"While in first standard, I studied in 35 schools in a year's time." -Shankar, Founder, Tribal Society.
Hailing from the Vaghirivel (commonly known as Narikuravar or Indian Gypsy) community, Shankar spent his childhood as a nomad, moving along with his parents. "My mother insisted that I should study. Being a bead maker, she moved from place to place with the family. When she found a school, she would meet the teacher, gift her with a bead chain, and request her to teach me alphabets. While in first standard, I studied in 35 schools in a year's time. It is because of my mother's effort, I am educated today," says Shankar.
Shankar is the founder of 'Narikuravar Tribal Society', and manages a residential school in Cuddalore. He says: "I do not regret for having spent my childhood in several schools. If one would gift a mountain, and ask me to sacrifice my mother's affection for even an hour, I would not compromise. We give a lot of importance for mother's affection in our community."
"My parents Arukani and Manickam along with my siblings Selvam and Vijaya used to camp under a tree that was near my school. This is a common practice in our community, as we feel that education should not be a reason for parents to stay away from their children. They remain closer to their children until such time they feel secure, and realise the value of education," he adds.
At the age of 16, Shankar formed the 'All India Narikuravar Sangam' (sangam means society) in 1980, and enrolled his relatives as board members. After completing his higher secondary school education, he visited the society during the summer vacation. He noticed irregularities and mismanagement in the society, and observed that only few members were reaping benefits from the government. He re-nominated members, and became an active member of the association.
Shankar is the first graduate in his community. "I enrolled in Loyola College in 1987, and pursued my graduation in sociology. Fr. Leo Kurian was kind enough to offer me a seat. As I did not score high marks in my 12th examination, he struggled hard to convince his committee members to provide me admission. Gnananasundari, Secretary, Narikuravar Student home, Saidapet was my mentor and she supported me until I completed my graduation," he says.
After completing his Bachelor's Degree, Shankar pursued his Master's Degree at Annamalai University, and then did his LLB at Balaji Law School at Pondicherry. "My parents camped near my college as well. I used to visit them during the interval and joined them for lunch every day. Most of my friends understood and respected my family culture, but few used to mock at me," says Shankar.
After completing his post-graduation, Shankar got associated with social activists-Geetha Ramakrishan, advisor to the All India Construction Workers Association in Chennai, Nalini Nair of Kerala, and Medha Patkar of West Bengal. He learnt from them how to campaign for one's rights. In 2003, he organized a padayatra along with Geetha Ramakrishnan from Kanyakumari to Chennai for the unorganized workers federation. While he campaigned for the rights of the Narikuravar community, Geetha Ramakrishnan campaigned for the rights of the construction workers. "In the 53 days of padayatra, I learnt a lot from Geetha Ramakrishnan. Immediately on return, I registered a trade union 'Tamil Nadu Pazhangudi Vaghirivel Thozhilalar Sangam' (TAPVATS), as this would create more awareness amongst the members and further prevent corruption," he adds.
Through the trade union, Shankar campaigned for a uniform policy at the national level to recognise the Narikuravar community as Scheduled tribes in all the States of India.
Through trade union membership, Shankar offered the tribal people... Read More [+] a common identity, and an assured place in government classification and censuses. This provided the communities a common platform to fight for their rights, to be listed as scheduled tribes, and for social welfare benefits. Their trade union membership cards gave them an identity when they travelled to other states, and provided them with access to trade unions in those states. Till date, Shankar has enlisted over 1,000 members in four districts in Tamil Nadu.
It was during this time Ashoka Foundation recognized his efforts and awarded him a fellowship.
"MSDS extended further support to my organisation by providing educational support to five of our community children who were struggling to pursue their college education. Now, Rajasekaran is pursuing MBA, Murali is doing his Bachelors in History, and Jayachithra and Annapoorani are undergoing teacher training course. I am thankful to Mr. P.N. Devarajan for providing education aid of Rs. 1 lakh.
In 2003, Shankar married Anuradha, a Narikuravar, who has done her post-graduation in social work. Shankar's mother supervises the kitchen at the residential school and continues to make bead-chains during her free time. His younger sister Vijaya is educated up to the tenth standard and is now managing a residential school at Perumbanur, Cudalore. His brother Selvam is also educated up to tenth standard and assists him in his day-to-day work.
"My food habits have changed as I mingle even with people outside my community. But, when I visit my community people and during festive occasions I eat whatever is being served to me. I value my culture and respect my tradition. This is what an ideal social worker should do," says Shankar.
The Narikuravar community is spread across several districts in Tamil Nadu. Most of them live at Devarayaneri at Trichy, Thiruvannamalai, Kancheepuram, and Villupuram. They have a traditional way of clothing and they live in harmony with nature. People speak loudly, as they are used to living in open spaces. "We eat food that is available in nature-honey, tuber, birds, and animals. The strongest value that we have is the joint family system. In a joint family all family members-grandparents, parents, children, and grandchildren- share only one plate to have a meal. They do not share any differences amongst them, and they tolerate each other. But, this value is slowly decreasing," says Shankar.
Shankar proudly says that his community does not have people with major diseases nor anyone is affected with HIV/Aids. Likewise, there are no cases of suicides or dowry deaths, and there is no one suffering from mental illness or stress. "All this is due to the strong family culture and strict norms we follow in our community. Within the Narikuravar community, there are three sub clans-Mevado, Gujarat, and Selio. The community members marry within these clans. We are led by a Panchayat leader called 'Navio' who resolves domestic issues in the community," adds Shankar.
Working directly in 12 districts, Shankar's work has spread to almost 30 districts, and he hopes to cover the entire state in two years, with a network of state federations connected to a national level federation.
"I am just an ordinary citizen. The reason people feel that I am different from them is because I am striving towards obtaining equal rights and equal status for my community. I have just started my journey and have a long way to go," concludes Shankar.
Shankar was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2006. He is also one of the recipients of Manava Seva Dharma Samvardhani Awards 2011.