October 6, 2008 12:03:51 am
The Naxalite violence has rendered many children homeless in south Bastar in Chhattisgarh. While some have lost both parents, others were abandoned by mothers, who remarried after the deaths of their husbands.
“Being orphans from a conflict zone, these children have no option other than joining the rebels or assisting the anti-Naxal forces,” says Narayan Rao, 42, a laboratory assistant with a government girl’s college in the state capital. “These children came to me as they didn’t want to join the Maoist cadres or the special police officers (SPOs),” he says.
Determined to improve the plight of these children, Rao has set up a safe haven for them. More than half of the 58 children, housed at his ‘Gurukul Ashram’, are from the south Bastar region where hundreds of people have lost their lives in Maoist violence, particularly since June 2005 when the conflict intensified after a group of locals launched Salwa Judum, an anti-naxalite movement to isolate the rebels.
When he began earning, Rao would spend half his salary on food, books and pencils for impoverished children. Later, when he set up the ashram to provide shelter to orphaned children, Rao split his monthly salary of Rs 12,000 into two parts, one half of which goes to his family — his wife and two children — and the other to the ashram. “Initially, my wife Hemlata used to resist. Now she also looks after and teaches the children,” says Rao.
Although the ashram doesn’t receive any government aid, Rao has motivated a large number of people to contribute rice, wheat, pulses and other food items during the Pitru Paksha fortnight when people make generous donations in memory of their ancestors. People also donate both cash and other items to celebrate the birthdays of their children, and on occasions such as Kanya Puja and Navratri.
When the ashram started in 2005, Rao had made some headway in securing assistance for it when he met Mridula Rathore, wife of the then DGP O P Rathore. She introduced him to her husband, who expressed his desire to help him in his endeavour. Rathore also asked some of his officers to extend help to the ashram residents, but that did not continue for long as he died soon after.
Nonetheless, Rao laboured on and the ashram is recognised as a residential school where the children are not only provided with the basic necessities but also with formal education and vocational training.
“Unlike other orphans, children from this virtual war zone face the twin problems of fear and hunger. They speak tribal dialects and belong to remote and backward forest areas. Hence, they need more attention,” he explains. To bring the children from different parts of the state to the ashram, Rao took out an ‘Ashraya Rath’ and went around the 18 districts to identify those who were orphaned.
“In Bastar, there are many children who need care and attention. I could not bring all of them at one go, but I am planning to do so in a phased manner,” he says, adding that this will be possible only after the ashram is expanded — it is currently housed in a rented building that cannot accommodate more than 50 children.
Incidentally, the ashram is not only home to children affected by Naxalite violence but also to other vulnerable inmates, including two who are HIV-positive. One of them is an infant girl who was found abandoned in Sarguja district. After being diagnosed as HIV-positive, she was refused admission at the government hospital as the authorities felt that she could spread the infection. Rao took her into custody after taking permission from the Sarguja district administration.
Many people have suggested that Rao should apply for government aid or go for foreign funding. He has even been approached by middlemen who have promised to secure such funding without the “usual hassle” associated with the government system but he refused as they demanded a certain percentage as commission.
Yet, Rao seems to be managing well. He has bought an acre of land in the outskirts of the city and begun construction of his “Gurukul Children’s Village” with contributions from well-wishers, although he doesn’t have funds for constructing the building. “I think God has chosen me to look after these children. The almighty will show the way,” Rao says while getting ready to take a child on his old scooter to the government hospital for treatment.
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