Dr Abhijit Sonawane and his wife have performed over 160 cataract operations, and have also supported 50 elderly beggars to leave the begging profession.Shruti Kedia
On the streets of Pune, a doctor can often be seen carrying bags of medicines treating beggars for free. Our aim is to rehabilitate the poor and homeless by providing holistic, psychological, and free medical care, says 43-year-old Dr Abhijit Sonawane, who is also sometimes accompanied by his wife, Dr Manisha Sonawane.
“We provide all the basic healthcare and investigations on (the) road itself to the elderly beggars abandoned by their families, and those who are begging just to survive in this world,” says Dr Abhijit.
Every morning, Dr Abhijit heads out to various locations such as temples, mosques, and churches, where a majority of homeless elderly beggars assemble to seek donations. He carries with him basic medical supplies, conducts check-ups, and provides medicine to those in need.
With an aim to make them self-sufficient, the duo helps the specially-abled and senior homeless citizens to relocate to old age homes. At times, they have even helped them out financially to set up small businesses. Since April 2017, the couple has supported 50 elderly beggars to leave the begging profession.
The duo has gone a step further and set up Soman Trust, a non-profit, through which they raise funds, provide the underprivileged with access to government hospital services, and create awareness on sexual and reproductive health among adolescents in rural Pune. Till date, the doctor couple has helped over 1,100 beggars and provided them with free medical care.
Belonging to a middle-class family in a small village in Satara district in Maharashtra, Dr Abhijit’s parents invested everything in their son’s education with the hope for a better future. However, after completing his Bachelors in Ayurveda, Medicine, and Surgery at the Tilak Ayurved Mahavidyalaya, Pune, in 1999, he failed to secure a job. He could also not start a clinic of his own due to low financial support. Hence, he went door-to-door hoping to earn money by providing medical care through house visits.
Recalling this, he says: “Every day, I would carry the medical equipment and my stethoscope in my bag and would go for rounds. I would knock on the doors and ask if anyone required any medical assistance. But people turned me away. Some even insulted me and asked why a respectable doctor would provide home services.”
Eventually, due to lack of financial resources, he was pushed towards starvation, and there were times when he would have just one meal in two days.
It was during one such visits to a village that he fell sick and a beggar couple helped him to regain strength. They would feed him one meal a day, while encouraging him to remain positive in his goal to serve the society.
“I was very frustrated at that time and they told me not to give up. Their belief in me gave me the strength, and I give them the credit for who I am today,” he says.
However, things took a turn for the better the next year, and Dr Abhijit got an opportunity to work with an international organisation that was looking to provide medical and healthcare facilities in rural Maharashtra. Over the next decade, Dr Abhijit rose in his ranks and started earning a salary of over Rs 3 lakh per month.
In 2010, when he went back to his village to meet the elderly beggar couple, he was shocked to find out about their death, and to know there was no one to help them with the funeral services. Since then, a guilt haunted him, says Dr Abhijit.
“They did so much for me. Because of them I survived those early years, and when they needed me, I was not available to them. I began to feel restless, and started to think of ways to give back to this community,” he says.
As the years passed, the thought still haunted him, and he confided to his wife about his desire to work for the beggar community. Dr Manisha, who was together with him since his college days, supported his decision.
The next two years were spent in planning and organising their finances to support Dr Abhijit’s dream. On August 15, 2015, Dr Abhijit decided to quit his job. By this time, his wife had started to expand her medical services beyond her clinic, had started a yoga centre, and used to sell Ayurvedic medicine and herbs commercially.
Using his own savings and 30 percent of his wife’s income, Dr Abhijit started his ‘Doctor for Beggars’ initiative.
Every Monday to Saturday, from 10 am to 4 pm, Dr Abhijit spends his time interacting with the beggars. He carries out medical check-ups and provides them with other related medical services. The couple has also performed over 160 cataract operations for free for the beggars.
“I spend over five months in a year with beggar families, understand their needs, eating their food, providing them assistance, and helping them to become self-sufficient. We create a relationship with them as a family member. Once we build the rapport with them, we start counselling and convincing them to leave this begging profession,” Dr Abhijit says.
Through his ‘Beggar to Entrepreneur’ initiative, Dr Abhijit counsels beggars who are in this profession due to dire needs and financial circumstances. After enquiring about their capability, skills, and their potential business idea, he helps them to setup their own business.
For instance, if a lady is good with numbers, they help her setup a small road-side shop to sell scarfs, bangles, and other accessories. The aim, he says, is to make them financially independent and help them to earn two meals a day.
“I ask them over a thousand times whether this is something they are sure about. This is not a one-time support. They need to promise me that they will not return to begging later. I don’t give them direct finances. Rather, I would buy them the items required to setup their shop or connect them with people with whom they could work with,” he says.
Both Dr Manisha and Dr Abhijit believe service to humankind is above all, and that one requires only enough money to secure their future. They are presently raising funds to extend their services and help more beggars live a life with dignity.