“Four years ago, I was crossing the streets near Dumdum Cantonment in Kolkata when a dishevelled teenager boy came running and fell at my feet. He started begging desperately for money. I thought that he was heavily drug-addicted and wanted money to waste on cheap, harmful drugs. I tried to dissuade him, but his desperation was so wild and pathetic that I slapped him and he broke down. That’s where my story begins. And it has a delicious, fulfilling ending with happy bellies and unadulterated smiles.
To the rest of Kolkata, I am a food delivery guy with Zomato. But to a group of budding youngsters in Dumdum Cantonment and across Bengal, I am an elder brother they can always confide in.
No one has ever become poor by giving
– Anne Frank
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Four years ago, after slapping the boy, I had comforted him, and he opened up to me. He vented that he was not drug-addicted but that his mother forces him to bring money by begging. He said if he goes home without any money at the end of the day, his mother will kill him. When the boy got down with dengue a while later, and the hospital asked for his personal details, his mother could not even properly remember his father’s name, who has deserted them probably before his birth.
This boy was not the only one with a similar life story. I found out numerous other homeless kids around the same railway station have a dark past and an even darker future ahead of them. None of them had ever stepped inside a school. The older ones were into drug abuse, begging and even petty criminal activities, while the younger ones would just play and laze around all day, soon to grow up and join their predecessors.
Soon, I started an evening school with 17 kids. Every evening, we would sit on a mat on platform number 3 and teach the basics to these kids. Today, the number of kids in our class has reached 27. Many of them have joined government schools.
My initiatives all over Bengal
Most of them have never known the love and care of a home, a family. Some are orphans, and some come from broken families with estranged fathers and mothers. I strongly advocate the importance of education to them. But, the reality is that they need money to run their families. So, I have arranged small stalls and ventures for some of these kids. They earn quite some amount by selling juice, lemonade, water bottles etc. after school hours. It is not much strenuous physical labour for them, and they enjoy it as well.
Over the course of four years, I have replicated my initiatives all over Bengal, in tribal villages like Belpahari or Totopara, which make headlines for the high poverty rates. I have been to rural Sunderbans among forest-dependent communities as well as Naxalbari, Alipurduar in North Bengal. Everywhere, my emphasis has always been on education. We organise drives twice or thrice a year to these places and help hundreds of helpless kids to get enrolled in schools. We also provide stationery, uniforms and medicine kits to them.
Distributing the cancelled orders and excess food among my kids
However, there is more to my story. Earlier, I used to work at Kolkata Municipal Corporation, but I quit my job to devote my entire time to the kids. But, I have to run my family as well, so last year around July, I started working as a delivery executive with Zomato. This is when I befriended a kind-hearted restaurant owner in Dumdum, who stepped into my team after learning about my kids. Now, some of the cancelled orders from Zomato and all the excess food from his restaurant come to my kids as their evening snacks, sometimes dinner. Addressed fondly by the kids as ‘Roll Kaku’ (Roll Uncle), he daily provides egg rolls, fried rice and all other items whose orders get cancelled. On occasions, he even arranges feasts for my kids. The gentleman wishes to stay away from the limelight, so he has made me swore to never mention his name or his restaurant to the public.
How other delivery guys and restaurant owners can feed a hungry India
Generally, when a customer cancels an order on a food delivery app, the restaurant which has already prepared the food gets the refund. Most of the times, the restaurant owners give away the food to the delivery guys. If the food is already en route, the Zomato customer care instructs the delivery men to take it home or give it to the poor.
Zomato has recently partnered with NGO FeedingIndia to divert all the cancelled orders to local shelter homes, orphanages, old age homes, centres for the specially-abled and similar institutions. We, the delivery boys are instructed to donate accordingly. For instance, in my area, we have been instructed to donate to St. Mary’s orphanage which we do.
I wish the endeavour continues on a larger scale and resonates all over India. So much food is wasted from restaurants every day, and not even 1% of it reaches these hungry kids. I appeal to all restaurant owners, food delivery guys and of course, the food delivery companies to take this into account and reach out to the helpless and hungry in their neighbourhood.”
– Pathikrit Saha, Zomato Delivery Executive
Recently, Pathikrit’s non-profit venture Help Foundation received its formal registration. Though he has always favoured such social work as a more informal and personal endeavour, he believes the registration will indeed help my kids receive more support and empathy. Any willing donors can reach out to him at 9804788406/9123348301.
After several hospital visits, CT scans, and surgeries that cost them a fortune, Armaan’s family from Tumkur, Karnataka, had done every possible bit to find a treatment for his developmental irregularities like no neck control, speech and response impediments. By the age of three, most of the doctors had declared that there is no treatment to make him a “normal” child. For a family of daily wage-earners, there was little left to do other than accept the child’s condition as their destiny, until GiftAbled Foundation’s early intervention therapy centre in Tumkur came to their rescue.
With only 3 months of physical therapy, he has now gained better neck control and responding to others. However, earning only 100-150 rupees per day, it is nearly impossible for his family to spend 200 rupees every day for travelling to the centre. So they cannot afford to come to the centre daily, which is delaying Armaan’s therapies at the centre which is in-turn affecting his growth.
The story is similar for around 30 more children in the centre like Armaan, who are affected by impaired hearing, poor vision delayed response to stimuli, stunted growth and other developmental disorders.
Most of them are from low-income families, where earning the daily bread is the primary concern. Due to low immunity, children with developmental issues fall sick very often; flu, diarrhoea and infections are frequent. The recurring medical costs add up to the woes of their families. Amidst all this, the Tumkur Therapy Centre has been a blessing to them. Mothers who work as maids, fathers who work as labourers, grandfathers who work as porters – take time out of their sweat-stained days to travel 8-10 km to the Centre, armed with the hope that soon their boys or girls will smile, laugh and walk – just like other children their age.
The Problem & Solution
At the end of a month, the transport itself claims a substantial part of their meagre earnings. On an average, each family needs to spend 150-200 rupees per day. The centre is open 6 days a week. Ideally, a child needs to be trained every day. If their families bring them daily, needless to mention that the travel expense will skyrocket way beyond their small income. Moreover, during the monsoon or winter season, they cannot come to the centre for weeks as transport is a costlier affair then.
To make things easier for them, Tumkur Therapy Centre has planned an initiative to start a mobile therapy unit. A special vehicle, equipped with training and exercise facilities is expected to serve three distinct purposes. First and foremost, it will provide free up and down transport to bring the children to the centre regularly. Secondly, the children can undergo therapy within the vehicle itself, enabling the organisation to help more kids on the go. Lastly, it will also be used to reach out to more families with special children, living in the rural interiors.
More about the therapy centre
Started in April 2018, therapy centre is run by Natesh and supervised by Prarthana and Prateek – the couple behind GiftAbled, a foundation that works with differently-abled individuals taking care of their health, livelihood, social acceptance and spreading awareness. The therapy centre at Tumkur is their latest initiative under the health and awareness segment.
The treatment at the centre is centred around rehabilitation, which will help the children to be integrated into the mainstream society.
Among the 30 children at the Centre, most are within 6 years, since medical experts believe early intervention to be the best way to help special children. In simple words, the earlier, the better. Usually, there are developmental milestones for infants – like crying after birth or responding to the clapping of hands at 2-3 months to learning to walk or speak. If the child displays problems with achieving these milestones, then doctors try to diagnose the specific developmental disorder affecting them. The common issues noticed include slow response, mental retardation, stunted growth, impaired hearing or speech, lack of neck control, poor posture.
The doctor’s role ends after the diagnosis and basic medication, after that the child should be provided with early intervention therapies which helps the children.
However, the story is a little different for people from the poorer background. Due to lack of awareness, most parents think their child will be “cured” when they grow up. Worse still, many such special children are taken to religious places, priests and conjurers until they grow up with deformities that could have been averted by early intervention.
Pushpita is a 6-year-old girl at the centre who found it difficult to respond, use her hands or use the toilet on her own. With a big family and another small daughter to look after, her mother did not know how to take better care of her. At the centre, the specialist doctor and trainers helped her learn to sit up and respond using various specialised methods and instruments. Every child is individually attended to at the centre, with time-bound improvement goals for each.
Pushpita with her mother and father at the GiftAbled Foundation’s therapy centre
A boy who could not speak more than 1-2 words even at the age of 4 was brought to the centre. With therapy, he soon attained his 3-month goal to learn and utter a few more words.
The volunteers visit the kids’ houses regularly, to train the parents about the exercise routine that needs to be followed at home. They also provide psychological counselling so that the family members treat the child with better care. Also, the parents are made aware of the rights and benefits offered to the special children by the government, and the centre helps them avail those in time.
The mobile therapy unit would help Giftabled’s therapy centre to gift new hope to more special children.