After my article on Mother Teresa was published a couple of weeks ago, my good friend and former colleague Prakash Singh called to clarify his part in theMohan Bhagwat diatribe against the much-acclaimed nun. The RSS blog averred that its chief had only answered a query put to him by Prakash, but Prakash asserted that his only comment on Mother Teresa was that she got a lot of publicity for her work whereas other do-gooders did not!
This article will address the disinterest by the Indianpress in positive work undertaken by concerned citizens to make life easier for their fellow men and women.
Prakash Singh told me that he had gone for the inauguration of a brand-new building in Bharatpur (Rajasthan) for destitute and indigent people picked up from the roads by volunteers of Apna Ghar. I presume the idea must have come from the work that Mother Teresa was doing in Kolkata and the motivation would probably be to discourage conversions to Christianity. The assumption was that selfless service by Christians induced such conversions. Hence selfless service by Apna Ghar volunteers would reduce, if not stop, conversions.
Whatever may be the motive, I consider it a welcome trend in social service. People with time on their hands and ability to collect funds and attract volunteers can compete with each other to serve the needy or the disabled. A better solution would have been to reduce the number of the poor and the needy, but that is going to be a long haul. It is time however, to recognise the yeoman service rendered by Apna Ghar and many other individuals and organisations that work for the downtrodden or public causes.
A junior colleague of mine, Nikhil Kumar, who later became Governor of Kerala, brought to my notice that one Harakhchand Sawla a hotel keeper in the Parel area of Mumbai, was moved to pity on noticing patients at the Tata Cancer Hospital with fear plainly written upon their faces. He sold his hotel and used the money to feed those who had come from distant towns for treatment. Now, 57 years of age, Harakhchand still continues to feed cancer patients and their families and supply them with medicines, only the number of such persons has reached 700 after 27 years of unpublicised work. Nikhil felt that if Sachin Tendulkar could be deified for playing outstanding cricket, Harakhchand Sawla who has fed 10-12 lakh cancer patients and their relatives for more than two decades deserves to be recognised by society.
HARAKHCHAND SAWLA SERVING THE POOR
I do not know Harakhchand Sawla and had not heard about him till my neighbour Satish Sahney passed on Nikhil’s letter. My own friend Nihal Kaviratne and his wife Shyama have set up a whole chain of St. Jude’s homes in Mumbai, Kolkata and now in Delhi where outstation children suffering from cancer are housed, fed and cared for by dedicated staff employed by this compassionate couple. Nihal was on the board of Unilever and after retiring, used his managerial skills to set up these homes in memory of his mother. I helped him initially to find a place in the premises of an NGO called the Bombay Mothers’ & Children Welfare Society of which I have been the Chairman for the past 15 years.
The Bombay Mothers’ & Children Welfare Society was established nearly a hundred years ago by two Maharashtrian doctors, Tilak and Mhaskar, to help poor inhabitants of the BDD chawls in Mumbai’s mill districts. Presently, anaesthetist Dr Madhav Sathe is the Secretary and the moving spirit behind its work. Two hospitals in the city and two in rural Maharashtra, four crèches in Mumbai and a rural welfare programme to empower women and educate rural children – this is the burden borne single-handedly by this extraordinary individual!
The rural project covers 64 villages around Rajguru Nagar in the Khed Taluka of Pune district. The project concentrates on bridging the scholastic divide between urban and rural children who do not have an equal set of facilities. I have visited these villages along with my wife over the past 15 years. I am always encouraged by the progress made, not only by the women and children we have reached through our programmes, but also by the change in the mindset of government officials who are being shamed into emulating our spirit of service. In my last visit in January this year, I was delighted to see many toilets built just outside the homes of the villagers.
No important journal has commented on the difference Dr Sathe and the Bombay Mothers’ & Children Welfare Society has made to the quality of life of the villagers. But the work proceeds apace! The smiles of welcome of the children, the teachers and the villagers is our best reward.
Young girl students from Sophia College are taken to Rajguru Nagar for a 2/3 night stay to see for themselves the difficulties experienced by village folk and their children. Mumbai’s residents take their facilities for granted. I requested a former colleague and a very dear friend of mine, Chaman Lal of the Madhya Pradesh Cadre of the IPS. to evaluate the work done at Rajguru Nagar. He did this with great dedication over a period of a month. This extraordinary human being, a former Director General of Police, has spent years after retirement in primitive conditions in the forests bordering Tamil Nadu and Karnataka and the riverine belts of Assam. No newspaper has ever learnt about Chaman Lal and the work he has done. Chaman’s motivation has always been the welfare of the poor people he served. In the IPS, he is the man I admire most.
After my return from Romania, I started the Mohalla Committee Movement in the city of Mumbai with Sushobha Barve, another great human being who has worked for communal harmony all her life. We were lucky that Satish Sahney was Mumbai’s Commissioner of Police in 1994 when we started the movement. Our attempt was to get Hindus and Muslims in the slums and chawls and other crowded areas of the city (where lack of space leads to irritability and tensions) to come together, know each other and learn to live in peaceful coexistence. Sushobha induced ordinary citizens to volunteer for this work. It has been more than 20 years now and with the police as the third and essential partner in the enterprise, we have managed to introduce some sanity in inter-community dealings. We have concentrated on the women folk because they are the ones who can influence their men to refrain from fighting in times of trouble. We also run an annual tennis-ball cricket competition for slum children with policemen as participants. Our intent is to get the young men to be the eyes and ears of the local police in times of tension and influence people of their age to refrain from getting involved in conflict situations. Our attempts to get the press to encourage these young people have failed. Even when Sachin Tendulkar was brought as Guest of Honour for the final match, the press highlighted only the master cricketer, but not the motive behind organising the cricket tournament.
Another NGO which the former Cabin Secretary BG Deshmukh and I established more than a decade ago in the city of Mumbai is the Public Concern for Governance Trust which seeks to fight day-to-day street level corruption which troubles the common man. We find that people prefer paying the petty officers concerned, rather than wait and get their rights established through our efforts. A vast number of young people intern with this NGO as part of their college education programme as prescribed by the University rules. Some of them volunteer to work with us after their internship. That, I feel, is the barometer of success.
The behaviour of the press in a recent gathering of students, 2,500 of them, organised by this NGO at the Shanmukhanand Hall, is worth recounting. The great actor Aamir Khan interacted with students over a period of three hours at our request. He was asked numerous questions, including on gender discrimination and respect for women. But the only topic the press zoomed in on was the AIB roast which was like grist to their windmills. They never mentioned the PCGT by name and the work we were doing with youth. In fact, one newspaper falsely reported that it was a press conference that the actor was addressing, which it was not!
And so, despite Prakash Singh’s lament, the press is not going to recognise Madhav Sathe or Nihal Kaviratne or Chaman Lal, real selfless workers like his Apna Ghar friends. But that fact is not going to deter them. They will soldier on, nevertheless.