From beggar boy to protector of Kerala’s homeless during the pandemic

KOCHI: As a child, Murugan S lived on the streets of Kochi and begged for food from strangers. His father, an alcoholic, and his mother, a daily-wager, had barely enough to provide him with a home or two square meals a day. So he spent his pre-teen years scouting for leftovers from waste baskets and doing odd jobs in exchange for food.
And then one day, the police found him and shifted him to an orphanage where he was cared for by nuns for many years. There, he became acquainted with the works of renowned social reformers like Mother Teresa and Sree Narayana Guru. “Their ideals and teachings somehow took root in my mind. But I didn’t know how to go about it,” said the 34-year-old, over the phone.
For the next seven years, he worked as a volunteer with Childline and gathered his savings to buy an auto-rickshaw. On the side, he tracked abandoned children as well as elderly persons, especially those with mental health issues, and rescued them from the streets. In 2007, his ambitions of being a social worker took flight through his NGO Theruvoram, meaning street in Malayalam.
In the time of Covid-19, when a majority of Indians remain ensconced in their homes practicing social distancing, Murugan and his team of eight at Theruvoram are going about lifting the homeless and the destitute population off the streets in Kerala and taking them to safe homes. A majority of such people, surprisingly, are from other states who come to Kerala for work. “Almost 90 per cent of the people we rescue are from other states. They are often between the ages of 20 and 40. Many of them become addicted to alcohol and drugs which wreck their lives. Soon, they lose their way and develop mental health issues,” said Murugan.
A majority of those rescued, Murugan says, are from other states who come to Kerala for work.“We pick such people, give them a bath, fresh clothes and then transport them to a mental health centre or a hospital. For every person we rescue, we take permission from the local police who often pitch in to help us with resources.”
The staff of Theruvoram, including six helpers and two drivers, use ambulances which have been donated by the Association of Malayalam Movie Artistes (AMMA), a collective of actors in the Kerala film industry, and the Hindustan Petroleum Corporation Limited. The ambulance donated by AMMA is particularly helpful as it has a shower at the back and a water tank on the roof. This feature is helpful in giving the destitutes a bath before being transported to a safe home.
In the first few weeks of the national lockdown, till the last week of April, Murugan said his team rescued 617 people off the streets across six districts in Kerala. “Many of them haven’t had a bath in months and are in a very unhygienic condition. At a time like this, they could unintentionally spread germs and infection everywhere they go. In Kollam, we found a person who had large and heavy steel bangles on his hands. We had to take the fire department’s help to cut them open,” he said.
On an average day, Theruvoram spends Rs 8,000 on fuel for the two ambulances a day and has to fish out additional money to buy shaving kits, clothes, masks and hand sanitisers. It depends purely on donations from private individuals and enterprises, said Murugan, who has been the recipient of several social service honours.
In 2012, the humble auto-rickshaw driver from Kochi took home an award for social service from President Pranab Mukherjee and in 2015, he was a recipient of ‘Amazing Indians’ award by television network Times Now, receiving it from Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Also in this series: Across continents, a family unites to help stranded migrants reach their homes
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