When Thomas Raja, better known as Auto Raja narrates the story of his life, it seems straight out a movie. After becoming an alcoholic and a petty criminal at the young age of 16, he resorted to stealing things from his own home to fulfill his craving for alcohol. He even pawned his mother’s silk sarees and her mangalasutra and acknowledges that he single-handedly brought disrepute to his family and almost ruined them financially due to his behaviour.
His father, a telephone lineman threw him out of the house. After wandering to Chennai, he worked at petty jobs and was given shelter by a poor family. He robbed the family of their few possessions and sold them. While sleeping near the railway station, he was arrested for no reason and put behind bars for several weeks. He fell sick while in jail and almost had a near-death experience but miraculously got well and was rescued by his parents who agreed to take him back.
Raja, overwhelmed by these ‘miracles’ decided to start his life anew and started working as an auto driver but had trysts with rowdism while serving as a bodyguard to an auto union leader.
Raja does not shy away from his flawed past, he even embraces it and one can see that lingering remorse in him that drives him to make up for his past by continuing to do good in the present and the future. The 45 year old has won several accolades for his work, the most recent of which has been the Namma Bengaluru Awards on 9th February 2011. He has also won the CNN-IBN Real Heroes award in 2010.
In conversation with Citizen Matters, he talks about New Ark Mission, his centre for destitute people in Doddagubbi village near Kothanur in North Bangalore, the challenges he faces in the line of work and how he manages to run his ashrams without any government aid.
At what point did you decide you wanted to change your ways and dedicate your life for the destitute?
I was making a living as an auto driver and a bodyguard for a auto union leader. I would see so many homeless people dying on the streets. It was the same time when Mother Teresa had passed away and I wondered how she had left such a huge void in this world. That’s when I prayed to God and requested Him to give me strength to do at least some good for the people dying on the streets.
With that I started my work. I had volunteered with a church and had learnt a few first-aid basics, which helped me a lot. I started out of the small garage at my home, and brought two homeless people and tended to them. Later, I rented a small home just to house the people I found on the streets.
How do people end up becoming destitute? What can the society do to stop them from becoming so?
A lot of people who are sick – mentally or physically are turned away by their families because they either don’t have the patience or the resources to look after them. Some people are disowned by their families for committing crimes. Families should be patient in dealing with them and help them get rehabilitated. They can become better people too, if given an opportunity.
What is New Ark Mission of India all about?
I was given a half acre land by India Campus Crusade for Christ, a Christian NGO in 1997. After building basic accommodation, I started the New Ark Mission of India, an organisation aimed to look after those who were languishing on the streets. I was later given another acre of land by the government of Karnataka a few years ago and with the help of donations, we built another centre that now houses men who are severely traumatised or physically disabled.
Like Noah’s Ark which sheltered life before the Great Flood, I hope my ashram serves as a shelter for the destitute. We work in close association with the Bangalore police who alert us of any destitute persons. We get them to our ashram and treat them. A lot of them would have met with serious injuries.
We try to nurse them back to health and if possible rehabilitate them in to leading better lives. Several of them have gone on to find jobs and even marry. We have performed five marriages between people who had come as destitute here. They now have at least a semblance of a normal life. We have an ambulance and a staff of 25, who help us in our work.
How many people is your centre taking care of at the present?
At present there are close to 360 people, both men and women. Thirty of them are children. Seventy per cent of the people here are mentally affected or traumatised. A lot of them are physically disabled and require constant care and help to perform even the most basic functions. Ten per cent of them are HIV positive. In the last 14 years 3900 people have been rescued from the streets and 1900 of them have passed away in peace after they came here. Although we would like to support more people, our resources are stretched. We hope to open another centre as soon as we get some land.
What kind of risks do you face in your day-to-day work?
The most challenging times are when we deal with mentally ill patients. They can be unpredictable and difficult to take car of. I was once attacked by a man, I was helping. He was able to lift a heavy boulder and chased after me threatening to drop it on my head. I realized the more I tried to run, the more he would want to hurt me. I stopped and asked him to go ahead and drop it on me hoping reverse psychology would work but he dropped it on me anyway. I was able to get out of the way just in time. I appealed to him saying if he killed me who would look after so many people in the ashram. He seemed to come to his senses and let me go.
Another kind of risk we face is family members of any destitute returning to accuse us of trying to steal their wealth. Although we only take in people who do not have a family, we once found a man who was in poor condition. We brought him here and tended to him. We found out that he was a high-level railway official who was turned away by his daughter. She had taken away all his wealth too. After some time she realised her folly and found out he was living here and came to take him. The retired official refused to go and the daughter filed a complaint against me for kidnapping and extortion, even though I had said he could take him with her if he came out of his own will. After a lot of hassle all the charges were dropped and the man still refuses to go back, and wants to spend the remainder of his life here.
How do you get the funds to run your centres?
If one comes across a destitute in need, you can alert Auto Raja on 9900120100. Though he says sometimes family members themselves bring in elderly and sick claiming they were found on streets.
We require three lakhs a month to run the ashrams. Individuals and organizations in Bangalore are our major contributors. They don’t just contribute in cash but also in kind. People donate groceries, clothes and medicines as much as they can. Some months we get funds less than what we require and some months we get more but in the end it always evens out. Except for one acre land, the government has not provided us with any aid.