Visionary zeal

A light engineering unit managed and run by visually handicapped persons wins BHEL’s best sub-contractor award for the third year in a row.

Deft touch: Workers handling lathe machines

The rhythmic thud of iron pieces falling to the ground and the whirring of machines can be heard when you enter the airy premises. Nothing unusual, as these are the normal sounds one expects in an industrial complex. But once you are inside the spaci ous sheds located near the Tiruchi bus stand, you cannot help feeling impressed by the work going on here, and the commitment of the individuals who run this undertaking. The sureness with which they go about their job and their smiling confidence move you. For, the majority of those who run and work in this light engineering workshop are visually handicapped.

They are members of ORBIT (Organisation for Rehabilitation of the Blind in Tiruchi) and they manufacture boiler components for Bharat Heavy Electricals Limited. It involves working with precision and alertness, using electrically operated machines. The quality of their work and output is evident from the fact they have obtained the BHEL’s Best sub-contractor award for the third year in a row. Their profits in 2006 were quite substantial and they proudly display the long list of items they manufacture, along with illustrations, in the space that serves as the front office — metallic end covers, peg pins, bent plates, lifting eye, seal plates, clips, retainers… “Not once has our product been rejected. We have assurance of orders from BHEL till 2015 and plan to increase our production from 800 tonnes to 1,200 tonnes this year”, declare Ramachandran and Pandi, president and secretary respectively of the organisation.

Both of them are visually handicapped and they have been with the organisation for the past 20 years. They have the facts and figures at their fingertips and reel off statistics regarding profits and employment benefits rapidly. “There are 42 visually handicapped and seven physically handicapped persons in the organisation,” they inform you. “ORBIT was founded in 1972 by a group of people belonging to service organisations including the Rotary Club of Tiruchi when Ravindran of the TVS was its governor. It started out as a unit manufacturing soap and chalk pieces. Ravindran suggested it could be made a light engineering workshop. Initially there were six workers.” They were trained in a special unit in Dehra Dun and also at the Katpadi workshop. The organisation was handed over to the visually handicapped in 1989.

“Now we manage it ourselves; only technical assistance is provided by engineers,” say the office bearers. Against the clink of metal being rolled, they point proudly to the large framed photographs of Dr. Joseph Gnanadikam, well-known ophthalmologist; “TVS Ravindran” and P. Gnanadurai Michael of the Christoffel Blinden Mission who were responsible for starting ORBIT. They are equally grateful to lawyer S. Martin, their voluntary legal advisor who is present there that morning. Martin became involved in helping the visually handicapped persons when the telephone booths operated by them in Tiruchi were faced with closure and they sought his services. “The BHEL has been extremely supportive of ORBIT. Industrial undertakings should come forward to earmark a portion of the work to the disabled,” says Martin.

“It was hard work to bring them out of the charity mode,” recalls Michael, retired representative for South Asia for the Christofell Blinden Mission. He continues his association with ORBIT as its consultant. “The founding members include ophthalmologist Dr. Govindarajan, Rotarian Ramamurthy and businessman Mohammed Shafi. We were determined this would function as a business and not as a charity. Initially we found most of the workers weak as they were not used to hard work. Choosing the right products and the right combination of workers was also important. ORBIT was started on the principles that the capital should be very low , the machinery, low cost and the jobs, labour intensive. We want to develop leaders from ORBIT’s own fold to manage it.” The Christoffel Blinden Mission, with its headquarters in Germany, works in 110 countries for the prevention of blindness and the rehabilitation of the disabled.

R. Rajappa, DGM, Outsourcing, BHEL, Tiruchi, says “We have identified some items of low technology to ORBIT and they are delivering the items promptly. Our tonnage has increased and so will our orders to ORBIT.”

Within the sheds work is going on at full speed.

“The ratio is one physically handicapped worker to six visually handicapped ones,” points out S. Janardhanan, guiding engineer. Shiva is enthusiastically operating the lathe while his physically handicapped co-worker sets it in motion.

The just-married Shiva is a star attraction. His romance and wedding generate much good-natured fun. Most of the workers are married to women with normal eyesight and have normal children as well. A few live in Dr. Joseph Colony, which provides them with a feeling of security as they are able to come to work together; quite a few stay at the Integreated Hostel of the Tiruchi YMCA. Many such as Subramani have been with ORBIT for two decades and have been able to educate their children with their income. Subramani’s son is doing his M.Sc. while Pandi’s son is studying for his engineering degree.

The senior workers earn about Rs. 5,000 a month while the junior ones get Rs. 2,000. “We follow the Factory Act with regard to working conditions and pay. Gratuity, provident fund and bonus are provided.

“We have been able to tide over lean times too. We went through a bad patch but managed to stay afloat by taking small orders from the Telephones department,” adds Ramachandran.

But what brings fresh vigour to their voice is when they speak of the plans they have for expansion. “We want to reach out to more of the visually handicapped. And teach them how to stand on their own feet. The ability and willingness to work are what are needed. We have plans to start a unit like this soon in Ranipet or Katpadi.”

Urged by the others, Ponnuswamy, a member, sings a hymn as one is about to leave. It is evening time. The rays of the sun shine brightly through the leaves of the young banyan tree at the entrance which is putting down fresh roots — a symbol, perhaps, of the growth and expansion potential of ORBIT.


'India Beats' in Sunday Magazine section of THe Hindu features stories of the unusual, This article was from The Sunday Hindu dated 19th August 2007

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