As I waited at the entrance of the Bharatpur-based Apna Ashram, the words on a sign board at the reception, made me quite uneasy. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. But I soon learnt that this is no ordinary home for the destiute – it’s an organisation that believes that serving the destitute is akin to worshipping God. Infact, they refer to their beneficiaries as Prabhuji, which is the Hindi word for God.
There’s a separate building for destitute men and women. Further, each building comprises of wards or units, comprising of 150 beneficiaries each; which is overseen by its own caretaker. Each ward/unit has a medical room attached; as well as a store room, which comprises of blankets/uniforms and other daily use items. This setup faciliates easier and better management, which is crucial because of the delicate condition of the beneficiaries. “95% of the beneficiaries here have some form of Mental Retardation. If they miss even one dose of medication, it shows. Their behavior deteriorates. This setup enables caretakers to know the schedule of and care for their own Prabhujis easily,” says Ms. Umesh Solanki, superindent of the ashram.
When a destitute person is comes here, they are given immediate treatment/surgery, then taken to the Bharatpur Hospital to conduct a gamut of medical tests – TB, AIDS, preganancy tests for women etc. Both extremely important steps as most have been living off the streets; even those from a home have been uncared for and living in absolutely pathetic conditions. So it’s not just a matter of body odour and dirty clothes but much bigger things like – diseases, cuts and bruises, broken bones and many cases maggot, worms and major infections around healing wounds. Correct care is then taken after the results of these tests – TB patients are quarantined into a separate room (till cured) and staff are informed about HIV cases so that they may take necessary precautions. The critically ill and elderly are housed in separate rooms too.
The Apna Ghar team then works with each Prabhuji to understand their background, especially family details and where they are from. Of course, in many cases, the Prabhuji is not aware or takes time to open up; sometimes language poses a barrier. But as soon as these details are got, efforts are made to contact the family. Responses received make for another story – ranging from heartening to the terrible.
“Thank you, we have been searching for him/her for days now!”
“Please take care of him/her. S/he is a burden for us.”
Chances of letters reaching families is low simply because addresses are usually incomplete – having been put together with the little details the Prabhuji is aware of. Many a times, families respond to the initial letter saying they will come to collect their wards, but never do. After three attempts (sometimes with additional address details that have been got thanks to the Prabhuji’s improved mental condition), the third of which is sent via registered post (to truly verify if the letter is being delievered or not), the organisation stops trying to make contact, accepting the Prabhuji as a life-long resident instead.
As I was taken around the premises, a hundred faces greeted me – some smiling, many in their own world, some stone-cold stares. Each Prabhuji is given his/her own bed with sheets that are washed daily. I noticed that many mattresses were placed on the floor and Umesh clarified that this was done as physical conditions prevented these Prabhujis from getting onto/off a bed on their own.
One room is stacked with files, which are essentially records of each Prabhuji (from their background to items they arrived at the center with). A tailor sits in one room mending clothes and bedsheets. A barber for both men and women sits in another. Another serves as a laundry, which is operated by the Prabhujis themselves. On another corner of the campus is a gaushala. Comprising of 13-14 cows, their milk is given first given to children on campus; as well as those who are critically ill and more in need of nutritious food. Another room has an air-conditioned coffin for dead bodies (especially for those whose family is known and wish to attend the funeral); as many stay at the ashram till their last breath. Infact, last rites are also conducted on campus itself – according to the Prabhuji’s religion ( if this detail was retrieved from them).
The scale of the work is just impressive; as are the processes followed. 2,500 items clothing are washed daily (partially due to the fact that all bedsheets are washed everyday)! The mostly automated kitchen – with chapatti machines, large broilers for rice, dal and vegetables, and machinery for cutting vegetables too – prepares 3 meals for 2,000 people everyday. Interestingly, there’s also a room with a chakki to churn the over 200 kgs of atta that are needed to feed these 2,000 mouths!
A meticulous process is followed for the purchase and stocking of vegetables. A schedule is also followed for cutting their nails!
Once healed, those mentally and physically stable enough, help out in the running of the organisation itself. Umesh shared with me that future plans include the setting up of a vocational training unit to provide the fit ones with a skill.
Another notable fact is that the ashram has a capacity of 400 people but is housing 770 people currently. It’s commendable from the organisation’s point of view; but not a good reflection on society. Also to note is the fact that there’s also more women than men and this could be because attrocities against women in society are more prevalent than those against men ( like abandonment when they become widows or are unable to bear children or get married).
It’s said that “seeing is believing” and one visit to an Apna Ghar ashram is sure make you a lifetime supporter. As many others have been. This organisation does not believe in asking for money (nor in any kind of events or even promotion material); ALL donors have come here through word-of-mouth. From an operating budget of a few thousand in 2000, the organisation’s budget is in the Rs. 7 crore range today. As their Founder Dr. Bharadwaj says, “Good work attracts good support,” and this organisation is testament to that.
If you want to humbled to your utmost limit, then you must visit an Apna Ghar ashram. It is both intimating and heart-warming at the same time! You will also come away in awe of the staff, who very calmly go about their duties. Given the number of years most of have been serving at the ashram, they know how to handle each Prabhuji well. You will also be both amused and impressed at how supervisors go about their duty – reprimanding caretakers for leaving lights/fans on unnecessarily; sometimes instructing them to change a dirty sheet or clean a room again as it did not smell clean enough.