As we speed down the highway from Madurai, I keep bombarding Ashoke Joshi with questions on the ‘model village’ we are visiting in Tamil Nadu’s Tirunelveli district. The Chairman of Srinivasan Services Trust (SST) patiently dwells on the core of Thirukkurungudi, original home to the TVS group, and part of an important drive for community empowerment.

I am stunned at the cleanliness as we drive through the village. There are no huts, garbage or open sewers, signs commonly associated with rural India. Our day is set to begin as SST’s trio of Arumugam, Subbiah and Anbazhagan chalk out the first meeting with women self-help groups (SHGs).

There are rows of curious faces as we make our way to the room. Arumugam doubles as moderator and urges the women to share their experiences. Shanthi recalls the time there were no toilets 15 years ago, but today every home here has one. During this period the SST helped the women access loans from banks.

Shanthi and her fellow members at Andal Women’s SHG in Thirukkurungudi began rearing cows and goats, as well as making garlands and agarbathis. Recently, they got a loan of ₹3 lakh to grow the business.

Peer Banu, among the more vocal in the group, is part of Bismi Women’s SHG in the neighbouring town of Eruvadi. She proudly says women are giving top priority to education. Animal husbandry is the key activity in her SHG apart from tailoring and marketing dresses, all of which add up to a reasonable monthly income of over ₹5,000. Banu’s sons are engineers and she gleefully adds that the men of Eruvadi now acknowledge the growing role of women.

Further, there is a lot of communal harmony, with Muslims and Hindus jointly pitching in to clean mosques and temples.

Kala tells us that Indumathi Women’s SHG recently got a loan of ₹4 lakh to expand its business in poultry farming, handicrafts made of banana fibre and goat rearing. Their village, Thalapathy Samuthiram, has banned alcohol and domestic violence is almost a thing of the past.

We next move to the Sathya Sai Skill School, where students (who have completed Class VIII) tell us their dreams of becoming electricians and plumbers. There are then sessions with farmers where, once again, the presence of women is a reminder how the South has moved ahead in bridging the gender gap.

The following day, a visit to neighbouring Navathirupathi brings us into contact with Thayammal, who has won the CII Woman Exemplar Award. A visit to Campbellabad is a case study of a clean village, while farmers at Erattaithirupathi have us engrossed with their success stories.

Everyone we meet speaks of SST’s contribution in this turnaround story and the statistics bear this out. In Thirukkurungudi and Navathirupathi, inhabited by 4.7 lakh people, nearly 72,000 of the one lakh families here earn more than ₹15,000 each month. A little over 17,000 youth have found jobs, earning ₹5,000-plus a month. Infant and maternal mortality levels are virtually zilch, while illiteracy among women is down to 20 per cent.

As Managing Trustee of SST, Venu Srinivasan, CMD of TVS Motor, says these are stories of transformation and empowerment. True charity, in his view, lies in giving people a livelihood and not a meal… to imbue people with self-esteem.

He says SST works in tandem with the Government to take a host of schemes to the villagers. This has meant working closely with field directors, agricultural officers and the police. Today, the villages contribute the lion’s share in upgrading schools or toilets, with SST as navigator.

Interestingly, Srinivasan used the Japanese system of TQM (total quality management) in the SST’s work. Besides economic growth and social development, the endeavour was to generate wealth from waste — as in the case of banana fibre or garbage converted to compost and manure for farmers. Water, likewise, was a commodity that had to be preserved in this traditionally dry zone.

Today, schools in the district have toilets and running water, while anaemia has been virtually eradicated. Nearly 300 SST representatives live and work in these villages.

The writer travelled to Tirunelveli at the invitation of TVS Motor