledge of
new agricultural methods.
**You don't need a Tata or Birla to help a village**
Ram Krishnan visits Vilathikulam four times in a year to check on the
work done by villagers. "It is worth a million dollars to see a smile
on the face of a child or an old woman. When they welcome you, a total
stranger, like a part of their family, you feel so happy," he adds on
an emotional note.
Recalls Ram Krishnan, "On December 22, after the PAN IIT conference,
we took a group of people to many villages including Madhavan's
village. Madhavan's efforts touched one IITian's heart so much that he
wrote to me. He wanted to help a village."
He urges the youth to "reach out and understand Indian villages."
"It is simple. You don't need a Tata or Birla to help a village, even
one person can do that. We need many, many people to change the face
of Indian villages. Youngsters do not have to wait till their hair
turns grey," he says.
Rediff.com/23 Jan 09