On the streets of Pune, usually outside temples, mosques and churches, you might run into a man walking around with what seems to be a very heavy bag. He’ll be a wearing a white coat, and a stethoscope around his neck.
Meet Dr Abhijit Sonawane, a doctor who looks after the well-being of the impoverished in the city–those who depend on the generosity of passersby–beggars! This doctor for beggars believes that being a doctor is not just a matter of profession but that of attitude.
So what made him choose patients that beg for alms on streets, rather than sitting in a clinic waiting for patients to visit?
Dr Sonawane told The Better India, “I graduated as a doctor in the year 1999 and decided that I no longer wanted to be dependent on my parents. I wanted to change the world. So I went door-to-door checking patients in a village. But what should have brought more value to my work, reduced it drastically.”
Even if Dr Sonawane checked 5-6 patients in a household, all he got was Rs 5 from that home–that was the policy.
Eventually, these conditions brought him to his knees. Dr Sonawane would check 60-70 patients in a day, but all he got was a meagre Rs 30-35. Because he had only been able to visit 6-7 houses.
He continues, “All my friends were progressing in cities, but I was stuck here. I would sit in a temple instead of checking patients. My pockets were empty, my stomach growling with hunger and my head filled with evil thoughts. I wanted to change the world–make it better. But life seemed to have given up on me. I was ready to do anything for money, anything.”
During this time of desperation, he found a helping hand he never expected. An old beggar couple who frequented the temple saw the doctor sitting in a temple for days together, sad and alone with his thoughts, his desperation. The couple separated the best bits of food they got as alms for the doctor. They even gave him some money for his expenses.
“For me, the old couple were my parents… They supported me financially and emotionally. How could I ever repay this generosity? I was indebted to them for life.”
Dr Sonawane’s life changed after two years when he got a job in an international medical organisation. And even when he became a respected name in the society, he could not forget the days he spent alone, in dire need of money and food.
So on 15th August 2015, he resigned from his job and decided to dedicate his life to free poor people from their illnesses. With the Soham Trust, Dr Sonawane started catering to an overlooked population.
With hardly any access to medical facilities and in continuous contact with germs on roads or even in their shelters, the underprivileged are vulnerable to illness, even serious diseases. The need to check up on their health cannot be underestimated.
So Dr Sonawane started doing the rounds of Pune streets, checking up on his patients to see if they were showing symptoms of any contagious diseases or minor illnesses.
“I started doing my rounds between 10 am to 2 pm at various temples and mosques in Pune,” says Dr Sonawane. He adds, “As I started interacting with the people on streets and giving them medicines, they warmed up to me. Even I didn’t realise when they started calling me their son, their grandson… I met several people who were alone, whose families had abandoned them. So along with medicines, I also started giving them emotional support.”
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The kindness of the old couple at the temple when Dr Sonawane had nothing, was not lost to him. He has experienced the feeling of being alone on the streets, with no money even for a basic meal. How could he then abandon the people who felt like family to him?
Through his regular visits to his patients, Dr Sonawane started building their trust. Eventually, as they start thinking of him as their son who cared for them, Dr Sonawane starts convincing them to give up begging.
“Get up,” he says “get up and do some work! Enough with the begging now.”
As an initial push, the doctor even provides them with equipment for basic jobs–like in a roadside barber shop, making and selling diyas outside temples, selling flowers near temples etc.
These require basic skills but ensure that the people live with dignity.
Calling the initiative “Beggars to Entrepreneurs”, Dr Sonawane tries to empower beggars to earn a living with dignity. Till date, he has helped 37 senior citizens give up begging and take up these small businesses.
Dr Sonawane says, “Initially, I aimed to provide beggars with medicines, so I started the ‘Doctor for Beggars’ initiative. But as I got more involved, I started giving them emotional support and tried to make them stand on their own feet. This is no more an initiative or project for me. I feel this is my responsibility as their son/grandson.”
So if you see a man in a white coat outside a temple or mosque in Pune, with a stethoscope around his neck, you’ll know what a noble cause he is running singlehandedly. And if this story of Dr Abhijit Sonawane inspires you, drop him an email at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit the trust website at www.sohamtrust.com Help him maintain their health and bring dignity to the beggars of Pune.
(Edited by Shruti Singhal)