Four-year-old Prathama, affectionately called Pari, greets everyone multiple times with “namaskar”. This continues till she gets distracted by her friend, Lavanya, and the two girls scamper off to a heated discussion.
Pari’s parents are at work less than 100m away, but Lavanya’s parents are home briefly after lunch—Dinkar B. Bhagat and Mina, both afflicted by polio, will return soon to the cashew-processing unit where they will join Pari’s parents at work as soon as the power comes back.
In Swapna Nagari, the Bhagats are an exception in the sense that they are part of a small group of families which live in separate quarters. The rest of the inmates stay in a hostel. All of them work within the colony set on 12 acres near the More village of Kudal taluk in Sindhudurg district.
Swapna Nagari employs 100 people in agro-based industries such as processing cashews.. Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
This region, on the southernmost tip of Maharashtra bordering Goa, is known for its expertise in frying fish. But Swapna Nagari has other defining characteristics that set it apart.
Fifty-six of the 63 residents here are physically challenged, but Swapna Nagari takes care of them only in theory. It’s the inmates who take care of the place.
The project, started 10 years ago, came up on donated land in the middle of practically nowhere. The barren plot often got separated from More village by the Karli river that flooded over a mud road during the monsoon. Today, there’s a bridge connecting Swapna Nagari once you get off NH 17 from Sindhudurg.
Here, Naseema Hurzuk, who founded Helpers of the Handicapped in 1984 as a public trust, started a hostel, farming, dairy farming and a cashew-processing unit. Volunteers went door-to-door in the Sindhudurg region, which at that time had more than 3,500 handicapped people, according to a district administration survey, and coaxed parents to send their children to Swapna Nagari so they could learn to be self-sufficient.
That, in a word, is the idea behind the centre, self-respect. “Nothing is free here,” says Hurzuk, who was 16 when she became paraplegic. “We pay the workers and they, in turn, pay for the boarding facilities.”
Physically handicapped men and women get vocational training in agro-based skills here. The centre, including the cashew-processing unit, their main industry, employs about 100 people. There is a dairy with 16 cows and some coconut trees—all the produce is first used for the inmates and the remaining is sold.
Over the years, the attraction of the centre has spread beyond Sindhudurg, with people coming here from Karnataka and Goa as well. Allahbaksh Shaikh from Bijapur, Karnataka, is one of them. The 22-year-old sits in such a way behind his table that his missing leg is not visible. Hurzuk says he cuts (cashews) faster than a machine, which are in the other room being tended to by Shobha Kamble, who is mentally challenged. She is shy, giggles to every question asked, but upon much coaxing, says she came here as a baby many years ago and cannot think of “working or living” anywhere else.
Shaikh, father to the month-old Armaan, met his wife Sabina at this centre. Their parents were opposed to the marriage, also because they were underage at the time, but Hurzuk would have none of it. As soon as they turned marriageable age, the wedding was organized in the facility itself, the dining room doubling up as the wedding hall. Hurzuk says she does it often, encouraging inmates to find their own mates or arranging it for them because she says parents usually oppose such a union.
“We don’t have to go anywhere; this place is whole in itself,” says 19-year-old Lalita Gangadhar, who came here four months ago from nearby Kolhapur. Gangadhar, who has polio, sat at home for four years after graduating class VII because her parents did not believe there was anything left for her to pursue. A former teacher, who had been to one of Helpers of the Handicapped’s camps, suggested Swapna Nagari to Gangadhar, who was only too relieved at the opportunity. She helps with shelling the cashews.
Two people work in the boiler room, where the cashews are boiled. They’re then taken to the cutting room, where a few others like Shaikh cut them, apart from the machine that Kamble operates with a colleague. Then there is the routine of shelling, sorting and grading, each process conducted by a different bunch in different rooms. These are then sold in the wholesale market though the facility is open to starting a retail outlet as well.
A quarter of the running costs are generated from the sale of cashews, milk and coconuts. The rest comes from donations. Inmates get fixed salaries based on the nature of their work.
“There are no barriers here, it’s about building self-confidence and self dependency,” says Hurzuk. “They can earn money and send it home. Isn’t it amazing that we hardly get any benefits from the government but these handicapped people are paying the government through taxes?”
Helpers of Handicapped: www.hohk.org.in