Mumbai: Sankara Raman does not believe wheelchairs are obstacles. Muscular dystrophy (he was diagnosed at age three and by the time he was in Class VIII, was bound to the wheelchair) did not prevent him from pursuing a regular education and career. In 1985, he started his own chartered accountancy firm. “I don’t consider disability to be a constraint in development and growth,” he says, firmly.
Mr. Raman has consistently challenged himself in work and life. Every year, he makes a trip to Mumbai to raise funds for the rehabilitation of people with disabilities in Tirunelveli district of Tamil Nadu, where he helps run the Amar Seva Sangam, a ‘Valley for the Disabled’. He sets himself two main benchmarks: network intensely in Mumbai with companies and individuals to better each year’s fund-raising target, and run the Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon.
In the 2017 edition of the marathon, he raised Rs. 1.25 crore. And make no mistake, he does not run the marathon in the 2.4-km Champions with Disability category. He participates in the 6-km Dream Run, along with runners from all walks of life. “If I run in the 2.4-km category, I won’t be noticed; I will be like all the others. In the Dream Run, people come up to me. It’s a good chance for me to talk about my work.”
For the marathon in January every year, Mr. Raman prepares himself from June the previous year. There are documents to be prepared, lists of possible donors to be filed, emails to be sent. “My not being from Mumbai works to my advantage,” he says. “There is more curiosity about my work.”
Once in Mumbai, he works up his networks, and is at it from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day. He spends nearly four to five days in the city post the marathon. His wife Ramani — his “friend and competitive partner” — helps with the documentation, and joins him on his rounds. She also does her own rounds of fund-raising, besides helping him run the CA practice. The couple has raised Rs. 4 crore through the marathon.
“Most of our donors are from Mumbai and Chennai, and I need companies to be part of our support group,” says Mr. Raman. What started with a handful of children now caters to 15,000 differently-abled people in 900 villages of Tirunelveli district. “Our primary focus is to rehabilitate, educate and empower these children”. Facilities for people with disabilities are all free. The initiative began with a regular school in 1992, and admitted people with polio and other physical disabilities. Gradually, it included a residential programme for mentally challenged children, vocational training and even a rehabilitation centre for people with spinal injuries — one of two to three such in the country, he says.
His pitch to companies is straightforward. “I always talk about inclusion; about how if I can achieve so much as a chartered accountant, surely others can.” The reason he does this year after year is so he can showcase achievements of people with disabilities. “The general tendency is to offer sympathy and pity. What we require are opportunities and a level-playing field. I want people to understand that there is an enormous human resource here going to waste.”
Mr. Raman compares his involvement to a football game. “They say you need to give 200% to win the game. It’s the same here. All my targets are self-made, and give me immense satisfaction.”
At the other end of the giving spectrum, is 12-year-old Vinay Virvadia, who ran the Dream Run this year and raised over Rs. 13 lakh in support of Shrimad Rajchandra Love and Care’s hospital for the underprivileged in Dharampur, Gujarat. The funds will help increase the number of beds in the hospital to 150 from 40. The Class VIII student of Activity High School, Peddar Road, says he was moved when he saw the plight of patients in the hospital, many of whom couldn’t even afford basic healthcare. For his mother Kruti, it meant that her child was opening up to a new awareness at a young age. “He has understood that even if he doesn’t have the capacity to earn, he can go around collecting money for the less privileged.”
Adhiraj Johri, a Class 11 student from Kolkata, raised over Rs. 25 lakh for Family Service Centre (FSC), an NGO that promotes foster parenting. His sister, Shivika, was adopted from the centre. Adhiraj’s inspiration came from his mother, who has participated in six Mumbai marathons so far. His family has been associated with the FSC for nine years. "Before adoption, the children at FSC are not put in homes together. Instead, the NGO has a foster parenting initiative that allows children to be with a family for a period of 3-4 months," said his mother, Nisha Johri.
Girish Borkar, also a chartered accountant, ran the marathon from 2007-2011 to support Project Crayon, a residential facility which looks after health, education, clothing for orphaned girls in the 6-15 year age group in Malad. He raised an average of Rs. 2.5 lakh each year, which even funded an ambulance for them. He now runs to raise funds for the Yoga Prabha Bharati Seva Sanstha, a global organisation that teaches yoga and wellness for free. His effort, he says, gives him inner peace. “The only thing you can do is ask. The answer is either a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’. Either way it’s fine.”
He calls himself a ‘change investor’ and compares the process to multilevel marketing. “It’s a form of networking. When you encourage others to give, everyone gets blessed. If somebody doesn’t give, someone else does. It all balances out.”
(Inputs from Hariprasad Radhakrishnan)