Profile : Senthil Gopal



A closer look at the hospital’s out-paitent unit, which was built in December 2006.

Senthil Gopal took up a lucrative assignment in the US only to give it up and give shape to a dream — making a meaningful difference to people’s lives back in India. What’s unique about this former techie’s initiative is that it doesn’t end with mere economic emancipation but instead has a holistic approach

The hospital building and the office.

—Empire Bureau

Senthil Gopal had the IT world at his feet. As the technical manager of new business initiatives, he led a team of 30 engineers at Lason Inc, Detroit, Michigan. Being an experienced techie from India, he could pretty much write his own pay cheque, but instead in 1999 the 35-year-old resigned and decided to come back to his hometown Tiruchi to do social service.

With Rs 40 lakh from his own savings, contributions from supportive friends and a generous donation of land by his uncle, Senthil started work in the village of Thenur in Perambalur district near Tiruchi. Today, the villagers have an eight-bed hospital, a school, a BPO company, an organic farm and, above all, an inspiring person to look up to. “The decision to leave the US was made even before I went there in 1999,” says Senthil. “The plan was to create a corpus for my social ventures and to take care of certain personal financial commitments and then switch full-time to lead a social movement.”

Once he chose Thenur, Senthil formed a trust called Payir — literally meaning crop. The broader objective, he says, was to remove communal differences among people and nurture human relationships beyond caste barriers. To achieve this, it is his belief that it was essential to equip villagers economically and meet their basic needs.

Like cars rolling off the line in Detroit, one project after another came to fruition at Thenur, mainly because of Senthil’s missionary zeal.

Despite the hype and the hoopla, what’s unique about Payir is that it doesn’t begin or end with mere economic emancipation. The trust envisages the transformation of Indian villages into a socially stimulating, self-reliant, growth oriented community rooted in the principles of truth — a society where people practice and interact with the highest moral values.

He says, “In India, there are enough existing and workable ideas on ­development. What is needed now is action.” As the wheels of change grind forward irresistibly, Senthil will be watching with considerable pride.

What’s commendable about Payir is the scale of its ambition. It understands that without a holistic approach to progress, all economic growth exists in a vacuum. It aims to work in rural India to create an atmosphere where people have the space to practice truth. It will lead, create opportunities, facilitate and mentor. It will take a development approach touching all aspects of society — be it local economy and revenue, social needs like health, education, sanitation, infrastructure, civic and panchayat systems. Naturally these processes will help lift the spirit. In an interview with INDIA EMPIRE, founder Senthil Gopal explains how he conceived the project and its future.
Senthil Gopal dressed in his trademark shirt and dhoti. The school building.

What makes a software engineer leading an affluent life in Detroit, give up his job and fly back to settle down in the villages of Tamil Nadu?
In the first place, I had no intentions of staying back abroad. The abroad plan was a pre-planned activity to create a corpus for my social ventures and to take care of certain personal financial commitments and then switch full-time to lead a social movement.

What is it about the West that you were not drawn to, and about the East that you are?
I mostly look only at the positive aspects of life. There are lots of things in the West, which I admired like their belief in their dreams and seeking a continuous improvement in their quality of life.
The East is a comparatively mature society with respect to spiritual thought process. Similarly, a large section of the population has a wide knowledge on various subjects.

Are you here in India to stay for a long time? Or are there plans to leave again when things get better in the villages of Tamil Nadu?
Yes, if in my lifetime India sees the development that Gandhi had foreseen then I would move to Africa. When things get better in this village, I will move on to the next—most likely to Northeast.

Tell us about your childhood, where you studied, and the place you grew up…
My pre-school years were mainly spent in my mother’s village, Sathanoor. I joined school at the age of six the first standard (no kindergarten) at Pennadam Sugar Factory where my father worked as a factory cashier. Later, to provide better education to us children (I have an older sister and an older brother), my mother shifted to Tiruchi, while my dad used to visit us during the weekends. From the third standard till 10th I studied in Sri Akilandeshwari Vidyalaya very close to my home in Mambalasalai. During this time, I was a carefree sboy…playing cricket or chess. I did decently well in studies, coming within the top five in my class. Then, I did my higher secondary at R.S. Krishnan School, BHEL. This was the period where I started sharing and discussing my thoughts to give it concrete shape.

Are you driven by ideals? If so, whose?
Yes, certainly, the ideals of truth and compassion. Mainly from Buddha, Gandhi and Ramakrishna Paramahamsa.

What is the larger vision you have in mind?
Any community should be able to own the ideas that are needed for their continuous development — be it their physical, civic or spiritual. Owning of the ideas means collectively create new thoughts and create/manage resources to implement and execute it. At the individual level, each individual should be able to self-realise his/her own potentials, without any distinction based upon caste or creed. This would in essence mean to build an environment where even the most ordinary person lives with self respect.

It seems that quite a few of your colleagues and friends from the software profession are beginning to show interest in your project…
Actually, we are a core group of friends from the school and college days and a few from my workplace. Many of them always wanted to to do something like this and now Payir is a front to achieve this.

—Starting this edition, we begin a series on NRIs and PIOs who have been spirited enough to give back to their motherland, mainly through community initiatives and social work

May 2009

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