When I meet young children selling balloons, garlands or any other item at a traffic signal, a tea shop or anywhere on the streets, I always wonder what their lives are like. When do they wake up? Do they go to school? What do they study? And often, when I ask a child these questions, I receive vague answers, confirming that education is never a priority for the families of these children.
It takes a very empathetic person with sheer determination, to try and change the fate of children growing up in Indian slums. 61-year-old D Prakash Rao, from Cuttack, Odisha, is one such extraordinary person and has taken upon himself to help slum children lead better lives, as he was also one of them.
According to media reports, Rao started helping out at his father’s tea-shop when he was just seven years old.
Due to this, he was unable to pursue an education and had to make do with the limited opportunities that he received. Perhaps, this is why he hopes never to let another child suffer like he did.
Speaking to the Times of India, Rao said, “My father was a World War II veteran. After the war ended, he returned to Cuttack and started a tea stall to eke out a living. Due to financial problems, I also joined my father and started helping him. In the process, I could not complete my matriculation.”
Having worked as a tea vendor for over 50 years, Rao decided to do something for the children living in the slums of Cuttack.
He opened a school called Asha Ashvaasan, dedicating half of his monthly income of between Rs18,000 to Rs 20,000 towards the education of around 70 underprivileged children.
“As I could not complete my education and spent my life in a tea stall, I decided to start educating children by opening a school at my house in the year 2000,” he told TOI, adding that “Later children of nearby slums joined my school. Today, we have 75 children in the age group of four to nine years.”
Although Rao hasn’t completed his matriculation, he is fluent in eight languages—Odia, Telugu, Tamil, Kannada, Malayalam, Bengali, Hindi and English. Instead of taking charge of the formal education of the kids, Rao tries to prepare them for the challenges of good schools and undertakes foundation courses in Asha Ashvaasan.
“I normally teach foundation courses to the kids before they join any government school, which helps them to grasp what is being taught easily,” he says.
Not just that, Rao also provides healthy meals to the students in his school.
The good samaritan doesn’t stop at that. His past has taught him to work tirelessly in the present to provide for a better future for his friends as well as strangers.
“When I was 17, my body was paralysed due to a disease,” Rao recalls, “And an unknown person donated blood and saved my life.” Since that day, Rao has been regularly donating blood, and according to the New Indian Express, he now holds the record for giving blood the highest number of times in Asia.
The story of D Prakash Rao goes to show that in the small pockets of India, live true heroes, who learn from their own experience and contribute all that they can to the bright future of others. It also gives us the hope that maybe the children on streets of Cuttack, who are forced to work, can also receive a good education, healthy food and a chance at a brighter, more comfortable future.
PM Narendra Modi recently lauded the efforts of Rao in his monthly radio programme, Mann Ki Baat, saying that the tea vendor has successfully eradicated darkness from the lives of many underprivileged children.
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)