Remember that Sunday when we woke up late, poured ourselves a cup of tea and then sat down to read the news, so we could crib about what’s happening around us? Then we read the news about how a farmer killed himself in a village that wasn’t very far from us (probably as far as that amusement park we went to last month), we felt bad and then we flipped the page and forgot all about it.
Because who wants to care about farmers these days when you can care about buying a fancy car, an even fancier house and flaunt brands right? Who has the time to think about the farmer who feeds the nation, suffers in debt and then ends his life?
We aren’t going to give you the statistics of how many farmers died in India last year. You know that. What you don’t know is what happens to their families after their death, what happens to their children? Can they even learn to read and write?
One man cared enough for them and actually did something. He adopted their children and gave them a new life. 28-year-old, Ashok Deshmane is a modest man but a shining inspiration in a time that is too dark for the farmers and their families.
He started the conversation with a simple, “Namaste,” a greeting we rarely use today. Deshmane who now lives in Pune, belongs to a village from Maharashtra’s drought-affected area. Talking about himself he says, “I spent my childhood in Mangrol village in Parbhani district of Maharashtra. My parents were both farmers. My small family of two sisters, me and my parents were my whole world back then – I will never forget the struggle my parents went through to grow us up. It is because of them that I am what I am today.”
“In my village, out of five years, for four years we face the drought. Without water, without food, how can one survive? I used to go to a neighbouring village to study, which was some 8-9kms away. We used to walk or cycle to school every day and that is how I completed my schooling,” he adds.
He dreamt of becoming an actor in his childhood. He completed his education in college by working along with studying, as his parents were not financially stable enough to provide for his education. Remembering those days, he expresses, “I used to work in a garage and even sleep in lorries to earn money for my education. I remember how the drivers from Andhra Pradesh shared their meals with me. That is how I spent my early days.”
When he was in college, his will to do something for the betterment of the society was building. He had begun teaching the poor children in the area where he lived, without charging them anything.
In 2012, after completing his education, he went to Pune. He got a job in Wipro and from what he earned, he kept spending the money for the exam fees or school fees of children and did whatever he could to help the kids in his village with their education. From then on, he never stopped in devoting his time to the children’s education.
Things changed for him in 2014, “The period of 2014-2015 was very bad for the farmers, so many people had left villages in search of a living that would feed them and their families. Many people left my village as well. But when I heard that a farmer had committed suicide in my village, it shook me. When I went to my village, in Diwali 2015, I saw how we were so behind on the basic facilities in spite of the country being independent for 71 years.
The people living in India are constantly troubled with issues about water, electricity, and roads. How can we expect them to think about anything else? I used to walk for some 10kms with my mother, holding a ghada (water pot) because we didn’t get water in the village. Back then, I thought, that let’s forget about it. At least I will settle in my life, buy a nice 2 BHK flat and call my parents to Pune – for a better life,” he says and adds, “But when I was coming back to Pune that Diwali, I met a few farmers who were leaving the village with their families on the same bus that I was travelling in. In our village that has barely a population of 2000, everyone knows each other. So I began talking to them and asked them that what would they do about their children’s education? I told them that if they didn’t educate their children, they will also end up like their parents. What about their future? They told me only one thing. They said that when they are struggling for food, what is the point of thinking about education?”
“I felt very bad on hearing it. It broke my heart,” Deshmane says.
When he got back to Pune, he met Dr. Prakash Amte. “When I was in college, I read about the life of Baba Amte. I was deeply moved by it. But when I met Dr. Prakash Amte, who is the son of Baba Amte, it gave me an impetus to bring about change, even if it was on a small scale at first. That is when I decided that I am going to do something full-fledged for the children of the farmers. I set up a trust named Snehwan – which means a place of love, it is a ray of hope.”
But among all the other challenges, a huge challenge of finance was standing as an obstacle in front of him. How would he ensure that he can give time to Snehwan and at the same time earn the money to keep it afloat? He took out a solution. He began working night shifts, devoting his time in the day to Snehwan. For 9 months he continued doing night shifts that allowed him to sleep only for 3 to 3 and a half hours every day, affecting his health. But his strong will kept and the teachings of Swami Vivekananda kept him going.
He began sheltering kids from different districts of Maharashtra. He had around 18 children at the start and now lives with 25 children. His friend, Anil Kothe, lent him his house without charging any rent for Snehwan and its activities. Deshmane began living with the children in this four-room house.
When asked about how his parents reacted this he said, “My parents opposed this move. They told me that our family’s years of struggle had just ended and now I had set up a trust for the betterment of others, they wanted me to settle down like all parents would want their children to. For a few months, a lot of arguments on the same issue used to happen at home. But later on, they came around and understood. After that, they have been strong pillars of support for me.”
His parents then moved with him to Snehwan and actively got involved in his initiative. His mother cooked for all the children and took care of them and his father began teaching tabla and a lot of good habits to the children.
“Somewhere around August 2016, my parents began urging me to get married. I agreed. There is a huge issue of dowry in Marathwada. The rates are fixed depending upon how educated a man is – if the man is a teacher than 9 lakh or if he is a lecturer than 12 lakh! Other items like coolers, cars etc. are also given as dowry. But right from the start, I refused to take dowry outright. I knew how difficult it was a for a woman’s parents during her marriage due to these society’s norms. I had decided to get married to a woman who did not belong to a rich family. Then I met my wife, Archana. I told her that before marriage I had 18 kids and she would have to become a mother to them as well if she got married to me. She said yes!” he says.
Right before he got married on 21st November 2016, he quit his job and devoted all his time to Snehwan. His parents, his wife and all the children live together under one roof as one family and eat the same food and share the same joys and sorrows.
His wife Archana’s contribution to Snehwan is unparalleled. Only once in 6 months is when she doesn’t do any work – all the other days, 24×7 she takes care of the kids, cooks food for all of them and actively participates in all the activities. This 22-year-old woman is a hero in herself.
“No car runs on just one wheel. Snehwan’s wheels are my parents and my wife. My wife belongs to a small village of 700 odd people and has seen a lot of hardships in life. Without her support, I wouldn’t have been where I am today. I have never taken her to movies or to eat at a restaurant. Right from early morning to late night, she is constantly working. For me, her contribution is exemplary. I have not given her anything after marriage. We both wear old clothes that are donated. She has never complained.”
Out of the 25 children in Snehwan, all 25 are boys ranging from the age of 6-15 years. But Deshmane has also taken up the responsibility of the education of 15 girls and 5 boys who live in difficult conditions in a nearby area. He shows compassion and solidarity for those who are undergoing a lot of pain in life.
At Snehwan, the children are not just educated academically and forgotten. Their overall growth is taken care of. They are taught art and craft, classical music, computers and what not! Deshmane and his family take care of the kids like one would take care of one’s own. In the morning, the kids do yoga and meditation. They pray for half an hour every day.
They have a beautiful initiative at Snehwan, known as “One Movie, One Book”. Deshmane tells us more about it, “Today’s children have forgotten to read books. To revive the tradition, the kids at Snehwan I decided to start a small library which now has 2,000 books. I have made it compulsory for the children to read one book a week. No one watches TV at our home, not me, not my wife. The children read inspiring books on the lives of heroes like Mahatma Gandhi, Bhagat Singh, APJ Abdul Kalam and many more. Then as a reward for reading for one week, we show them one movie.”
The kids are talented ones. They have an initiative where kids showcase their talent – some may recite a poem, some may perform a dance or sing. This is done to boost the confidence of the children who have suffered enough in their childhood. Due to Deshmane’s efforts, the kids who couldn’t talk to one person confidently, can now boldly perform in front of hundreds of people.
Every two months, successful people from different fields like acting, administration, art etc. visit the kids and spend some time with them. Recently an officer of the army visited them who lost his one leg in the Kargil war. He shared his story with the children and Snehwan and inspired them. People from across the globe visit the kids which aids their growth tremendously.
Kids have built a lot of dreams and become ambitious – they find a reason to live. “We make sure that no matter what field the child decides to get into, they always do something for the betterment of the society,” Deshmane says.
“All the children have a different mind, different problems – I ensure that I take out time for all of them as a parent, as a philosopher, as a guide,” Deshmane says.
Children of Snehwan during their various activites (swipe to see more):
There are children of farmers who have committed suicide living with him them as well. How does he answers the questions the kids ask about their family? “These children are extraordinary. They have lived a very difficult life from the start and have seen the problems in the families which makes them mature. This is why they find their own answers. I am there for them – and I make sure that they get all the love they deserve that helps them heal. I scold them and correct them like any parent would but that is also out of love.”
The children whose parents are alive, they meet them every 6 months, usually in their vacation time. Every Sunday the kids talk to their families on call.
Ashok Deshmane, has many feathers in his hat. He is not only a social reformer but is also a poet. Since 8th grade, he writes poems that represent the life of farmers and the struggles they go through. He used to read about Saint Tukaram, Saint Gyaneshwar and also read the Bhagvad Gita in his childhood among other books which inspired him to write. Here is one of his poems:
Deshmane used all his savings to keep Snehwan running. People have often come forward to help him, as they believe in his cause. And more and more people come forward as his work reaches the people.
“These children have helped me find my purpose in life. If I would have been in the IT field and would have settled down like everyone else, my life wouldn’t have been as rich as it is now. The kids are an integral part of life,” he expresses.
Once last year, an incident happened that affected him personally. In an emotional tone, he says, “Last year a child named Sandeep fell ill severely. For a few days, he was battling with the problem.We showed it to many specialists but a solution couldn’t be found. When something like this happens it affects me a lot.”
The children at Snehwan get educated in the truest sense, “People think that getting educated is getting a good salary after the completion of a degree. Education is beyond grades and classrooms. Education should be able to broaden the minds of the people. Education should create a real human being.”
It is rare to see someone adopting kids and living with them when usually the ones who start NGOs live a very different life. He believes that just providing for food and clothing of kids isn’t enough. That is not something that will impact their lives.
Archana Deshmane, his wife, recently gave birth to a baby girl. But the child is not treated any different. “She is a sister to all the other 25 children at Snehwan. We don’t give her any special treatment – she will go to the same school, she sleeps with them, eats the same food and gets the same upbringing. We don’t have a different personal life – Snehwan is my life.”
“I feel that actions speak louder than words. Snehwan is not something I do for recognition. I do it because I like to do it. When you do something with your heart in it, people automatically begin trusting and supporting you. I want to grow this home of love and I am working towards it. I want to reach a point where Snehwan can take care of 100 children,” he adds.
Ashok Deshmane is creating a human chain – he wants to bring about a nationwide change. He thinks that if he educates a 100 children who will in the future educate another 10,000, the chain will go on and soon we will have people in all the corners of the country who are working for its betterment.
What message would he like to give to the people? He says, “I hope the youth comes forward. We should not keep complaining that the government is not doing anything, or someone else is not doing their job. Are we doing our job? Are we doing anything? We should start acting, we are also a part of this nation. If you see a problem, at least try to solve it. Give ten minutes or ten rupees to it. But don’t just stand there. India is my country and all Indians are my brothers and sisters.”
We need people like Ashok Deshmane in India. Hats off to him! He has been conferred with various awards but the greatest award to him is the smile of the faces of the children at Snehwan.
You can support his initiative – think about those who cannot think about themselves.
Snehwan Sr.no. 186, Hanuman Colony- 2, Near Hanuman Temple, Chakrapani Vasahat, Bhosari, Pune-39, Maharashtra, India.
+91-879 640 0484