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Extraordinary Indian: Daniel Ponraj

By A GANESH NADAR
Last updated on: October 01, 2021 08:21 IST
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Migrant workers. Poor students. School dropouts. Impoverished women.
Daniel Ponraj and his Shubh Sandesh Foundation are helping them all.

IMAGE: Daniel Ponraj with 36 migrant girls who were rescued from Tiruppur, Tamil Nadu.

Thirty-five years, a slave.

His identification papers snatched away.

A family torn apart because of the greed of another family.

Yes, this happens in India even today.

Like it did with Fucha Mahli, a 70 yearold who was forced to work in the Andaman Islands for 35 years.

A few decades ago, Mahli used to work in a factory in the Andamans. When it shut down, he could not find another job.

He was grateful when, finally, he found employment with a family there.

He didn't think much about it when they took away his papers.

It was only later that he realised that they had no intention of returning them; that he had no way of returning home or contacting his family.

IMAGE: Ponraj helps with relief work in Jamshedpur after the Yaas cyclone.

But, sometimes, miracles happen.

A doctor from Mahli's village, Bishnupur, found work in the Andamans.

He met some people from Ranchi who were working there, who told him about Mahli.

After finding out a little more, he realised to his shock who the old man was.

The doctor immediately called Mahli's son, Ramatu, and informed him about his father.

Ramatu appealed to Hemant Soren, the chief minister of Jharkhand. The state's labour department, and its migrants division, gave him Daniel Ponraj's number.

Ponraj is the executive founder of the NGO, the Shubh Sandesh Foundation, known for helping in such cases.

IMAGE: Ponraj organises a blood donation camp.

Ponraj made a few calls to government officials and social workers he knew in the Andamans.

"We had to take the permission of the Indian Army as this was in the Jarawa area (a specially protected tribal reserve area) in North Andaman," Ponraj tells A Ganesh Nadar/Rediff.com.

"It took us one month to find him.

"Then, we had to convince Sudeep, for whom he was working, to release Mahli. The labour commissioner for North and Middle Andaman helped us. Unfortunately, no action has been taken against Sudeep.

"Fucha Mahli told us how he ended up with this family after the factory he was working in shut down."

Thanks to Shubh Sandesh and the government of Jharkhand, Mahli, who had reached the Andaman islands on a ship, flew home to his family, which now includes his sons Ramatu and Pradeep, daughter Chero Devi and their families.

IMAGE: Ponraj distributes medical kits to rescued migrants from Karnataka.

Another rescue mission for Shubh Sandesh involved migrants from Jharkhand were stuck in the mountains of Nepal. "Our people went and brought them back," says Ponraj.

He also remembers the case of the 86 Jharkhandi girls who were working in a cloth factory Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, and wanted to return home after the pandemic began. But their employer would not allow it.

They climbed over the wall of the place where they were staying and started walking home.

Within an hour, the Shubh Sandesh Foundation had heard about their plight and contacted Coimbatore's superintendent of police, who sent a deputy superintendent of police to investigate the matter.

"We asked the chief minister of Jharkhand to talk to the chief minister of Tamil Nadu and the issue was resolved. One compartment in a train was reserved for these girls and they returned home."

IMAGE: Ponraj distributes food to rescued migrants.

The Shubh Sandesh Foundation has been assisting the governments of Jharkhand, Bihar and West Bengal with migrant-related relief work since the pandemic began last year.

During the migrant exodus, they helped 2,100 people from these three states to return home.

They brought them back by road, train and on flights.

They brought them back from Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka and other states.

They provided food and transport in coordination with the local government.

They looked after the migrants in the quarantine centres that the state government had set up.

"We coordinated with hospitals to get their test results before sending them home," says Ponraj.

They worked closely with the migrant cell of the government of Jharkhand.

They set up a hotline where migrants could call for help; they also followed through on the pleas for help they received via Twitter.

IMAGE: Ponraj honours a plasma donor.

Shubh Sandesh, which means good news, came to life in Dhandbad, Jharkhand, in March 2016. It now has offices in every district in the state.

Their main focus is educating poor students; they offer them free tuition after school.

They also identify dropouts, coach them and bring them back into the schooling system.

They also offer skill development courses for women belonging to weaker sections of the society.

They work in one area for two years and, once the base is set, they move on.

They have been doing this in the states Jharkhand and Bihar.

After the pandemic began, they expanded their scope to help migrant workers as well.

The foundation has 150 volunteers in different states in the country; they also have 36 full-time employees.

IMAGE: The hunger relief drive in Jharkhand during the lockdown.

Ponraj, who founded the NGO, is 42 years old and the father of six.

He graduated in statistics, has master's degrees in psychology and organisational development and an MBA in human resources management.

This NGO is funded by individuals. "We don't take money from the government," says Ponraj.

So how did a Tamilian from Nazareth, Tuticorin, set up an NGO in Jharkhand?

"I came here 20 years ago on a college field trip. Seeing the need for social work and NGO support, I decided to stay back," he says.

He adds that the foundation will continue assisting the government with COVID relief work. "That is what we are concentrating on now."

At the same time, their focus on helping school dropouts in Jharkhand and Bihar and helping impoverished women learn new skills will not waver.

"After they learn new skills," he says, "we help them find jobs or get loans from banks to start their own business. In some cases, we give them grants -- ranging from Rs 20,000 to Rs 50,000 -- to start their own business."

Feature Presentation: Rajesh Alva/Rediff.com

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