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U. Subbaraju with his students from Timbaktu Collective

P.V. Sivakumar/The Hindu

Obituary: U. Subbaraju – A life lived from first principles

Ajit Ranade writes: Mahatma Gandhi famously said that the world has enough for everybody’s need, but not for everybody’s greed. U. Subbaraju, a person who actually lived this principle in his own quiet life, who always carried a gentle smile and a helping hand, passed away earlier this month. He was just 50 years old.

Techie, tree-lover from Timbaktu

Dr U Subbaraju was known for his endeavour to educate underprivileged children, and his love for trees.

Ajit Ranade, Mumbai Mirror

About half a century ago, a British economist E. F. Schumacher wrote a book called Small is Beautiful. The sub-title was – A Study of Economics As if People Mattered. The book questioned the wisdom of pursuing high economic growth for its own sake. If it leads to depletion of natural resources, polluted water and air, how can it lead to a better standard of living? If higher GDP entails more expenditure on police and security is that a sign of improved quality of life? Schumacher was echoing earlier visionaries like Gandhi and Thoreau. Gandhi famously said that the world has enough for everybody’s need, but not for everybody’s greed.

A person who actually lived these principles in his own quiet life, who always carried a gentle smile and a helping hand, passed away earlier this month. He was snatched away far too soon, for he was just 50 years old.

Dr U Subbaraju (Subba to his friends) was born in a small farming labourer family in Andhra Pradesh. His father was a gang coolie in Tirumala ghat. Since his father passed away when he was just five, his mother put him in the Navodaya residence school run by the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam.

Despite his near penniless childhood, Subba fought all odds, and got into IIT Madras where he received a B.Tech in Civil Engineering. He wanted to work in the development field, so he wrote to a Professor at the Centre for Technology Alternatives for Rural Area at IIT Bombay. The Prof said, come to IITB.

Subba came by qualifying through the national entrance exam, got an M.Tech and then a PhD from the Energy Systems Engineering department. He got the best PhD thesis award in 1996 and best alumnus award from his department in 2008.

Soon after his PhD, instead of going to America or some corporate gig, he went to work in Timbaktu Collective in Anantpur district of Andhra. It was always his passion to work in the area of rural development. He founded and spearheaded the education initiative of Timbaktu, setting up a school for children abandoned by their families.

Subba lived and taught there, and his own children too were part of that school. The most abiding impression of any visitor to the school was how happy all the children were. His approach to teaching was holistic and experiential. Renowned educators who visited, said that the workshops at Subba’s school were perhaps the most innovative they had ever seen. Stacks of old newspapers to make paper caps. Old magazines for origami projects. Every bottle, old pen, cycle tube lovingly kept so that children could innovatively use and re-use them.

Visitors found Subba’s house was as minimalist as the man himself. His life and work was a living example of Schumacher and Gandhi. Indeed he once sent postcards on Gandhi Jayanti to all his friends with the Gandhian slogan “Live simply, that others may simply live”. (Was this Subba’s creation?)

Even at IITB he touched the lives of many students, co-workers and staff. He was a lover of mother Earth and planted vegetables and fruit trees in vacant spaces around the hostel.

One of his more well-known initiative was to plant saplings on the barren hill behind hostel 3. After the rains, he rallied a volunteer force to take up water in buckets up the hill. He gifted Jean Giono’s precious book The Man Who Planted Trees to hundreds of friends.

Later in life at Timbaktu he published a very popular children’s magazine called Kothapalli in Telugu (http://kottapall. in).

He was a man with a quiet conviction, but wasn’t a fanatic. His approach was scientific, humane and filled with empathy for the fellow human being.

He once described the difference between a farmer and an NGO. If an NGO wanted to start a poultry farm, it would procure a plot, a shed, hire workers, buy registers, weighing machines, maybe get a motorbike, and lastly get the chickens.

A farmer would buy a couple of chicks, feed them from his kitchen, grow the brood, build a fence with material lying around and figure out money for the coop. For the farmer the chicken always comes first. As his friends said, “Subba clearly understood life from first principles, ground upward”.

Indeed his life was a continuous feedback from theory to practice and back, with great willingness to learn, but eagerness to do.

One friend describes Subba as someone who stands apart for his simplicity, honesty and most importantly love of children. This silent smiling worker’s sudden passing away is a loss to the nation. At a time when we grapple with the tradeoffs of development and trees, the best tribute to Dr. Subbaraju would be to imbibe his insights in our daily lives.

IITian takes a different path
Swathi V., The Hindu
The child contingent from Ananthapur that took part in the ‘Baalala Naatakotsavaalu’ (Children’s Theatre Festival) at Ravindra Bharathi had a remarkable mentor. Short, lean and plain, U. Subbaraju boasts of nothing unusual in his looks and can be easily lost in a crowd. However, his phenomenal rise from being the son of a daily wage-earner to becoming an IIT scholar is capable of arresting many an eyeball while his decision to toss away the lucrative career to teach the underprivileged children will see as many jaws dropping in unison.


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2 Responses “Obituary: U. Subbaraju – A life lived from first principles”

  1. My.vishnu prasad
    4th July 2017 at 9:18 pm

    Real Samaritans get recognition only after their death in india.we have to learn from west.had his ideals been brought to people’s notice,atleast some people with similar thoughts would have joined and would have continued with the great knowledged person and more rural children would have been benefitted.there are people with money,but no time to spend time for poor rural children.he is the real Bharat Ratna,whether rewarded or not.their is no value for Bharat Ratna given by country as many undeserved people got it.may god bless his soul.

  2. Arvind Keerthi
    1st May 2020 at 5:41 pm

    I was one of his old disciples back in IIT-Bombay. I trudged along with him up the hill where he had organized all of us into a tree-planting drive. You were snatched away from us too soon, Subbaraju.

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