Reethu, a story teller, a person often found between the pages of a book or contemplating the nuances of life.
"Whenever I saw old people begging, I would compare them to my family members. If they were my family, how could I allow them to beg?", says P Naveenkumar, founder of Atchayam trust, with a voice brimming with passion for a cause he has taken up for the last seven odd years.
Based out of Musiri, in Tiruchirappalli district of Tamil Nadu, the 26-year-old Naveen has been striving for a beggar-free India. In order to rehabilitate the destitute, he set up 'Atchayam Trust,' a Non-Government Organization in 2014.
Today, the initiative that started with just three people, with Naveen at the helm, has over 400 volunteers. The Trust has expanded to 18 districts in Tamil Nadu and has counselled more than 4,300 beggars, with the maximum from Erode. They have effectively rehabilitated 424 beggars, with 104 beggars in 2019 alone.
An Assistant Professor at JKKN College of Engineering and Technology, Komarapalayam, Naveen juggles his full-time job and Atchayam. From the National Youth Award for 2015 -2016 to the Chief Minister's State Youth Award in 2019, the young achiever has won over 40 awards for his work.
For many of these beggars, Naveen not only provides a chance at a better life but also an opportunity for a dignified death.
Recounting his experience with a beggar he had rehabilitated, who later left the home to return to begging due to his various addictions, Naveen says, "When I met him a year later, he was very eager to join an old-age home. He told me that he had seen a beggar die from his sickness on the streets. As he had no one to take care of him, his body got infested with worms and a strong stench had emanated from him. It was this sight that had made him want to join a home again."
"The beggar told me - 'Naveen, within three months I am also going to die due to my sickness. But, at least I will die in a good place and not rot away on the streets," says Naveen, while speaking to The Logical Indian.
It was during Naveen's stay in Salem for GATE coaching that he first decided to help the beggars. At the time, he was doing his BE in Mechanical Engineering from S.S.M College of Engineering.
"While I was doing my third year engineering, in 2013, I came across many beggars in Salem. One 80-year-old woman asked me Rs 10 to go back to her town. I met a 26-year-old guy named Yuvaraj, who told me that he was begging to get money to go to Madurai, his native place," says Naveen.
In an attempt to help the beggars he met, he would give them Rs 10, which was all he had.
"I come from a very poor background. I was only given Rs 10 or 20 for my daily dinner. And this I would give to the beggars I met. Many days, I couldn't sleep because of my hunger," says Naveen, who was only 19 years old at the time.
A couple of days later, he saw Yuvaraj begging again. Curious, he decided to follow him to find out what he was using the money for. Shocked to realise that he was using the money to buy alcohol, the youngster then tried to find out the reasons behind begging and resorted to reading many books by APJ Abdul Kalam and Swami Vivekananda to understand the same.
Although he raised the matter of the beggars with his friends, teachers, and family, he was only met with discouragement. 'You are from a poor family, you can't change the life of a beggar,' - was the common reaction.
As discouragement from his peers and family grew, he shifted his focus to his studies. It was then that he met Rajasekar, a beggar around 60 years of age.
"I met Rajasekar in 2014 when he was begging in Salem. I followed him for a couple of days and tried to strike up a conversation with him, although he showed no interest. As he had been sick for the last two months, he was very conscious of the stench from his body," recounts Naveen.
Finally, after 22 days of efforts, Naveen was able to indulge him in a conversation. "After I spent some time with him, he broke down and told me that all his family members, including his wife and son, had died in an accident. He had lost all his IDs too," says Naveen.
Rajasekar then came to Salem in search of work. However, as he had no identity proofs, he was unable to find any work. Whoever he encountered only gave him money, instead of work. Depressed by his inability to find work, he soon turned to alcohol.
"That day, I stayed with him from 8 pm to 11 pm. He then used his money to buy me tea. That tea and his love are what changed my life," says Naveen.
"He inspired me and made me realise that if we give the roadside people love, they will love us back. Everybody needs love and care in life," he adds.
Later, with the help of a friend, Naveen found Rajasekar a job as a watchman at a children's home.
Setting Up Atchayam Trust
It was around that time that he won the best outgoing student of the year award (2010-2014), which enabled him to garner the trust of the College Chairman. With the Management's support, he then went from class to class, to talk about the plight of the beggars. After listening to his talks, seven people joined him, of which, three were keenly interested in the cause.
Upon the suggestions of his friends and teachers, who told him that an organisation was necessary to achieve his goals, he then set up Atchayam Trust in March 2014.
Volunteers, comprising largely of college students and industry professionals, are the Trust's main strength. Divided into various teams like the rescue team, cleaning team, medical team, and the social media team, the teams diligently work to rehabilitate the beggars.
Till date, the Trust's survey has identified 19 types of beggars including the mentally ill, orphaned, physically challenged, old-age people, children, and drug addicts, among others.
"My main motto is to create a beggar-free India. To achieve this, the first step is to not encourage beggars by giving money. Rather, people should offer them employment opportunities, food, clothes and get them into a home for social security," says Naveen.
"Many beggars have told me that they did not start out by begging. When they ended up in the streets for various reasons, people only encouraged them by giving them money. 'Don't make us lazy' - is what the beggars told me," he says.
To educate the public about the problems associated with giving money to the destitute, Naveen conducts many awareness programs, especially in colleges.
"The major reason people resort to begging is for food and shelter. If we don't give them opportunities, they just become lazy," adds Naveen.
A major reason for the low number of rehabilitations, Naveen says, is a lack of funds.
"It requires Rs 8,000 to 10,000 to rehabilitate a single beggar. Each home has its own criteria to admit beggars. For instance, a mentally challenged beggar can only be admitted to a home for the mentally challenged. To find the right home creates a lot of travel expense," explains Naveen.
Clothes, cleaning kits, food, and medical care makes up a huge chunk of the money required. In addition, money also goes into the gloves, masks, and food for the volunteers.
Naveen also finds it hard to raise funds as he has a full-time job. Getting approvals from the police and the government is yet another hurdle he has to overcome.
In addition, working for beggars is frowned upon in the society, says Naveen. Often, people have called Naveen a beggar due to his association with the destitute.
"In 2014, when I went to my friend's home, his family did not allow me to enter the house. According to them, as I was working with the beggars, I was a bad influence. So they made me sit outside the house and gave me food outside too," says Naveen with a slight quiver in his voice.
Every week, Naveen and his team, headed by a district co-ordinator in each district, scout roadsides to identify the beggars. They try to talk to them and collect their information to maintain a profile of the beggars, which includes their name, age, reasons for begging, and areas of begging, among others. Once the details are collected, the team members then council the beggars and give them food and clothes.
Naveen explains why giving them food and clothes is important: "Giving them food and clothes helps to develop a bond with them, to build their trust. Many beggars are scared of the public as they often get beaten up by the public. There have also been cases where people stole money from the beggars."
They Atchayam team also give the beggars a bath, a haircut, and/or shave. As the team has nursing students as volunteers, they also help with any required medical treatment. After counselling, the team categorises the beggars as per the 19 categories they have identified. Depending on the category, they then identify a home for them.
Before rehabilitation, Atchayam also ensures to complete all the legal formalities of intimating the police, obtaining a NOC from the government and letter from the concerned home. They then appoint the destitute to the home. In the cases where the person is sick, they are admitted to the hospital.
"After joining a home, many people take up jobs there. They work as watchmen, farmers, gardeners, or cooks," says Naveen.
The rehabilitation process does not end there. The Atchayam team constantly follows-up with those rehabilitated to ensure they are facing no issues.
In addition to rehabilitation, the team also reunites the destitute with their family members. "About 40-50 per cent of destitute are reunited with the family members. That is a great achievement for us," says Naveen.
For Naveen, the next aim is to start Atchayam's own beggar rehabilitation home.
"Within a couple of months, I will get a rental building to start an old-age home for just 20 people. In the next stage, I will start a bigger home only for beggar rehabilitation," says Naveen.
In Tamil literature "Manimekalai," Atchayam translates to 'the divine vessel of inexhaustible food.' Staying true to the name and ethos of his NGO, Naveen aims to be an inexhaustible resource to the destitute, to give them the basic privilege of a dignified life.
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