Mumbai dentist breaks cycle of poverty

A boy from a poor family made it through school and college thanks to help from others. Now a successful dentist, he is trying to help underprivileged children find his path to success: education

“I grew up in the slums at Powai,” Suwas Darvekar says. “When I was in Class IV my father, who was blind, met with an accident and was rendered jobless. From there, it was a downward journey for the whole family.” He remembers that the family’s lunch used to be leftovers from a nearby general store and dinner would be leftovers from a restaurant. But his father wanted Suwas to get a good education. He managed to get him into an English-medium school — North Bombay Welfare Society — in Ghatkopar. Young Suwas got a lot of help from the school. He even wore a donated school uniform when his family couldn’t afford to buy him one.

But, he says, “things became really difficult by the time I reached Class IX .” His family could no longer afford the daily 30 paise for the bus fare to school. “I missed many classes.”

Helping hands

“Then some people working with L&T offered to drop me to school daily in their office bus. Things somehow kept falling in place.” He was able to finish Class X with distinction in 1984.

He got into Government Dental College, Mumbai. But he could not afford the expensive books and equipment he needed. Again, fortune smiled: he got assistance from the Vijay Merchant Charitable Trust in his first year, and then from another foundation, Each One Teach One. His younger sister Sangeeta helped too: she abandoned her studies and earned money from odd jobs to help him finish college.

In 1990, the freshly-minted Dr. Darvekar found work with friend and senior dentist Dr. Sanjay Shah’s Andheri clinic. Shortly, Dr. Shah made a trip to the U.S., and left his young assistant in charge. But that entire month, Dr. Darvekar did not get a single patient. He was close to losing confidence in himself.

Then he saw an advertisement offering a small clinic in Bhayander for rent. He took it up. Two years later, with help from well-wishers, he bought it. He worked hard, as he had done all his young life, saved money, got married. Soon, a baby was on the way. Life was good.

From loss, a beginning

Then tragedy struck. The family was shopping for Sangeeta’s wedding when she suddenly fell ill and had to be hospitalised. A month later she succumbed to a fatal ailment related to the spinal cord. This was in 2000.

“I was totally devastated,” he says. “I knew the sacrifices she had made for me and the family. I was in depression for six months, even though my wife had just delivered at that time. I knew I’ve to do something for her. So I decided to start a charitable trust.”

In April 2003, he registered the Sangeeta Darvekar Charitable Trust, and started a charitable dental clinic next to his private practice. “Some people called me mad, saying it will affect my normal practice, but luckily both survived well!”

In both clinics, he would see the effects of mouth diseases caused by tobacco products. He decided to do something about it. Twice a week, closing his clinic, he would go to Tata Memorial Hospital, India’s premier cancer care facility, to collect data on patients, their habits and the socio-economic impact on their families.

He then launched a website on oral cancer, with simple information and pictures to help lay people understand the risks of tobacco use. And he began making presentations to corporations and dental associations. He also made a documentary, Tobacco Kills. “Tata Hospital was more than generous in helping us with cameras and other equipment. We managed to get the voice of Harish Bhimani for the documentary.”

In 2007, Dr. Darvekar was doing well enough to buy a piece of land at Dahanu, just across the Gujarat border.

It wasn’t for a holiday home, however; he began using it to help the tribal people of the region. He started with free dental camps, then full-scale medical camps. Thanks to the goodwill he had earned, he was able to bring in gynaecologists, paediatricians, cardiac surgeons, dermatologists, and specialists in diseases like tuberculosis and diabetes. And all this was “totally a self-funded initiative. The doctors were quite supportive and never charged anything.”

He knew he was doing much-needed good work, but he was also aware that he was quite literally treating the symptoms. As long as the people of the region were trapped in the vicious cycle of poverty, they would continue to need help. There was one way out, though, and he knew it first-hand: education.

But how could a dentist help with that?

Getting the kids to school

“The government has been providing free education to tribals,” he says, “but most high schools were five, seven kilometres away from their villages. That was one reason why kids were quitting school.” Urban luxuries like school buses were out of the question in these areas.

What if he could help children get to school in another way?

He decided to raise money for bicycles. “I formed a WhatsApp group of some like-minded people, and within an hour’s time I got money for 14 cycles!” The Trust then contacted the local village sarpanch and identified the first lot of recipients.

Concept proven, he launched a full-fledged fund-raiser. “Within two days of pitching the idea, I was able to raise money for 65 cycles, which we distributed in batches.” He had been updating the Trust’s Facebook page, and Dipesh Jain, a cycling enthusiast friend, saw the posts and organised a cycling expedition between Mumbai and Goa to raise money for 100 more bicycles.

The Trust does not just donate bicycles; the scheme is contributory: for each cycle, the Trust pays Rs. 2,500 and the recipient puts in Rs. 1,500. He did this because he felt that if the recipient’s family also put in money, they would feel a stronger sense of responsibility and ownership. So far, the Trust has distributed 151 bicycles; 77 have gone to girl students.

Dr. Darvekar isn’t quite satisfied with the difference he and his family have made. (While much of the cost of the cycles has come from friends’ contributions, the doctor and his family do the running around.)

His next idea: to lease out the Dahanu property for a skill-development school. “We want that even if someone has not got formal education, he can at least have the skills to earn a livelihood. I am ready to give my place. But someone needs to come forward to build the infrastructure.”



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