“For 54 years, I was a roadside tea-seller. But today, I am a Padma Shri tea-seller,” beams Odisha-based 61-year-old D Prakash Rao, who was conferred the prestigious award on Republic Day by the Government of India.
How did a tea-seller win the fourth highest civilian award in the Republic of India, you ask.
His beautiful story will move you.
Rao was only six-years-old when he started working at his father’s tea-stall. His father served during the second world war. When the war ended, he returned to his hometown, Cuttack. He hoped that his service during the war would help him find an alternate job. But to his disappointment, nobody wanted to employ him.
Pushed by unemployment and poverty, with a meagre capital of Rs 5, he started the tea-stall. One that Rao continued to run for the next five decades.
He tells The Better India, “Living and working in a slum, I witnessed the resistance of parents towards education first-hand. Living in their makeshift jhuggi jhopdis, they thought of their children as means of earning income. Instead of enrolling them in schools, these children were enrolled in menial labour. Working odd jobs and becoming domestic helpers, whatever money they earned was often snatched by the men in the home, who would buy alcohol and turn to domestic violence. It deeply affected me, every single day.”
He continues, “I was a good student. Bright in academics, adept at football. I wanted to become a doctor but landed up becoming a chaiwala. I knew what it was like to not have any opportunities. And I did not want these kids to have the same fate.”
For every cup of tea sold at his stall, he used half the amount towards the education and health of the slum kids.
He first operated from his two-room thatched house, with four children, where he provided them with food and education, completely free of cost.
He faced opposition from the parents who complained, “Yeh bacche kya kar lenge padh ke? Meri ladki ghar kaam karke Rs 700 leke aati hai mahine ka. Aap padhake kyun humaare pet par lat maarna chahte ho? (What will our kids do if they study? My daughter works as a maid and earns Rs 700 monthly. Why are you kicking our stomachs by educating her?)”
But he did not give up.
Slowly, the number of kids rose, and today his school, ‘Asha o Ashwasana’, has transformed the lives of more than a hundred kids.
The same parents who complained about education, gratefully look on as they watch their sons and daughters cycle to their colleges today.
“Every day I cook dalma for them (a preparation of dal, rice and sabji). It gives me immense joy to see them relish the home-cooked meal that is high in nutrition. When the Prime Minister visited Cuttack five months ago, we had a brief meeting where he told me this meal was one of the best, being served in schools.”
The humble tea seller found a mention in the PM’s radio show, Mann Ki Baat where he said that Rao embodied the spirit of ‘Tamaso mā jyotir gamaya’ which means, ‘From darkness, lead me to light.’
The Prime Minister referred to him as a diya (lamp) which guides underprivileged kids to the path of enlightenment.
When asked about his reaction on being bestowed the award, he says,
“The adulation and support that people have extended is overwhelming. I am honoured and humbled all at once by their warmth and the place they gave me in their hearts. When people say that I have transformed the lives of these kids, I say that it is these 100 children who have helped me reach this point and improved the quality of my life. Today, my small school has become a temple of education, where I serve these living gods (children). Even at 61, I am as fit as a fiddle and consider myself the richest man in the world, because serving them gives me the joy that no bundles of cash or jewels in the world can buy.”
Apart from the people of Cuttack and Odisha, who have supported his initiative, Rao also attributes his success to the media, which he says has been highly instrumental in taking his story to the masses.
He signs off with a message to the youth and aspiring social workers:
“In today’s fast-paced world, where many youths are driven by the passion for becoming rich overnight, remember that money is not everything. There is no shortcut to success. You will encounter several obstacles, but only when you serve selflessly will you attain success. Live your own lives but don’t shy away from extending a helping hand to those less privileged than you. It is only when we join hands to uplift the downtrodden, will India really become the sone ki chidiya (golden bird) that we sing odes to.”
(Edited by Shruti Singhal)