K. Meena, former vice-chancellor of Bharatidasan University, remembers carting a boxy personal computer in the 1990s in a van to the villages near Tiruchi and the look on the faces of the people who would crowd around them immediately. “There was a lot of curiosity; like a circus had come to town. Our team would explain the different parts of the machine, and allow children to play basic games on it.”
In 2021, the story is totally different. “Now I take a laptop and approach women in rural areas to show them how the computer can be a tool of empowerment,” she said.
Ms. Meena, 59, has had a long and distinguished career in higher education. She was the first woman vice-chancellor of Bharatidasan University (2010 to 2013) and has served in both academic and administrative capacities in several educational institutions in Tiruchi for over two decades. She has balanced this with a voluntary mission to educate rural women about technology, particularly the vocational skills that can help them with employment.
“In the 1980s, Computer Science wasn’t very popular and there were few graduates in the subject, especially in Tamil Nadu. Nehru Memorial College in Puthanampatti, introduced the very first Bachelor’s course in Computer Science in India in 1983, following which students began to pursue it as a core subject,” she said.
She earned an M.E. in Computer Science Engineering in 1991 from Anna University under the cross-migration programme, where M.Sc Maths and Physics graduates could apply directly without having to do B.E. or B.Tech degrees. “My father-in-law K Santhanam, a noted educationist, was very particular that I should complete my higher education in Computer Science, because it was not very popular at the time. I did my Ph.D. in the subject in 1996. I wanted to use my technological expertise not only for research or teaching but also for social service,” she said.
She has specialised in artificial neural networks, and has extensively researched its application in remote sensing and biomedical science. In 2007, she was given the National Award for the Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities by the Government of India, and the Woman Achiever’s Award by Confederation of NGOs of Rural India, New Delhi in the following year.
She has visited at least 24 villages in and around Tiruchi and Thanjavur during the pandemic months, addressing small groups of women, while following social distancing norms. “I have come across some highly-skilled women, with multiple college degrees, who have opted to stay at home after marriage. I advise these homemakers to try and use their education in a positive way,” she said.
She is also working on the ‘Tamilum Kaninium’ (Tamil and Computers) project, to create a new corps of rural women technology workers. “There are sectors like data entry, computer-aided design and Tamil desktop publishing where skilled staff are always in demand,” she said.
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