From the parched land of Beed, which finds its name in the hundred most backward districts of India, comes a heartwarming story of an activist. Santosh Garje, who at the age of 18, single-handedly set up the Aai Foundation and an orphanage Balgram, in the hope of providing shelter to destitute children in a small village called Govindwadi, in Beed district. Garje, now 29 years old, has managed to acquire a three-acre campus in Shivaji Nagar, Georai. He is currently able to provide free shelter and private school education to 40 students.
Children at the Balgram orphanage in Govindwadi, Beed district
The philanthropist has now embarked on expanding his project. He plans to construct a separate building exclusively for girls, taking the total number of children under his care to over 100. Currently in Mumbai, Garje, apart from collecting funds for the building, which is estimated to cost around R28 lakhs, is seeking financial assistance to dig a well, which is estimated to cost up to two lakhs and would eliminate his need to rely on tankers to supply him water.
“The economy of my village depends entirely on the monsoon, which has been failing us for the last three years. With our limited resources, I have no choice but to spend over R15,000 a month on truck drivers, who fetch water from faraway districts. The well is now my first priority, which would take care of the daily requirements of the children and also be utilised for farming vegetables, making the entire project a self-sustaining one,” he added.
Shuba Benurwar, a community development officer with the BMC, has helped him collect funds to provide the orphanage children school bags, text and notebooks and a set of new clothes, something they rarely experience.
Santosh Garje, who is in the city to collect funds to build a a separate wing for orphan girls, poses with his pamphlets. Pic/Sameer Markande
Balgram first started with just seven children, a majority of them from a neighbouring red light area. Talking about government apathy, Garje recalled a recent incident, where a bureaucrat refused to give him the requisite license to run the orphanage until his palms were greased and threatened to shut down Balgram. He only relented when Garje asked him to personally take care of the children if he shout down the orphanage.
While Garje’s mother is still a land labourer in his remote village Patsara, a kind doctor in Baramati has taken over the responsibility of bringing up his orphaned niece, who is now in the eighth standard.
It was his sister’s death that served as a turning point in his early life. “Losing his daughter took its toll on my father, who immediately left for a pilgrimage and never returned. My sister had basically succumbed to a kick in the abdomen by her husband, who after her demise discarded the baby and remarried within a month. This was when I gave up my life’s ambitions to become a schoolteacher and decided to open an ashram called Balgram and dedicate my life to providing a better future to the underprivileged children, who are either orphans or discarded by their families,” said Garje, who was born in a family of poor sugarcane farm labourers.