CHENNAI, India — It is almost dawn, but the wholesale vegetable market in Koyambedu in Chennai, one of the largest in South India, is already buzzing with activity.
Amidst the hubbub, purposefully moving from one trader’s shop to another is Sajit Haridas, Purchasing Director, Body & Exterior, Ford Asia Pacific, shaking hands and talking to traders as they supervise the unloading and selling of goods from the trucks.
For the past three years, Sajit has been frequenting this vegetable market for something else. He solicits donations of fresh vegetables from the Koyambedu Market vendors which he distributes to ten orphanages, housing close to 1,000 children in and around Chennai.
But why vegetables? Why not money? “Because receiving or giving away cash is more prone to leaks and makes it susceptible to greed and corruption,” Sajit noted. “And, not even once I have purchased vegetables from here as it can give scope to needless misunderstanding,” he said.
The Ford official’s first attempt at philanthropy started in Mumbai. “I have always been clear since 10th grade that my long term purpose in life is to help orphan children, but was unclear how it would evolve. Long ago, I tried to help a street urchin by giving a 50-Rupees note. But in no time she was pounced upon by her own gang of urchins, subjected to violent punches and kicks. The gang snatched the money. So as a matter of policy for my initiative, I don’t accept or give cash as donations,” he said.
After Sajit joined Ford from college and moved to Chennai, the need to do something for children in the orphanages grew stronger in him.
“My vision for the initiative is to tap the spare resources in our society and put a system in place that would ensure a better future for the orphaned children in Chennai. I didn’t want it to be a one-child initiative… and, no monetary donations,” he said. Three years ago on his birthday in February 2010, he visited the Koyambedu market and started talking to the traders about the idea.
“It wasn’t easy at all convincing them at first…as you can see, all of them are very, very busy during the wee hours. Further, at first, I was a stranger to them seeking goods for free, though ‘for a cause’. But I didn’t give up as this was my dream. The challenge was to spot people who shared a similar dream. I kept proposing the idea to them for months. Many would just refuse, many asked me to come later, some offered only 1 -2 kgs, some offered ‘slightly damaged in transit’ stuff, but I insisted that I’d have only the fresh lot,” he said.
He persisted and continued with the 4 am visits to the market and gradually this casually dressed stranger
became a steady fixture there. Trust and relationships grew and slowly, the contributions started trickling in…5 kg, 10 kg, 20kg then later even 50 kg sacks in some cases. Steadily, the contributions have grown close to about 1,100-1,200 kg per week. All free of cost. These donations are collected about three times each week and then distributed to about 10 orphanages in and around the city.
“We target smaller orphanages that do not have much visibility and find it hard to make ends meet. True to the concept of taking money circulation out of the system, the transport cost from the market to their doorsteps is shared and paid by the orphanages directly to the transporter.”
After Sajit moved to Thailand as the Purchasing Director for Asia Pacific, he employed an assistant, Velu Murugan, to look after the collection and distribution. Murugan has a day job elsewhere but steps in during the early morning to collect, transport and distribute the vegetables.
“He is like my younger brother…without his help carrying on this initiative would have been really difficult. He has ensured that the donations reach the orphanages in time…be it cyclone or heavy rains,” said a thankful Sajit. Even his 60-year-old mother Vanaja pitches in, making a point to visit the orphanages every month and finding out if they are satisfied with the quality and variety of vegetables.
“Sajit always wanted to do something for the orphans for a long time….and I wholeheartedly try to support him in whatever little way I can,” she said proudly.
As soon as the vehicle rolls into the quiet Chennai suburb of Tambaram, in a street that houses the Good Life Centre, one of the many orphanages, the founder secretary K. Baskar greets Sajit as if meeting a longtime friend.
“The vegetables have been a great help to the 135 orphans here. What Sajit has done is to look at one of our key needs and developed a self-sufficient system to fulfill it. I tell my children how the vegetables are sourced and all of them thank him deeply for his help,” said Baskar.
The Good Life Centre also serves as a hub for many other orphanages on the outskirts of the city. Murugan drops off vegetables at its premises and the orphanages collect them from there later on.
One of these orphanages, Hope Foundation in Melmaruvathur, a small town 50 kms away from Chennai came up with a special request. Since Hope Foundation inmates were HIV positive children and women, they requested anti-oxidant and iron-rich vegetables that had higher nutritional value. Now the orphanage regularly collects 40-45 kg of vegetables like carrot, beet, cabbage and turnips every week. “With these donations ensuring a steady supply, we are happy that we can utilise our finances elsewhere,” said Panneer Selvam, program director of Hope Foundation. In Karunai Illam, another orphanage, its founder Power Singam recounted how Ford employees helped dig a borewell for this orphanage at its campus in Medavakkam two years ago. “Today the vegetables sustain the kids,” Singam says.
Inspired by Sajit’s efforts, a group of doctors have agreed to conduct health camps at two orphanages every month.
He is quick in reminding that this initiative is where it is today, not because of him. It’s because of the generosity of the Koyambedu vegetable market vendors, and doctors.
And like a true Ford employee, he looks to Go Further, even in his philanthropic activities.
“Nutrition and health will take care of today, but not as much for tomorrow. To address their tomorrow, something I have been toying with for some time is mentoring,” he said and hopes more and more people will join him in his forthcoming endeavour to offer mentoring and guidance, which would fill yet another void in the lives of underprivileged children.
“After spreading our love or goodness to family, friends and towards our own interests, I am convinced there is still some spare goodness in all of us. I’m here appealing to all to tap that spare goodness in each of you. An hour or two every week, will go a long way in uplifting the future lives of orphan children in Chennai,” says Sajit, full of optimism about his next step.
If you share a similar dream in life, join Sajit and be a part of his movement to make a difference in the lives of orphan children.
Sajit and Baskar discuss about the supply of vegetables while children at the orphanage happily receive the truck.
Sajit with HIV affected children at Hope Foundation, Melmaruvathur.