Nitai Mukherjee is a man possessed. At 43, he devotes all his time to running his NGO Hive India which is involved, he says, with virtually every rescue operation in the Kolkata area. He employs four ambulances and over 20 youngsters — all boys from slums who have turned dedicated social workers and are experts in rendering the first line of medical assistance.
As I ask him to spell out the nature of the work, he gets a call on one of his two cellphones. A totally dazed woman has been found in the very downmarket Narkeldanga area. She may be the victim of domestic violence. You have to find a shelter for her, create in her a sense of psychological and physical safety, make available her legal rights, make the state responsible. Or it may be a child who has got lost. He has to be restored to his family. Or it may be an aged victim of dementia, not knowing where his home is.
When not quite 20, Nitai joined his father’s business, growing it several times in a few years. Slowly he was running on dual tracks, dividing his time between social work and business. Then when he was around 30, he had to take a call — choose between the call of the pocket (business) and the call of the heart (social work). He made the choice and now his family supports him while he follows his life’s mission.
He says his wife, 13 years his junior, is amazing. “I was not going to get married but when we decided to, my prospective father-in-law asked his daughter, do you want to marry this ambulance driver?”Now he is a great guide to Mukherjee.
When barely ten, a seminal incident occurred in Nitai’s life. At the Dhakuria Lakes, where he had gone to play football, he found a boy his age, barely covered in rags, stretched out senseless on the ground. Nitai and his friends raised Rs 4.25 from passersby, carried the boy to the house of a friend nearby and set in motion restoring and feeding him. When Nitai’s father heard it all he did not show any reaction but that evening took the family out for dinner to celebrate.
He owes the most to his parents, particularly his father, he says. An engineer-entrepreneur, he was a successful businessman, honest and hard working, a natural Gandhian but not orthodox. After coming home from work at night, he would narrate to the children stories of national heroes. Nitiai’s mother would read to them stories from Jim Corbett. When he turned five he was presented a picture of Swami Vivekananda who became a role model.
Nitai believes in destiny: “I have been created to do this.” Fairly early in life, he thought, “let me die for a cause. There is a cosmic direction to every life which is like an arrow that is aimed at a target.” He named his NGO Hive to denote a place of intense activity and also a home. Only later it became an acronym, standing for “Hands In Varying Emergencies”.
Word has travelled, and Hope Foundation has come forward to help. Many businesspeople help at a personal level, social organisations with their facilities. He persuades and cajoles people into helping his cause. So much so that he likes to call himself Nitai Jalan (“ami jalai sabaike”, I pester everybody).
How has he won over government doctors and the police? Years ago, on a cold night when he took a destitute man on his last legs to a government hospital, the doctor on duty refused to admit him. Seeing the bright emergency jackets Mukherjee’s boys were wearing the doctor taunted, “Obviously you get foreign help, how many dollars per patient?” Mukherjee just swallowed the insult and patiently stood by. As the hours ticked by the doctor’s attitude gradually changed and emergency treatment began. Then after over six hours at dawn the doctor agreed to admit the patient. Today he is the registrar of the same hospital and one of the best professional friends of Hive.
As for the police, “they are our most difficult stakeholder.” Initially many officers treated him badly. Their attitude was, our job ends with depositing victims at hospitals, it doesn’t mean we keep worrying about them. Now, Hive does 80 per cent of its work by the side of the police.
Mukherjee finds a lot of capacity in the state system; the issue is utilisation. He describes himself as a dalal (tout or broker) intermediating between the victim and stakeholders and facilitators. He and his team string the beads (of stakeholders and facilitators) to create a garland of service.
After the Bhuj earthquake Mukherjee spent six months there working with the victims. There he had an epiphany. He saw hillocks broken up, sliced like a cake, displaying distinct geological layers. Society is not just the icing on the cake, there are so many layers, he realised.