In the early 1990s, while working for the Reserve Bank of India in Bengaluru, V Mani would pass through the Central Jail on his commute.

Here, he notices several kids loitering around the building. Curiosity led him to inquire about them and learned that they were the sons of doomed people with nowhere to go.

“Children of life convicts are being turned orphans for all practical purposes, and to see them cry outside of prison is very sad,” he noted in an interview with Rediff.

For female prisoners in particular, losing bonds with their children once behind bars is a common reality. One a report In The Wire he explains that the disappearance of a child, or a mother losing custody of a child while in prison, is so common that it is often accepted as “part of the punishment”. These children often end up as child laborers.

To give innocent children a brighter future, Manny decided to do something.

After retirement, when his three sons settled abroad, Manny had four children whom he found outside the prison to his home. Using the 7 lakh rupees that he and his wife Saroji had saved over the years, they housed, fed and educated the children.

This would sow the seeds of his NGO Association for the Care of the Indigent (SOCARE IND), which was formed in 1999. Today, the organization works with the children of long-term prison inmates in various jails in Karnataka, providing them with a place to live, access to food and education, ensuring a brighter future for them.

“They raised these children with a lot of struggle,” recalls Venkatanathan Raghavachari, secretary of SOCARE since 2010 and a family friend of the couple. While his wife died in 2008, he died in Mani in 2011.

J Mani and his wife Saroji.  Image courtesy of Venkatanathan Raghavachari.
J Mani and his wife Saroji. (Photo: Venkatanathan Raghavachari).

Manny was collecting old papers to sell and make money. On special occasions such as his birthday, he would ask people to donate. He used to say, ‘If you can’t give more, give Re 1, even that’s enough,'” Raghavachari recalls. “No one can be as sentimental as he is. A man who sacrificed everything.”

Over the past 23 years, the NGO has worked hard to help these children get back on their feet and overcome the stigma that surrounds them.

It has three buildings – two lodges in Lagere and a skill development center in Gulbarga, which is still under development. At their peak, they had more than 150 children, but since COVID, many parents have refused to give their children back. Today, SOCARE works with 84 children.

“Society views the convict’s entire family as criminals, even the children.”

“But now these kids see SOCARE as a source of strength,” Raghavachari notes.

In the early days, Manny’s initiative received immediate support from the prison administrators. They also started giving him signs for homeless children who needed help. Manny would personally visit each child, inquire about their status, and then take them in.

Within a few years, the house was filling up, and he needed to look for more space. He found a building in Lagare that he wanted to convert into an inn.

For this, he would need about 300 bags of cement, which he could not buy due to lack of funds. Officials at Sri Sharada Peetham Sringeri Math helped Mani arrange the cement, and the NGO is now a unit of the temple. For other funds, he sold his wife’s jewelry and set up donation drives, and the building was soon up and running.

The math officials also bought another building and named it SOCARE. “We demolished the old building and built a state-of-the-art building there,” says Raghavachari. The two hostels, one for girls and one for boys, have facilities such as a library, computer lab, kitchen, prayer lab, and more.

Children in these hostels are sent to different nearby schools, depending on their inclination to study and ability to handle the workload. Some go to English medium schools and others to Kannada medium.

SOCARE children go to school.
SOCARE children go to school. (photo: SOCARE Facebook)

They are also taken on regular visits to the prison to see their parents.

Younger children are brought to Bengaluru and enrolled in school, between Kindergarten and Grade 1. But older children, as noted by the NGO, are not able to cope with studies due to poor educational background.

For such cases, a skills center was set up in Gulbarga, because most of the children’s parents were inmates at Gulbarga Central Jail. “Last year, we completed the building, but it is not operational yet,” says Raghavachari.

The annual budget of the NGO comes to about Rs 70 lakh. In their endeavours, along with maths giving out Rs 70,000 per month, SOCARE is supported by the CSR wings of companies like Bosch and Citrix India, and a few regulars who donate money every year. They have also recently brought back midday meals from ISKCON’s Akshaya Patra Foundation.

What happens to the children of the convicts?

Managing such an initiative came with its own set of challenges. Working closely with these families showed Raghavachari that there were irregularities in the justice system.

Indian Express a report It claims that 76 percent of prisoners in India are on trial. Moreover, says Raghavachari, he has personally come across several cases where innocent victims have been unjustly imprisoned. Children are victims of this social injustice. “There is a lot of reform that needs to happen,” he says.

When these prisoners are released, they struggle to be rehabilitated into society. Most of them go to work as laborers and daily wage workers who cannot take responsibility for a child. “They are asking us to continue taking care of the child,” says Raghavachari.

The NGO’s goal was to keep the children in a shelter until they graduated. But when they found more children, they quickly ran out of space and made the decision that while they would continue to support the child financially, they would send them back to their hometown after the tenth grade.

SOCARE children are brought up in the hostel
SOCARE children are brought up in the hostel

Early one morning three years ago, Raghavachari received a call from Akshita (name changed), who had just finished her tenth class exam. She was an accomplished student who had been sent home for further studies but returned to Bengaluru to collect her school certificate.

She tells Raghavachari that she wants to continue studying but if she returns home, her father will marry her. Raghavachari contacted a lawyer who sent the Child Welfare Committee (CWC) to intervene. Since she was underage, they obtained a promise from her father that he would not marry her.

The father, enraged, calls Raghavachari and starts abusing him. “He said she is my daughter, so who are you to make that decision,” Raghavachari recalled.

He calmed him down, he says, and spoke with the father, realizing that the man had just been released from prison and was working as an officer’s handler. The expenses of feeding and caring for his daughter were more than he could afford. “I understood his problem, it was a real problem,” says Raghavachari.

Then SOCARE decided that while most children would be sent home after class 10, in special cases, they would keep the student. Akshita is still living in the SOCARE hostel, she has completed her class 12 with flying colours, and is now studying law.

While Aksheeta is saved, Raghavachari claims that SOCARE has lost many girls for marriage. “The girls would go home for their vacation, but then they’d get married, and they wouldn’t come back,” he says.

Another challenge today is ensuring that SOCARE continues to operate. “We’re all getting old,” Raghavachari says of the panel. “We are in the process of training and hiring new people. We hope that the organization will continue to grow.”

SOCARE children are studying
SOCARE children are studying

Through all challenges, SOCARE continues to focus on its core mission of changing lives.

Sangeeta Nagraj, 30, joined SOCARE when she was 16 years old. Her younger brother was with them from LKG to grade 10, while she had been in another orphanage before.

With SOCARE, she completed her class of 12 and was supported in her pursuit of a CA. When I was five years old, my father went to prison for a murder case. “He was sentenced to 18 years,” she recalls.

“Before we went to SOCARE, people knew us by the name of our father and what he did. Once SOCARE gave us a good private school education, we got a good respect in the community. Besides education, they also helped us grow spiritually and culturally,” she says.

The lodge life was also a satisfying experience for her. “While normal children grew up with one brother or sister, we grew up with other children and there was unity and bond within us.”

Today, she works as an analyst at Accenture, and is happily married and blessed with a baby girl. “Without SOCARE, many of us wouldn’t be in these situations where we lead sedentary lives,” she adds.

You can help SOCARE and find more information by visiting website.

Edited by Divya Sethu


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