Unsung heroes of India!

India | Heroes | Unsung | 03rd September 2021 | Virtual Wire


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Dr Alagappa Chettiar

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Every year on 6 April, residents of a small village named Alagappa Nagar—originally a township for the staff of the Cochin textile Mill, near Thrissur district, Kerala—cut a cake to honour the birth anniversary of a man who changed their lives forever over a century ago.

Born in 1909 in Karaikudi, Tamil Nadu, this man was only in his 20s when he arrived in the village and built homes, schools, temples and a polytechnic for the residents of the village. His name was Dr Alagappa Chettiar.

Dr Chettiar always had a fascination with flying, and when he was in London, he obtained a pilot’s license in Croydon. Years later, in 1947, this very fascination gave India the Jupiter Airlines. “When he was active in the stock market, he bought over Jupiter Airways, which had a fleet of Dakota aircraft. He started the airlines for mass transit,” his grandson says.

At the onset of the Partition of India, Dr Chettiar was the first to offer his aircraft to the government to evacuate families from Pakistan. The Indian Army was also in need of aircraft for their troops, and Dr Chettiar’s flights carried Army personnel, armour, resources and refugees alike.

Picture - The Hindu

Dr Vairavan says that during one particular mission, one of the Jupiter Airlines planes crashed. “One of his managers came to him and said, ‘Sir, the plane has crashed. The insurance company did not cover the crash, as the plane was only insured for civilian duties.’ But my grandfather wasn’t concerned about that. His only and immediate response was — ‘We have another plane, send that’. So it was never about the money for him. He was just concerned with doing the right thing.’

The Hindu reported that in 1948, Jupiter Airways received its license to fly passenger routes from Meenambakkam, which became among the first few cities in the country to have an airport. “The flying time to Delhi via Vishakhapatnam and Nagpur was approximately eight hours, and the pilots were paid Rs 40 every hour for flying,” the report said. Dr Chettiar sold his airlines in 1953, a few years before he passed when the Indian Airlines was nationalised.

One tool to change the nation!

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When the Government of India was rebuilding the nation after the British left, Dr Chettiar saw education as a tool that would prove instrumental in this change. He formed the Alagappa College of Technology in Chennai, now part of Anna University. Here, they offered courses in chemical engineering, textile, and leather technology. “He did not want to give money to someone else to get things done. He took all of the responsibility upon himself,” Dr Vairavan notes.

At this time, Dr Chettiar did not receive much support, Dr Vairavan says. “They thought he was crazy, just giving away his money like that,” he says, adding that though he came from privilege, all of his accomplishments were his own. Dr Vairavan also recalls a particular incident that inspired the famous free Midday Meal Scheme in Tamil Nadu. When Kumaraswami Kamaraj, the man behind the schemes, visited Karaikudi, he saw that Dr Chettiar had been handing out free food to all the students at the university during lunch.

Kamaraj thought this idea was so brilliant that it inspired the Midday Meal Scheme all over the state, Dr Vairavan says. “The original idea came to him from his visit to Karaikudi,” he adds. He adds that over 30 lakh students have graduated from all the Alagappa University institutions. Dr Vairavan notes, “I always knew he was wealthy and a philanthropist, but his influence on my life came much later.

He passed away when I was only seven or eight years old. It was only when I sat down to write a book on him that I realised how monumental his contributions have been in shaping the nation. Most of his peers had already passed away by then, so I approached a journalist to help me out. We dug into the archives in Delhi and Chennai and pieced his life back together. But when we put it

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altogether, it seemed more like a news report. So I reworked the content. That’s how ‘A Beautiful Mind’ came into being.”

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