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K Roja, who studied Tamil medium in a government school, is now doing research on Plant Biology and Biotechnology at Loyola College. Roja is the first woman from Irular community to do her PhD. T Sakthivel, an Irular man hailing from Salayampalayam, did his PhD on brick kiln labour in Villupuram.
Both are examples that show how with help and support Irulars can overcome challenges and shine in their lives. Their chosen area of specialization was close to their own circumstances – brick kiln for Sakthivel and medicinal plants for Roja. As tribals living closely to nature, Irulars are often credited with having knowledge of medicinal plants.
Roja was born in Marur near Tindivanam in a family that never stepped inside a school. Her parents, Kalivaradan and Kumari, did not go to school either. Working in brick kilns, they supported their family of five that included a brother and a sister to Roja.
Roja stayed at her grandmother’s house and studied at the Marur government school up to Class 5. She recalls teachers Vasanthi and Valarmathi who taught her early on that she should study well and find a good career for herself.
Roja applied for BSc (Botany) at the Arignar Anna Government College in Villupuram. She applied for caste certificate so she could get scholarship in college. But she couldn’t get caste certificate – a problem that many Irulars face.
After Class 5, she had to move to a school 5 km away at Irattanai to study further. Her parents continued to educate her. She would catch the bus at 7am and return at 6pm. All her schooling was in Tamil medium. Roja passed her Class 10 in 2008, scoring 275. She was quite interested in plants and so took up Pure Science group. She scored 772 marks in Class 12.
Roja applied for BSc (Botany) at the Arignar Anna Government College in Villupuram. She applied for caste certificate so she could get scholarship in college. But she couldn’t get caste certificate – a problem that many Irulars face. But her college principal supported her and gave her admission. Roja stayed in hostel and studied BSc.
Professor Prabha Kalvimani put all his efforts to get her a community certificate, she says. Based on that she got financial assistance from second year onwards, which helped her continue her education.
Though the course was in English, she was allowed to write her exams in Tamil. Roja passed BSc with 62% score in 2013. She wanted to pursue higher studies but her financial situation didn’t allow that.
Roja got a job as lab technician at a dyeing unit in Perunthurai. The salary was Rs 12,000 per month with which she was able to support herself and her family, besides saving some money.
After saving up some money over one year, she joined MSc in Botany at the same college The course was in English, so were the exams. Roja had much trouble writing her exams in English. But Roja picked herself up and eventually started doing well in exams. She came first in her class, scoring an overall percentage of 82 in MSc.
With help and support from many, she studied MPhil on Ethnobotanical study on Irulas Community of Vettavalam hills of Thiruvannamalai District, Tamilnadu, at Presidency College in Chennai. After finishing that, Roja has taken up PhD becoming the first Irular woman to do so. Her topic is Antidiabetic and Antilipidemic Activity of Medicinal Plants in Invitro, Invivo and Insilico methods. Professor Agastyan is her guide.
Roja has passed the UGC exam for PhD assistance fellowship, coming 24th among 750 people who took the test. She gets an assistance of Rs 38,000 a month as UGC fellow. Roja plans to finish her PhD in two years and then decide on what she would do in future.
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