Surendra Koulagi believed that one could not be introduced to Gandhi or forced into his way of life; one needed to find him and embrace his way, wholeheartedly.
Unlike most staunch Gandhians, Surendra Koulagi believed that one could not be introduced to Gandhi or forced into his way of life; one needed to find him and embrace his way, wholeheartedly.
Throughout his life, Surendra was deeply inspired by his idols—Gandhi, Vinoba Bhave, and Jayaprakash Narayan—who also encouraged him to heed his calling.
From 1954 to 1959, Surendra was Jayaprakash Narayan’s Personal Secretary and was posted in Bihar. Under his guidance, Surendra realised that he needed to go back to his home state, Karnataka, and work on the social issues in its rural areas.
That decision took him to the remote communities of Melkote in the Mandya district.
Inspired by Acharya Vinoba Bhave, Surendra got to work for the Bhoodan movement in Melkote in 1959, and for several years continued to participate in many pro-people movements.
Soon Surendra ‘found’ his Gandhi and established the Janapada Seva Trust in 1960, inspired by the Gandhian ideal of Sarvodaya. Since then, the Trust has been striving for the social and economic elevation of the weaker sections of the society.
His decision to base Janapada Seva Trust in Melkote had a significant influence of the area’s weaving tradition. The potential of using art for social upliftment formed the crux of the functioning of the Trust.
The first initiative that the Trust took up was to open Karunagruha—a home for the differently abled rural children in 1963. More than 300 children were provided shelter, along with education and medical rehabilitation.
Surendra also procured box charkhas for the children to learn how to spin yarn, and weaving became an integral part of their lives. In 1970, the Trust employed young differently-abled men for weaving shoulder bags, as a way of economic self-sufficiency.
Today, it houses an adoption placement centre for the abandoned and orphaned infants and children. After rigorous screening procedures, suitable couples are given legal adoption through the centre.
Although Surendra passed away at the age of 83, in 2017, his family, followed in his footsteps, and thanks to their efforts, hundreds of rural women caught in the web of social problems were helped out with education and a condensed course program, ushering their socio-economic rehabilitation in the 70s and 80s.
Carrying Forward his Father’s Legacy
Today, the Trust is looked after by Santosh Koulagi, Surendra’s son. Speaking to the Better India, he gave an insight into his father’s Gandhian philosophy, and how it impacted the family, which has been continuing his work, not for legacy, but the real cause.
“In the families of most staunch Gandhians, there was always a sense of forceful following of the ideals. It was more ritualistic. But, in our family, it was completely different. Despite being a strict follower, my father was a democratic man. There were ideological clashes, but it was always resolved with a healthy debate. In my younger days, I was rather disillusioned about following Gandhi and wanted to rebel, and my father never opposed me,” said Santosh.
Despite his initial disillusion, he eventually ‘found’ his Gandhi as well.
“For years, I tried to find inspiration, and everything would end up leading me to Gandhi. With time, I realised that when you are dedicated to your work with all honesty, you will ‘meet’ Gandhi. That was when I returned and joined my father in his work,” added Santosh.
Santosh joined the Trust in the 1980s and began the Hosa Jeevana Daari (a new way of life), which was a centre for sustainable living alternatives. According to him, Masanobu Fukuoka, the celebrated Japanese farmer, philosopher, and author of the book ‘One-Straw Revolution,’ has been an unwavering influence in his life and has inspired him to internalise sustainability in his body of work.
He later went on to start a khadi unit at the Trust, seeing the surging demand for it. His son, Sumanas Koulagi, who has a Masters in Biodiversity Conservation from Oxford, has also joined the Trust and works closely with the khadi weaving centre.
For the last 59 years, the objective of the Trust has revolved around creating generations of self-sufficient individuals through various initiatives. These include a khadi weaving unit, a rehabilitation centre for the differently-abled, a specialised adoption agency and a centre for sustainable living alternatives that focuses on environmental education.
Recognising Surendra’s exceptional efforts, the Jamnalal Bajaj Foundation awarded him the prestigious Jamnalal Bajaj Award for Constructive Work in 2014.
Like most visionaries, his ideas and selfless work have carried forward, and continue to inspire hundreds of people across generations. Find more details about the Jamnalal Bajaj Awards here.