Odisha’s Chandra Mishra (59) moved to Varanasi and started Beggars Corporation, where beggars are taught how to stitch and make bags, which are sold to hotels, MNCs etc.
Were you aware that India donates Rs 34,000 crore every year to support around four lakh beggars? Laying stress on investment and not on donation, Odisha’s Chandra Mishra dedicated his life to empowering beggars in Varanasi.
The 59-year-old journalist-turned-social worker believes that if people invested in creating alternate livelihoods for beggars, it would give them a life of dignity and respect.
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With this idea, he set up Beggars Corporation in 2021 to transform the community into entrepreneurs, by equipping them with the necessary skills. So far, he has helped 12 families, who have shunned beggary to engage in making conference bags, laptop bags, and shopping bags. The products are supplied to top hotels and multinational companies in the city.
In conversation with The Better India, he says, “These families have now turned into businesspersons by forming a self-help group. In 2021-22, people invested Rs 5.7 lakh to boost the business of our beggars. In 2022-23, they were able to make 10 times the investment; a business worth Rs 57 lakh. These beggars have returned whatever amount was invested in them.”
“Our mindset toward them needs to change. They are not just meant to take coins from us. And the donation is not a solution to address the problem of begging. If given opportunities, they can be entrepreneurs. Earlier, they were dependent on unstable income through begging. Today, they are able to earn at least Rs 10,000 a month, which is more than what our educated volunteers earn,” he adds.
When he took the road less travelled
Originally from a remote Odisha village, Chandra worked as a journalist for vernacular newspapers focussing on human-interest and employment issues. He also claims to have worked with the state governments of Odisha, Chhattisgarh, Bihar, Haryana, and Delhi on employment policies.
But starting Beggars Corporation was never an objective, until 2020, when he came to Varanasi to start ‘Mission Unemployment Free Varanasi’.
“During the COVID-19 pandemic-induced lockdown, thousands of people from the unorganised sector lost their jobs and came back to their homes. This period changed my priorities and my style of functioning,” he says.
Leaving his family behind in Bhubaneswar, he came to a new place – Varanasi – in December 2020.
“During the same time, I conducted a survey through Facebook to understand the unemployment issues caused due to the lockdown. I decided to start with Varanasi, and about 27,000 people from nearby areas filled up the form. I decided to understand where and why our policies fail,” he adds.
Before starting the project, he went to the famous Kashi Vishwanath Temple in Varanasi.
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“Before seeing the deity idol, I saw numerous beggars who were sitting in a 500-metre-long queue. I started speaking to them, and since I used to live near the ghat, I would constantly be in touch with them,” he adds.
This led Chandra to start Beggars Corporation, a flagship programme under his mission to make Varanasi unemployment free.
Why economic democracy is important
With the help of local non-profits and volunteers, he was able to identify 12 families willing to quit begging.
Recalling the first person to join the corporation, he says, “Along with her 12-year-old son, Pankhudi (name changed) used to beg at the ghat (a flight of steps leading down to a river). She is a single mother; her husband kicked her out of his house to marry someone else. She was motivated to learn stitching work and has now shunned begging.”
If you think #beggars can't work, please watch this video. Today for the first time she came with her child. I motivated her to work. With 15 minutes of guidance, she started stitching. What if she gets skill training under Learn & Earn? @narendramodi @blsanthosh @MSDESkillIndia pic.twitter.com/KHm3jVNugr— Chandra Mishra (@employonomics) December 29, 2021
“She was so underconfident initially. She would say that she might break the machine. Eventually, she agreed, and we trained her. She was able to learn the work in 15 minutes! It not only motivated her but also encouraged me that with the right guidance, these beggars can learn new work. We just need to boost their confidence,” he adds.
The same year, the 12 families were able to make 500 bags, their biggest order, within 10 days for delegates who participated in a national executive meeting in Delhi. “First, it seemed impossible, but they worked all day and night to make the bags. It was a morale boost for them,” he says.
After experiments, Chandra officially registered the corporation in August 2021 but not as a non-profit. “We are a for-profit company working for unskilled beggars, the poor and the marginalised. Since starting, we discouraged donations and encouraged investment, so that beggars can be entrepreneurs. This is the first and only such example in the world,” he claims.
For its work, Beggars Corporations has received several awards. Early this month, the company received the Best Social Impact Award in the Innopreneurs Global Startup Contest organised by Lemon Ideas in collaboration with Startup India.
Besides the recognition, Chandra believes that the work has transformed him as a person.
“I am not sure how far I have been able to succeed in transforming lives, but Banaras and the Beggars Corporation has transformed me first. I am just a medium. I am not from UP, and I was not connected with the people of Varanasi. But it has taught me that growth must be equitable. Political democracy has no meaning unless and until we achieve economic democracy. If beggars can be entrepreneurs, then nobody can be unemployed,” says Chandra.
‘SURVEY ON BEGGARS’: By Ministry of Social Justice & Empowerment; Published on 14 December 2021
‘Everyday Giving in India Report: 2019′: Published by Sattva on 30 april 2019
Edited by Pranita Bhat