In arid Beed, an oasis of hope and support for children from distressed families

Kavitha Iyer
Deepak and Kaveri Nagargoje in Beed.

IT WAS Baba Amte s advice that sent Deepak and Kaveri Nagargoje, newly married then in the year 2000, back to their native village of Arvi in Beed district s Shirur Kasar taluka. He said if we really wanted to work for people, we should find the darkness and light up that space. Problems change from region to region, and we looked anew at our home district, the acute water scarcity, the annual migration of sugarcane labourers, the acute poverty on our farms, and we realised that our calling was right here, not in Baba Amte s Anandwan in Chandrapur, says Deepak.

When they surveyed nearby villages, it was apparent that education was one of the biggest casualties of the cycle of drought, poverty, migration and continuing backwardness. Convincing Deepak s parents to part with seven acres of barren land, the Nagargojes started Shantiwan that winter. What began as a hostel facility for 51 children whose education the couple committed themselves to is now a school for 1,000 students, a hostel for 300 boys and girls from families worst affected by the region s ongoing distress, a newly inaugurated centre for abandoned infants and an under-construction school and hostel especially for girls.

Outside her hostel dormitory where she has an upper bunk, 16-year-old Namrata Babar says she is pursuing a nursing course alongside Class XI from a junior college located 3 km away in Machindragad. Deepak kaka has told my mother he will support me until I get a job, she says. Shantiwan s school offers the state education board syllabus till Class X, but residents are encouraged to continue higher education while still living on campus. Namrata s elder sister completed her Class XII a couple of years ago, her younger sister is here too, in Class IX. I was in Class II when my father died, he had jaundice but had continued working in the sugarcane fields and collapsed one day. Belonging to Aherwadgaon village that is home to several hundred cane labourers who move to Western Maharashtra or Karnataka every cane harvest season, Namrata s mother stopped working in the fields when she chanced upon Shantiwan her daughters cared for, she now works in a restaurant in Beed city.

Among the hundreds who have lived in Shantiwan are youngsters now working as engineers, mechanics, hospitality staff, and even a few doctors. But when they started, Kaveri remembers, there were only tin sheds. The couple, Deepak s mother and a single other activist took turns doing everything from cooking and cleaning to teaching and covering long distances on cycle and later on a donated motorbike to gather donations. Deepak had been an activist since his college days, giving poor students a Rs 200 scholarship from his own meagre earnings as a part-time journalist-writer, but social service as a career was not really looked upon kindly by the family. Both families had multiple members serving in the armed forces, Deepak s father owned over 60 acres of land, much of it purchased from hard-earned savings.

Baba Amte would always say if you want to do good, do it now. Don t say you ll wait for sponsors then you ll never do it, Kaveri recounts. When they started Shantiwan, they had no staff, no volunteers willing to live on a plot that had no source of water, tin sheds that were blazingly hot in the summer, reached via a rutted path covered in shin-deep muck in the monsoon. One year, as the Makar Sankranti festival approached, funds dried up to a point when Kaveri pawned her mangalsutra, the last of her wedding gold. Tearing up as she recounts that day, Kaveri says the couple thought of giving up only once when she was hospitalised with snakebite. What if it had been one of the children, we fretted. But we rededicated ourselves after that day to make Shantiwan a better, stronger space, she says.

It was only in 2012-13 that their finances stabilised somewhat, with Suresh Joshi of Pune joining them as donor and later trustee, connecting the couple to other philanthropists. Through his help we received Rs 25 lakh from the Chitales of Pune to build our first farm pond, 40 feet in height. We got some rains in Diwali of 2013 and we actually had our first year of decent water storage in 2014, says Deepak. Joshi, 78, a retired entrepreneur, says he was keen to make Shantiwan capable of withstanding the annual water crisis, and the first farm pond led them to undertake watershed management programmes in nearby villages. Then we began to think about what next for the children after Class X? We then decided to help children all the way through higher education also, Joshi says, adding that his dream is to set up a nursing college for girls, in Arvi. Because the question of girls future is central to the region s problems.

Shantiwan now runs almost entirely on solar energy, a donated biogas plant supplies one gas cylinder s worth of cooking gas every day, rainwater is harvested and many kitchen supplies including jowar, wheat and bajra come from their own lands, the 60-odd acres that Deepak s family later donated to them. There are 188 girls among the 300 hostellers, almost all from families that have witnessed a farmer suicide or an untimely death or accident, some are being raised by single mothers, some girls belong to denotified tribes, a few are daughters of sex workers. Every one of them wants to be a doctor or engineer or policewoman or teacher. Some of the boys are considering careers in sports.

The Nagagojes, themselves only in their late 30s, are making plans alongside. They have received help in recent months from the Naam Foundation, Sachin Tendulkar, some corporates. We want to set up a training centre for civil service competitive exams right here, and an athletics track and sporting facilities. With a little push, these children can look at a different future, says Deepak.