Dr Nita Mukherjee narrates how an ashram has put its philosophy to work.
Prem Niketan (‘abode of love’) is the story of the transformation of an ashram deeply rooted in propagating humanism to an organisation providing a range of social services. At the core of Prem Niketan (PN) is the philosophy that goodness is embodied in the human heart; it needs to be stoked with ethical practice. Chanderbala Parnami, its president since 1999, emphasises strongly that PN is not a ‘religious organisation’; she asserts that Manav Sewa Sangh (of which PN is an affiliate) represents a philosophy of life—of realising goodness through doing good.
Prem Niketan Ashram, founded by Maharaj Sharananandji, was registered under the Society’s Act in FY1953-54. Today, it runs four social service institutions under its aegis. These are: Prem Niketan Hospital (PNH), Prem Niketan Secondary School (PNSS), Geriatric-cum-nursing Care Centre (GCC) and Shubh Shanti Niwas (SSN, an old age home).
PNSS caters mainly to the children of labour class from the surrounding areas. To encourage these first-generation students, PNSS provides free conveyance from the bastis; 50% students are given free education. Others pay nominal charges and PNSS organises donations of study materials and mid-day meals; even the science lab and the computer centre have been set up with donations. Asha Tak, director, STInfosys, a volunteer for PN since 2006, focuses on PNSS. She says, “Running a school with 500 students without government aid is credible when you see the facilities and performance of the students.” Many students are sponsored. Annual sponsorship per child varies from Rs3,500/- for 1st to 5th standard up to Rs6,000/- for 10th to 12th standard children.
However, PN’s most exemplary work is in the field of caring for the old and infirm. GCC, started in 2006, as a part of the PNH has four deluxe rooms and a 20-bed general ward. This ward is run on a charitable basis; most patients are terminal cases.
SSN, a home for people over 60, currently has 25 two-seater, fully furnished rooms, with attached baths and a small sit-out. There’s a dining room, recreation centre and library. Four simple and nutritious meals are served to inmates and all services, including housekeeping, laundry and conveyance to the city, are provided—all for Rs10,000/- per month. Only if an inmate is completely bed-ridden and needs special personal attendant, extra charges have to be paid.
The average age of SSN inmates is 80. They come from all walks of life, including academics, IAS officials and engineers. A former IAS officer, who did not want to be named, said: “It is the best arrangement, as a last alternative. At least I don’t have to worry about ordering provisions or whether the maid will turn up or not. And since there is a hospital within the premises, help is at hand in case of any medical emergency.” Since all the inmates are old and ailing, it does get a bit gloomy at times, he said.
Jaipur currently has few retirement homes so close to the city. Realising that the expanding city needs more such facilities, PN wants to add 100 rooms to SSN. They accept donations of Rs10 lakh per room from prospective inmates. If those who have paid for the room don’t move in immediately, PN rents the rooms to those in need. The income so obtained cross-subsidises GCC. On the death of these ‘owner-inmates’, the rooms revert to PN which can either sell or rent them.
Recently, in collaboration with Cure2children Foundation (Italy), PN started the South-east Asia Institute for Thalassaemia and has successfully done a bone marrow transplant free of cost. It raised the required donations of Rs9 lakh for this. Several such cases waiting for funding. Donations to Prem Niketan are tax-exempt under Section 80G of the Income Tax Act.