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Children in this ashram dream big
Ashok Patil is 14-year-old and is studying in 9th standard at a government school in Nashik district in Maharashtra. His aim is to clear civil services examination and become a district collector and help farmers in distress. Innocence and confidence on his face fail to reveal the travails the teenager has faced in the last few years. He is building a life for himself after his father, a cotton farmer in Gadchiroli district, committed suicide unable to clear mounting debts.
He can hope to achieve his goal, thanks to Adhartirth Adharaashram, a first-of-its-kind ashram in the country which houses children of farmers who are victims of the agrarian crisis in Maharashtra.
There are many like Ashok, who are dreaming amid deep crisis and personal grief. As many as 100 children from 30 districts are in the ashram located on the outskirts of Triambakeshwar, a holy shrine for Hindus. Spread over three acres, the ashram is managed by the 21-member trust, which was setup by Triambakrao Gaekwad in 2007.
Trustees are still building the infrastructure for the ashram and improve facilities to accommodate more children. With a picturesque hill in the background, the land was bought by raising Rs 15 lakh through donations. The ashram has a dining hall and it is in dire need of repairs. Children work in the kitchen garden and grow vegetables such as potato and daikon and they are used in the ashram. It also has a spacious multi-purpose meeting hall and dormitory for children. Toilets and bathroom are being constructed.
Gaekwad, the founder-president of Adhartirth Adharaashram, is the son of a farmer. He says: "In 2007, a farmer committed suicide in Amaravati because he could not repay a mere Rs 1.5 lakh debt. He left behind his young wife and children. I was distraught at the vulnerability of fatherless children and helpless widows. That made me think of securing the future of such farmers' children.”
Gaekwad discussed the plight of farmers with his friends who are also from agricultural background. The idea took concrete shape and the ashram was started on a small scale with five children. The ashram admitted more children as donations started pouring in. Five women, who saw their husbands end life unable to repay debt, work in the kitchen for a monthly remuneration of Rs 400. Called "mousi” by children, they stay on the campus. Sankri Thethale, wife of a sarpanch who committed suicide, is secretary of the trust.
Ashram has 16 orphas, including nine girls. Lovingly called "appa" by children, Gaekwad is worried about the future of these children. "God only knows about their future” Gaekwad says as he looks at them. The children wake up at 5.30 am, offer prayers and take breakfast before walking to the government school in Talegaon village, which is 4 km from the ashram. After school, the children spend some time in "shram daan” and clean the premises.
Interestingly, senior students perform the role of caretakers and mentors for new entrants. When juniors fall sick, seniors tend to their needs.
Jana Chaudhary from Yavatmal has been in the ashram for nearly nine years. She said children are divided into groups to perform daily chores. Group's eldest member takes care of the needs of juniors. The seniors wash clothes, make their bed and ready school bags. "We take care of each other as siblings. We know all of us are from the same background," she says.
Weekends are special days as philanthropists, guests visit the ashram to share their happiness. Birthdays are celebrated with the children and they have breakfast, lunch and dinner along with them. Ashram children wait for the celebrations as they get sweets and cakes on those days. Every time guests come to the ashram, the children offer prayers, entertain them by singing and performing dance to Marathi and Hindi numbers.
Manoj Ambre, a Pune-based techie, celebrated his son's second birthday in the ashram. Manoj says, "It is difficult to think of the mental state the children are in.” Every day Rs 8,000 is spent on food and on special occasions, expenditure touches Rs 12,000. Without constant support from the donors, it is a daunting task to meet the needs of the children.
Two years after the ashram was started, Gaekwad read a news item about the suicide of a young farmer. He visited the bereaved family in Chandori village in Niphad taluk. Along with children, he noticed the impact of the children's visit on villagers. Then he decided to run a campaign urging farmers not to commit suicide.
Based on the reallife stories and agony of families, songs and dramas were penned. A fortnight in every January is reserved for the campaign, which covers Vidarbha and Marathwada regions. They start the campaign on January 12 , birth anniversary of Swami Vivekananda and Jijamaata, mother of the great Maratha king Shivaji. They commence the tour by offering prayers at the birthplace of Jijamaata in Buldhana district.
At least 40 boys and girls accompanied by their "mausi” take part in the campaign. Children enact 10 minutes street plays which depict the problems children and dependents face in the event of the head of the family resorting to suicide unable to face financial problems. The aim of the plays is to convince farmers against taking the extreme step, which affects their beloved. Children also make efforts to convince villagers to quit alcohol and other bad habits. Children meet families in despair and console them.
Adhartirth Adharaashram has made a name through its work and is highly respected in Marathwada and Vidarbha regions. Gaekwad says there could be hundreds of children in need of facilities offered in his ashram."But we do not have financial resources to accommodate more children,” he says.
He is hoping that the government will come to the aid of the ashram and help it continue its services. He feels that it will be difficult to run the ashram only on public donations.