As a silver lining amid the darkest clouds, COVID-19 has unveiled many extraordinary heroes. These champions of humanity have made a difference in society by helping those in need, even if it meant putting their own lives at risk.
Soumitra Mandal, a 29-year-old from Sundarbans, has been one such saviour and a hero for many in the remote islands of Gosaba block in the South 24 Parganas district of West Bengal. Since the COVID outbreak in 2020, he has been a one-man army, moving on a bicycle from one village to another, providing people with medicines and oxygen concentrators.
“I realised the necessity of being on ground when the pandemic broke. There is just one hospital for all the nine islands here in Gosaba block, and it’s very difficult to access facilities during emergencies. I saw our people struggling to get medical assistance on time. So I started arranging oxygen concentrators, cylinders and medicines through NGOs and to provide help to people in need,” Soumitra tells The Better India.
He says several NGOs and social welfare organisations have been providing him with oxygen concentrators, cylinders and medicines. “Organisations like Mukti and Kishalay Foundation, provided me with two oxygen concentrators. Some social workers gave me a few oxygen cylinders. Cylinders are difficult to carry on my bicycle, as they are heavy. I ride long distances everyday and it takes me over an hour to cross the islands and reach remote villages,” narrates Soumitra.
Despite being a diabetic, Soumitra went out helping people even during the first and second waves, risking his own health. He says he also delivers medications to patients after analysing their condition. He adds, “I always consult the doctor over the phone before giving out the medicines to the patients. I only act as per the doctor’s advice.”
Apart from getting help from NGOs, he says that the local government has been backing him with his initiative. “The Gosaba block officials have been helping me with my work, and even provided financial assistance to make my travel free of cost across the islands,” he says.
Soumitra, who contracted COVID in June 2021, took a break from his work until he recovered. He says “Being a diabetic, it was risky to get COVID. But it couldn’t stop me, and as soon as I recovered, I restarted my work.”
‘Life has never been easy’
Belonging to a poor family, Soumitra had to leave his home during his childhood. He grew up in his relatives’ houses who helped him afford his education. “Life has never been easy. But I am happy that I could at least finish my education,” says Soumitra, who is a graduate in Geography (Honors) and has a B.Ed degree.
After finishing his education, he came back to Bali, an island in Gosaba and his native village, to work as a part-time teacher of Geography in the local government school. “Teaching was a turning point in my life. It has always been my passion, and I loved that I could teach the children of my own village,” he says.
“It was during the same year that I started taking free tuitions for Geography for underprivileged kids in the area. I help students get admission into schools and colleges, and with scholarships from different NGOs and social welfare organisations. I do not take any money. I am just a medium to connect the students in need with the people who can help them,” he adds.
Soumitra lost his job in 2019, when the government filled the vacancy with a permanent appointment. “When I lost the job I was a bit disappointed but it didn’t stop me from teaching. I continued giving free tuition for the kids,” Soumitra adds with a smile.
Later, when the pandemic broke out, he started out his journey as the ‘Oxygen Man of Sundarbans’. He says, “Everyone here knows me and they call me ‘Raja’,” he chuckles. “So, when there is an emergency, they reach out to me over the phone or via Facebook,” he adds.
When asked about what inspired him to get into social work, he says, “I was always in awe of my grandfather, who donated his own land to build a school. My father, too, has a good heart and helps people in whatever ways he can. I think it’s their influence that made me a social worker.”
His father, who still works in a textile firm in Kolkata, earns for the family. “We also have a piece of land where we cultivate paddy and vegetables. That’s how we manage our expenses,” he adds.
Soumitra, who is now looking for a job, believes that with a job in hand, he could help more people, and do more than he does right now.
You can contact Soumitra on 8967703354
(Edited by Divya Sethu)