Lounge Heroes | The Pune doctor helping beggars to be choosers
Dr Abhijit Sonawane has been providing Pune’s beggars free treatment and funding them to start their own enterprise
Abhijit Sonawane, 46, has been providing free treatment to beggars and the homeless on Pune’s streets for five years.
When he graduated as an Ayurveda doctor in 1999, Sonawane struggled to find a job. He didn’t have the capital to set up his own clinic. So he started going door-to-door in Khadakwasla, a village outside his home-town Pune. “It wasn’t quite working," he remembers. “I was too young and people didn’t take me seriously."
One day, he happened to converse with an ajoba (a grandfather, or an elderly man) whom he would often see begging on the streets. The man, Sonawane found out, was well-educated, raised in a family of means. But he had been turned out by his son, and was forced to beg. “We would talk about my inability to establish my own (medical) practice and how frustrated I felt because of it. He would counsel me by sharing his life stories, the mistakes he had made and what he had learnt. Work for the people, he would say, not for yourself."
At ajoba’s insistence, he got a job as a coordinator at a sex-workers rehabilitation programme in Pune. Over the next 15 years, until 2015, Sonawane was part of community health initiatives in the field of child mortality and safe abortion. He got married, to a college junior who is also a doctor. He was “settled", as they say, but he kept thinking of the man who had shown him the way. In 2014, he went back to Khadakwasla to find him. It was too late. Ajoba had died years earlier.
“That hit me hard," says Sonawane. “He had taught me the value of empathy. I had used it on all but him."
In 2015, Sonawane quit his job with a mission: to provide free treatment to beggars and the homeless. His wife, who runs a clinic, agreed to shoulder the household expenses. And since then, he has been running a mobile practice across Pune: examining, administering first-aid, if necessary, and prescribing medicines, all on the street. He also pays for surgeries and hospitalization in critical cases. On an average, says Sonawane, he ends up reaching out to a little over 1,000 people a month.
It wasn’t easy initially, though. Until a Delhi high court ruling in 2018, begging was a crime, and beggars would often be suspicious of him, thinking he could be a police informer. “I have been spat on, threatened even," he says. The police, in turn, were suspicious of his work. “Most couldn’t believe it. Often, they would haul me up, interrogate me rigorously."
It took a couple of years to earn trust. To avoid any more run-ins with the police, he wrote to the Pune police commissioner and got a letter recognizing him and his work.
Every morning now, he sets off on his motorcycle with a few bags of medicines, to places where he is likely to find people in need of help—outside temples, mosques and churches. His destination depends on the day of the week. For instance, he goes to Lord Shivatemples on Mondays, mosques on Fridays and churches on Sundays. “I have come to realize that there’s not much difference between those giving and seeking alms," he says. For, both are seeking something.
His funding comes from donations to Soham Trust, which he set up a few years ago. Sonawane says he gets ₹40,000-50,000 every month. Apart from medical treatment, which costs up to ₹40,000 a month, he uses the remaining money to help some set up their own business: tea-stalls, vada-pav kiosks, or selling puja essentials, like oil, flowers and packaged prasadam, outside temples.
Sometimes, he says, his patients end up teaching him lessons in humanity. He gives the example of a beggar, turned away by his family. “I had helped him start a business selling torches. Once he started earning and his family came to know of it, they offered to take him back and join his business. I was against it but he told me, ‘Forgiveness is a virtue. If I don’t forgive them, they will never learn.’"
The pandemic hasn’t interrupted Sonawane’s work, although it has changed his approach. He started reading up on the coronavirus early, in January. In February, he conducted a few “workshops" for his patients on the street, telling them about the virus and ways to protect themselves. In the weeks and months that followed, he began distributing handkerchiefs that could serve as masks, insisted those with homes in slums stay indoors, and coordinated with the Pune civic body to offer the homeless temporary shelter in local schools.
Today, Pune’s covid-19 case count has crossed 100,000—it’s one of the worst-hit in the country. Sonawane says none of the beggars he knows has displayed any covid-19 symptoms, but their earnings have plummeted. “I want to start a dedicated skilling centre on the outskirts of Pune, teaching things like making paper bags, perfumes or sewing falls (peeko) on saris, so they don’t have to step out to beg." It’s an expensive project, costing up to ₹2 crore, land and infrastructure included. But he has started saving up for it.
The idea, he says, is to wean away people from begging and make them self-sufficient. So far, says Sonawane, he has been able to help 85 families set up their own small businesses. “Local charity clubs, like the Rotary Club and the Lions Club, have given me awards for my work. But my ultimate award will be if one of my patients becomes self-sufficient enough to be a member of such high-society clubs one day," he says.