Independent Appeal: The workshops that can fix the lives of India's poorest

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The Independent Online

It is called agni nakshatram, the searing heat of April and May in India when the mercury soars, sweat lathers the brow and people turn as listless as the limp hanging fronds of the ever-present coconut palms.

Until as recently as five years ago, the only respite from such heat for almost everyone would have been the spinning of a ceiling fan. But in the fast developing city of Chennai, home to an increasing number of IT companies, the past few years have seen a boom in the sales of consumer goods. For the middle classes at least, air conditioners and refrigerators now offer a salve for the hottest days.

Now, in a simple but unique project, those same AC units and fridges are also providing assistance to people who currently cannot afford to buy them. In a series of courses, some of the city's most underprivileged youths are being taught how to repair and maintain such appliances. These are skills that have so far ensured that 100 of the young men who have completed the Boys Town courses have secured jobs.

"There is a lot of talk about India's growing success but the trouble is that the bottom of the pyramid does not get any attention," said VK Chandrakumar, a senior member of the Rotary Club in Madras, as Chennai was formerly known. The club, which runs the courses, is a partner of the International Children's Fund (ICT), one of the three charities supported by this year's Independent Christmas Appeal.

The courses are just one of several schemes operated for the less fortunate children and young adults of India's four largest cities. At its two Boys Town locations one a farm complex about 30 miles outside of the city and the other in the suburb of Selaiyur the organisation provides accommodation for more than 120 boys.

About 15 youths are also studying at college with the help of the organisation, and the club runs a full-time school for girls and young women in the city.

"We have the education but after 15 we also have to train them or else we are just bringing them halfway," said Christopher Devapragasam, chairman of the Rotary Club's Boys Town society. One afternoon, Mr Devapragasam guided me around the campus at Selaiyur. Every day one of the boys takes it in turn to read out the headlines from a local newspaper to all the other children. "I like the feeling of brotherhood here," said a 10-year-old pupil, Kartikraja. "We all get along together."

The training is carried out in workshops at the rear of the complex. The walls are full of posters showing the inner workings of the AC machines and fridges the teenagers could be confronted with when they go to work in Chennai. The hardest thing, said one of the boys, was the practical work, especially the welding.

Karthik, 17, travels to Boys Town every day from a village 25 miles away. While his train and bus fare are paid for by the organisation, the daily commute underlines his determination. "There are lots of houses being built, each house now has AC," he said. "My family is very happy because they think I have a good future."

The courses are designed with the input of the Indian air conditioning and refrigeration company, Blue Star. The utility of the courses is proven by the half-dozen former students who showed me how they had put their training to good use. Kumaravelu said the customers' first reaction was always one of anger. You have to adjust your own mood, he said. Another boy, Sundar, added: "Some times they are very angry. First, you have to have patience."