Mahantesh: I am 95% visually impaired but I can see things which most of the normal people cannot see ..I always question, how can they not see the problem in the society? How can they not want to help? How can they not want an inclusive community?
IN CONVERSATION WITH MAHANTESH
How did you get started on your philanthropy journey?
Nagesh and I are very good childhood friends. Both of us are visually impaired. I lost my vision due to typhoid at a very early age. We grew up together. Cricket was also our common passion. While I was teaching English in Law College, our interest in Cricket, gave us a chance to interact with visually impaired young adult students who were struggling to study, as they did not have access to reading material in braille or were not getting support. Nagesh and I knew the struggles as we had gone through a similar situation despite having terrific support from our families.
Infrastructure support, mindset of people, admissions into mainstream educational institutions are the common problems that most visually impaired students face. For example, I was preparing for the civil services exam coaching in Mysore in the 90s after my MA. MPhil and got through the entrance test. Post the entrance exam, the top 10 students are selected. I stood first in the entrance exam, yet I was denied admission for the coaching. When I approached the college, I was told that they could not give me the admission, as they lacked the infrastructure to accommodate me in the college – like no material available in braille and the teachers were also not trained to teach visually impaired students. I convinced the management to give me the admission and I will also work with the colleges and the information available in braille across the country to study for the exam.
After this incident, Nagesh and I realized that there was a need for an organization or mentors or people who can help these students by approaching the colleges and getting them admissions while also supporting them on their educational and vocational journey.
With this, we decided to work towards removing the adversities visually impaired students face. With a mission to guide, assist and encourage visually and physically challenged children to pursue higher studies, we started an organization called Samarthanam Trust for the disabled. In the local language, the word samarthanam means ‘capable’.
Since inception, we have been working to empower the visually impaired, disabled and underprivileged people in India. Our mission is to empower the visually impaired, disabled and underprivileged people through developmental initiatives focusing on educational, social, economic, cultural and technological aspects.
We only work with students after their 11th standard. For classes lower than the 11th there are many blind schools. We have been able to bring maximum impact in the area of higher education and cricket for the blind. We ensure that students get admissions into college, organize for them to stay in the hostels, and provide necessary study material for the blind. Whatever the students can’t understand in their regular classes, the trust ensures that they are sent for tuitions through our volunteer network. Our volunteer network comprises of housewives who help our students over the weekday, from corporate who work with our students over the weekend and retired professionals who work with our students both on weekdays and weekends. We currently support over 200 blind children above class 11, in Bangalore (145) and Dharwad center (55). Most students are hostel students, as they are from rural and remote parts of Karnataka. Samarthanam Trust has taken the responsibility of providing complete handholding for the education and residential support for the blind students. We also mold the students. We keep them engaged in the hostel right from the time they wake up to the time they go to sleep. We have close to 400 staff as a part of our NGO. We have 60 girls staying in our girls hostel in JP nagar who are either getting trained on IT or working. In addition, this building here in HSR layout also houses are BPO training unit, hostel for women in distress, school going girls and administrative block.
We are registered in US and UK, and get our funding from active donors across the world.
“While I was teaching English in Law College, our interest in Cricket, gave us a chance to interact with visually impaired young adult students who were struggling to study”
“Infrastructure support, mindset of people, admissions into mainstream educational institutions are the common problems that most visually impaired students face.”
“Our mission is to empower the visually impaired, disabled and underprivileged people through developmental initiatives focusing on educational, social, economic, cultural and technological aspects.”
“Mr. Ashok Soota took us for a trek to Savandurga. We were close to 30/40 youngsters who were visually impaired part of the trek. It was an awesome experience.”
“In 2000 we started getting government grants and started working with both the state and central departments to support setting up girls’ hostel.”
“…we provide mid-days meals to 54 government schools in and around Bengaluru. This is close to 2,50,000 mid-day meals each month for the children in these schools. This program is called Vidyaprasad”
“Samarthanam Parisara is a Waste Management Programme initiated in 2003. We are currently a partner for many of the large apartment complexes in South Bangalore (HSR, Madiwala, Koramangala, Jayanagar, JP Nagar, Bannerghata Road, among other areas) and for ITC.”
“We successfully organized the first T20 world cup for the blind with representation from nine countries.”
Please tell us about the successes on this journey?
Samarthanam was registered on 26th Feb 1997. 28th of Feb, Mr. Ashok Soota took us for a trek to Savandurga. We were close to 30/40 youngsters who were visually impaired part of the trek. It was an awesome experience. During the trek we approached Mr. Soota. He heard our vision and thoughts. He felt we were investing in a right cause. He spoke about us in large forums like Nasscom, CII, etc. Hearing Mr. Soota we received a lot of support in donations as well as volunteers. Even today, we have many donors who have been with us from inception.
This gave us a good push and set the momentum going. Then in June/July 1997 we needed funds to set up the office space. During the same time, there was a blockbuster hit movie called “Yes Boss” an SRK starrer. Swagat Theatre (Jayanagar) owner offered to give the collection from the charity show to Samarthanam. We could raise close to 1 Lakh which could help give advance to the office.
We started supporting students in the 1997/98 academic year. RV group of Institutions were of complete support and agreed to give admissions to the deserving disabled or visually impaired students as well waive off the fees (including examination fees) for them. Mr. Pandu has also been one of the driving forces for us all our programs. He has been my godfather.
When we wanted to start the hostel for girls we started a charity cultural show. That’s when we got a lot of support from Mr. Shivaramanna and Vaishali Kasaravalli. This ensured that there was a lot of participation from the Kannada film industry, leading us to collecting enough money to give advance to the girl’s hostel.
In 2000 we started getting government grants and started working with both the state and central departments to support setting up girls’ hostel.
We were still living in our rented accommodation. We wanted to have a facility of our own, as it would help the students staying with us. In 2003, we organized for a cultural show with Dr. K.J. Yesudas. This was a great hit and helped us with the funds for setting up our own hostel. Dinesh, one of the Infosys founders helped us throughout this program. He has been one of the driving forces.
In 2004-05 we have applied for this land in HSR layout to set-up the office and training units. This got allotted to us due to support from Mr. Ramalingareddy. This was a big change in the dimension. It also was the starting point of our journey of progressing from area after area and to bigger facilities.
Apart from our residential program for our blind and disabled children, we also realized that malnutrition is a big problem among economically marginalized students in urban and semi urban slums. We provide mid-days meals to 54 government schools in and around Bengaluru. This is close to 2,50,000 mid-day meals each month for the children in these schools. This program is called Vidyaprasad. Vidyaprasad is very similar to Akshaya Patra. Our program is supported by a fully equipped state of the art kitchen and a fleet of vehicles to transport mid-day meals to the students 6 days a week at Singasandra, Bangalore. This program is subsidized by the Government of Karnataka. We also have volunteers from corporates who help us in our programs. We have over 120 employees of VMWare who are cooking food for the children in our mid-day meal center.
We wanted to enhance the skill based training for our students. We wanted to make them employable. In 2010, we launched a first-of-its-kind BPO/Call Centre training unit for people with disabilities. In association Government of Karnataka rural BPO association, we started our BPO unit. Based on a curriculum built by Industry experts and in partnership with 24X7 Customers, we provide students with quality technical and non-technical training. This training includes skilling them on IT/ITES, banking and insurance, hospitality and health. Our training programs comprise of English communication training, soft skills and IT/ITES training. Our BPO center is in Bidadi, Bangalore. We are currently working with ING, Kotak Bank, Coca Cola inventory management and vodafone’s process to migrate customers from pre-paid to postpaid among others are the processes our BPO unit manages. All the employees in our BPO unit have graduated from our BPO training unit and have been skilled with the necessary skills to perform above industry set expectations. Apart from the BPO unit, students trained in our BPO unit are also placed in retail stores like Metro cash and carry, select malls, and domino’s pizza. Hearing impaired are trained in housekeeping who have low or no education so that they are employable. We have placed a lot of our students in Adigas (chain of darshini’s or hotels) who haven’t been able to pursue their higher education.
We are also working with corporates. We approached them, understood the positions open and the skill sets required. We trained our students who are graduates and bridged the skill gap making them employable to these corporates. Some of the corporates we work with are Tyco (our students are part of their shared service center), Microsoft, VMWare (internship are available, allowing our students to experience the corporate culture as well as incase they meet the requirements, they will be absorbed into the rolls).
Samarthanam Parisara is a Waste Management Programme initiated in 2003. We are currently a partner for many of the large apartment complexes in South Bangalore (HSR, Madiwala, Koramangala, Jayanagar, JP Nagar, Bannerghata Road, among other areas) and for ITC.
ITC has also asked our Parisara campaign to extend from the current 30 wards to 100 wards. We have appointed 70 staff for this program. We go door to door to each of the houses and apartments in this area and collect the dry-waste. We educate the citizens on how dry waste is actually wealth and can be put to use. The money that is collected from this initiative serves as additional income to the BBMP pourakarmika and the workers at the dry waste collection center. This dry waste is used by ITC and reduces the import of dry-waste by then by 20%. We also collect low-grade plastic which can be used for the tarring of roads.
Our unit also has 40 plus women who have created a small scale unit to make handmade products from recycled items like newspaper, cloth. They make over 75 products like pen stands, pens, dolls, mats and tea coasters among others. This creates employment opportunities and also gives livelihood and supports their families. The products are usually sold to corporates who would like to make it part of their gifting initiative or through building or apartment flea markets.
We also have a strong cultural arm where our students participate. In 1999, our cultural team went on their first international trip to the US. Sunadha is a unique cultural troupe established by Samarthanam a few years ago to encourage talent among visually impaired and economically marginalized youth. Sunadha provides a platform for budding dancers and musicians to undergo specialized training and perform in India and in countries across the world.
Cricket training provides blind and visually impaired disabled children, an opportunity to throw themselves around on the field, to strategize and calculate their moves, and to work as a team. In August 1997, we organized a cricket tournament. In 1999 our cricket team went to England for a match. In 2010, entre cricket management of the country for the blind was managed by us. A major milestone for us. The first T20 world cup for the blind cricket was a mammoth task. We did not have support from BCCI or from any corporates. We did not lose hope. We kept our efforts going. SBI offered to be the title sponsor and the government of Karnataka gave us one crore in donation to organize it. We successfully organized the first T20 world cup for the blind with representation from nine countries. We followed a very structured selection process, had external people to validate the team structure and composition. A small team (4-5) was created to focus on team management, coaching, mental conditioning and physio for our Indian team. India won this cup in the finals by beating Pakistan.
Other success stories from our trust are Rajani, a visually impaired student, successfully completed her Chartered Accountancy course in 2003 and joined the Taj Group of Hotels in its Administration department. She became the finalist of the Kevin Care Ability Award 2003. Pankaj, another visually impaired student, completed his Bachelor in Business Management this year and is now planning to pursue further studies in one of the top management institutes of the country.
What are your future plans?
More than 70 million people are disabled. Only 10% of these are able to access the support system. We have plans to expand our presence nationally. In 2009, we expanded out of Bangalore to Dharwad. We are looking to grow this center. We have a vison for the year 2020, we want to touch 100,000 lives across India every year. Which translates us to getting more partners on board, investment in infrastructure and also build Human Resource to make this happen – across 5 major areas education, skilling, social enterprise, sports and cultural.
In addition, we are also looking to start new centers in Belgaum, Bellary, Ranchi, Gujarat and NCR region (close to Delhi) so that we can cater to the local youth who are visually impaired or disabled. Skill training is going to be the main focus to ensure that the youth can be employable.
Cricket is also another vehicle where we get to meet disabled individuals across different backgrounds to understand their needs and aspirations. By providing training or by giving them jobs we ensure that they are gainfully employed. Our cultural arm is also another channel that helps our students to express themselves. Our cultural troupe performs regularly in shows across India as well as overseas.
“More than 70 million people are disabled. Only 10% of these are able to access the support system.”
With our interest, enthusiasm and focus, we have been able to overcome every challenge that has come our way. There is no better time than to act now. We welcome individuals and corporates to see how they can volunteer or support Samarthanam in its causes. If you are interested in working with the visually impaired or the disabled, Nagesh and I can guide you on how you can help and support this section of society.