Irom Sharmila didn't enjoy the taste of food for 16 years. Neither did she go on a holiday nor take a relaxing break for over a decade. But now, Sharmila is on a vacation. And the best part: the living martyr of Indian democracy is holidaying here in Kerala. Sharmila’s month-long sojourn in the state is hosted by Santhi Gramam Medical Rehabilitation Center at Mattathukadu in Palakkad.
A small tribal village, Mattathukadu is situated almost 82 kilometers away from Palakkad town. You need to travel for almost three hours through hill slopes and hairpin curves to reach this rural township, which houses Santhi Gramam. And if you come here one of these days, you can find Iron Lady Sharmila sitting cross-legged on one corner of the veranda and soaking up the ambiance of this quiet hamlet.
“It is a beautiful feeling to be here. I see peacocks and parrots. I haven't seen them before,” Sharmila told Onmanorama. “The people here are so loving. I wish I could return to Kerala with my fiance,” she added with a smile.
Santhi Gramam is all in the news ever since Sharmila arrived here last week. But this medical institution founded by noted social welfare activist Uma Preman has a much longer story to narrate. Sharmila is just one among the many souls who have come down to Santhi Gramam to revitalize themselves. Santhi Gramam or the 'village of peace' has been a heaven for the elderly, destitute, deformed and paralyzed since 1997.
Ask Uma about about Santhi project and she goes eloquent: “When I came to visit Attappadi three years ago, I realized that the poor living conditions of tribes remain the same despite spending crores for their upliftment through numerous welfare programs. So, I decided to do something for them.”
A 20-bedded physiotherapy treatment center, Santhi Gramam runs solely on crowd funding and goodwill sponsorships. “Once we get information about suffering individuals from hospitals, we pick them up from the spot in our own vehicle and bring them to the Santhi family,” she says.
Every inmate of Santhi Gramam has a story to tell. Alakambal (name changed) hails from Namakkal district of Tamilnadu. She has been bedridden for almost six years before she was brought to the village three months ago. Now she walks with the support of creches and dreams of a pleasant reunion with family. “This is my paradise. It will remain so even after I go home. I was treated with so much love and attention,” words choked in Alakambal’s throat.
No different is the case of Palani, a 63-year-old arthritis patient. “I am unmarried and was maintained by my nephew. Unfortunately, arthritis brought me down. I was bedridden for three long years. Couldn't even move my leg by myself. Then I came here and look, I'm walking on my own!” Palani smiles, dragging his left foot on ground. No, all these are not about the treatment provided here, but the boundless love and companionship offered.
Sharmila was brought here by freelance journalist-writer Basheer Madala. “It’s our pleasure to welcome her to Santhi Gramam,” says Uma. “She needs rest and she is interested in meditation and Yoga. Santhi is indeed the perfect place for her.”
Sharmila was filled with joy when asked about her plans in Kerala. “I love it here. It is so peaceful. But I am concerned about the fact that discrimination and oppression prevails in this cent-percent literate state. I don't want people to suffer anywhere in this world,” she says.
Santhi Gramam has successfully implemented some skill-based small scale industries to train and uplift the tribal population. Apart from the papaya, banana and drumstick cultivation, they have a palm leaf dining plate manufacturing plant that functions within the campus. A sanitary napkin plant also functions with the help of locals and it aims to create awareness about sanitation and cleanliness among the tribal women and school going girls.
“A tailoring unit and a farm school concept are the prospective ventures. They cover wormy compost, dairy farming, fish farming, poultry farming, mushroom farming and such. This is to equip the tribals with skills and make them practise it in their fields so as to wash out tribal proletarianization,” says Uma, who is much revered for her act of donating one of her kidneys to a complete stranger named Saleel.
Santhi medical project has served almost 640 kidney transplantation cases, more than 20,000 cardiac surgeries, over one lakh dialysis treatments and several other rehabilitation programs.