They call him “Shinde baba,” out of love and respect because he came to their rescue when life fell apart. In fact for the 2,000 children who call him father, Hemant Kumar Shinde is the only reason they are off the roads and studying in school instead.
Through the NGO he set up in 2009 – Humanity Action Aid, Shinde arranges school fees, study material, uniforms, food and even basic necessities such as tooth paste and soap for children of widowed women. His one aim is to help them rebuild their lives.
It all began in 2007, when Shinde came to Pune from Delhi and saw some children begging on the street. He found out that their father had passed away and though their mother worked as a washerwoman there was never enough money in the house so they had to quit school to earn what they could, as beggars. Their story took him back to his childhood when his own father had passed away, leaving his mother to fend for herself and her two sons. “The family is left without any help when the father dies; there is no compensation or pension and the government does not help. So many of these children end up on the streets,” he says.
The 52-year-old has always had a reformist streak, first revolutionising education and soil and water conservation in his village in Satara and then working with orphans in Delhi. His rehabilitation project for widows' children, however, is closest to his heart. Despite being paralysed on his left side, he spends eight to ten hours every day either collecting or distributing aid to students. He also regularly visits 200 schools to check if there are any new children who need help.
“If I do not help them, who will,” he asks. The children are mostly from families that migrated to Pune from rural areas. Several children supported by him have now gone on to study in college or started working.
Shinde's work has been recognised by President Pranab Mukkerjee and former president Patibha Patil, both of whom invited him to the Rashtrapati Bhavan. “I watched My Name is Khan where Shah Rukh meets the president and thought why can't I,” he says. However, visits to the president aside, financial support from the government is less forthcoming. Shinde has to raise his own funds and ensure its proper use and distribution. The few times he sent public welfare proposals to the local government office, he received no response from them, he says.
Physical disability and the lack of a vehicle makes his job harder. He travels from home and office in Dhayari and goes across the city in buses and rickshaws. “Bus is very difficult because of my disability. Auto travel is a little easier but very expensive. Of course if we had our own vehicle, it would be easier to go to people for help, transport grains and other material for distribution,” he says. But, when he looks to the future there is only hope, of a new vehicle, enough donations and land for an orphanage. “I will do this till my last days,” he says.