Rehabilitation of the marginalised must be sustainable for it to have a life-changing impact, feels Sandeep Nanduri, a Tamil Nadu-cadre IAS officer of the 2009 batch who has been there, done that. Around three years ago, when, as the district collector and magistrate of Thoothukudi in Tamil Nadu, he decided to act on the petitions of groups of differently abled and transgender people, he knew that he had to focus on their livelihood options. He did this by helping them with their independent ventures—a café for the former and a milk cooperative for the latter. Today, he is no longer the collector of Thoothukudi—he is currently the director, tourism, and managing director of the Tamil Nadu Tourism Development Corporation—but both the ventures have outgrown the need for handholding that he had to do.
Nanduri’s teaching-them-to-fish approach has helped nurture his pet projects into self-sustaining businesses. “I realised that if I had to do something for these communities, it would have to be a livelihood-related endeavour that would give them self-confidence and self-sufficiency. Ultimately, it is they who would have to continue with the project,” Nanduri says. Therefore, he made it a point to instill that confidence in them that even though they might face certain challenges that others did not, they could still do something worthwhile and earn a livelihood.
“I noticed that a majority of the people who came to me with grievances were from the most marginalised sections of society. They need sustainable rehabilitation and not just a one or two-time monetary help,” Nanduri avers. Providing government jobs to everyone was not possible, so he and his staff decided to help them set up their own business. With funding support from private organisations, Nanduri and his staff helped set up a café, named Café Able, in 2019 in the premises of the district collectorate.
The café started off with 12 differently abled individuals who called themselves the Dream Kitchen, and serves reasonably priced south Indian food. During the pandemic, the café cooked and served food to Covid-19 patients.
The daily earnings are back to pre-Covid level of approximately Rs 10,000.
Cooperative, Dignified Life
Another significant initiative by Nanduri is a milk cooperative in the Kovilpatti municipality in Thoothukudi. The district has around 250 transgender individuals, most of whom have neither the documents to avail government benefits nor a house or steady source of income. Under Nanduri’s supervision, the district administration shortlisted 30 transgender individuals who were then trained by the animal husbandry department in dairy farming. They purchased 30 cows, one for each member, with a bank loan. Thus was born the Manthithope Transgenders’ Milk Producers’ Cooperative Society. Today, each member earns close to Rs 8,000 monthly, while the cooperative has managed to have an annual turnover of Rs 3 lakh. “The transgender project has been a success,” Nanduri says.
Nanduri’s initiatives have given new confidence to socially and economically marginalised sections and ensured a means of livelihood for them. He admits that he was worried about the growth of these ventures when Covid-19 severely affected their work, but they survived and are now independently doing well for themselves. Life-transforming initiatives take time to show results, but those results are long-lasting, he says.