I met Shashi Chandra Mohanty, a young 20-year-old from Odisha a few days ago. He was driving the taxi that I took from the Bangalore airport on my way back from Ahmedabad where I had been to deliver a few talks. What attracted me to him was his pleasant disposition and the smile with which he greeted me. On getting into the cab, he asked me if I was comfortable and what language would I needed to be spoken in. Impressed, I politely sought to know how many languages could he speak in. He said that he was good in Oriya, Bengali, Hindi, English and Kannada. Being in Bangalore, he said he had also managed to learn to speak in Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam. Getting into a conversation, I asked him how old he was and how could he manage to learn so many languages. That is when he narrated his story.
He was from a village in Odisha and he had come to Bangalore 2 years ago. His family had 5 acres of land that they were cultivating and he had studied upto the 12 standard when tragedy struck his family. His father had a stroke and was paralyzed and bed ridden. His life changed overnight and he felt overwhelmed by the fact that he was now the family’s primary provider. He matter of factly narrated how coming from a Brahmin family gave him little options. He was brought up with the daily narrative of how education was the only asset that poor Brahmins’ could aspire for and he had stayed focused on studying to be an engineer. But now he was left with no alternative to look for a livelihood that would not only get food on to their table but also help him repay the huge debt that his father’s illness had got them into. He had to sell their land to pay for his father’s treatment and get his older sister married off. What struck me was Shashi neither felt any self-pity nor rancor towards anyone as he continued his narrative. He casually said how one assumed that people who are considered higher up on the social ladder are expected to fend for themselves and that poverty would not be an issue for them.
He realized that he had literally no skills that would make him employable and the only thing that he was good at (his studies) was not of much help now. It was then he decided to move to Bangalore and try his luck there. His explanation was also simplistic. This was considered a big city and would provide even someone like him with an opportunity to earn his livelihood. Moreover, being out of sight meant that his mother would not know how long or how hard he would be working. He joined an apartment as a night watchman and daytime saw him double up as an errand boy. He gradually earned the goodwill of the residents and was soon earning a tidy amount with the tips that they gave him. Staying in the apartment also gave him access to the many drivers and they taught him how to drive. He not only learnt how to drive but also the many languages talking to the residents and their domestic helps and drivers. Two years later, he felt that he was ready for the streets of Bangalore. Now he worked as a driver for one of the airport taxi companies and earned nearly Rs 30,000 to 35,000 each month. He spends nearly 10 hours driving and at least 2 hours a day continuing with his studies on the distance mode. After nearly Rs 15000 getting gobbled up living in a city like Bangalore, he was able to send his family around 15000-20000 each month.
After telling me his story, he was full of questions for me. He wanted to know if becoming an engineer was worth the time, energy and money. His logic was straight and simple. If studying was what would make him employable, it had to result in incomes better than what what he was making right now. He wanted to know what kind of a course or program would enable him to stand up on his own and start something that would not only be financially rewarding but also be a testament to his hard work. And in all this, not once did he bring up seeking help from any person, the government or any financial institutions. As I sat grappling for an answer, I was left wondering if all the grandiose announcements of ‘Start-up India’, MUDRA and ‘Stand-up India’ meant anything for people like him who more than deserved it. Or if all of us including the Govt had to ‘stand up’ admiring his grit and determination and look at what hard work and a never-say-die spirit could actually ‘start off’.