47-year-old taxi driver, Saju Talukdar, who had to drop out of school due to financial inability to buy a uniform, collects old clothes and distributes them among dwellers of tea gardens in north Bengal's Dooars region.
"Uniform was compulsory in my school from Class 5 onwards. My father, who used to earn a living by repairing umbrellas, made me a uniform from discarded clothes. However, it got torn within a year and he could not afford to buy more old clothes to make me another uniform. Hence, I had to drop out of school. The regret of not being able to finish school always lived in my heart because I loved studying and used to often perform good in exams." he said.
Saju Talukdar lives in Dimdima, in the Dooars region of north Bengal, which one of India’s biggest tea garden belts. After dropping from school, Saju started assisting his father in his tailoring work,but he soon lost interest. After doing different labour jobs over the years, he learnt driving and then became a driver himself. He has worked as a driver for trucks and commercial taxis for over a 20 years and earned anywhere between Rs 400 and 700 per day.
"While driving between Siliguri and different parts of north Bengal, I used to often come across scantily-clothed people begging on the streets and scanning through garbage for food and clothes. Upon inquiry, I found most of them were workers of shut tea gardens. I saw my childhood in these people and decided to do something for them. I started collecting old clothes; it was a big challenge going to each house in the nearby towns and small cities like Birpara, New Jalpaiguri and Siliguri, asking for old clothes. Some people would give, others wouldn’t, and there were those questioned ‘What’s the guarantee you won’t sell these off.’ Somehow, after consistent efforts, I managed to get a reasonable number of old clothes from these localities,” recalls Saju.
He cycled to the tea gardens and visited the less fortunate colonies. There, he observed who needed the clothes the most. He would then approach the shanties where the people lived and distributed the clothes. “The thing was, I didn’t have a lot of stock and couldn’t help a lot of people. My inability to help everyone left me unhappy,” he adds. His initiative was gradually appreciated by the people of Alipurduar and Jalpaiguri districts, many of whom now bring bags full of old clothes to him. However, the next step was to expand the outreach of the initiative. That’s when the idea of starting a clothes bank emerged. Assisted by his wife Mamoni and sons Alamgir and Sohel, he started a 'cloth bank' in 2017, naming it after legendary tribal leader Birsa Munda.
With Saju’s constant efforts over the years in collecting the old, clothing items from door to door, the cloth bank is now up and running with 50,000 units of old clothes. He has gained the trust of the people with his work and affluent families send their old clothes directly to him now through courier and other means. With the help of this cloth bank, Saju is now able to distribute clothes old clothes in the villages inside the surrounding tea gardens and travelling upto 50 kms to reach to the ones who need it the most. Today, Saju distributes 3000-4000 old clothes every week and reaches out to thousands of tea garden workers in the vast region of Dooars, West Bengal. He makes absolutely no money out of it. “I put up separate stalls for trousers, saris, kid’s wear, churidars, etc. Till I set up these stalls, no one touches the clothes. I sort and arrange them first. Then, I tell people to take whatever they need. Even if someone takes extra clothes, I do not mind.” says Saju.
To collect and distribute these clothes, Saju bought a four-wheeler in 2015, on which he would ferry passengers to Siliguri and different parts of Alipurduar and Jalpaiguri district. “My method of collection is very different. Let’s say if I have to go to Siliguri and drop someone at the airport, and am coming back without a passenger. I inform my friends in Siliguri through Facebook a day before, and they collect all the clothes in one place. I pick up the clothes on my way back. Some people send clothes on a bus and even through courier. Earlier collecting the clothes was a lot of trouble, but now it’s easier,” he says.
However, after distributing thousands of old clothes to the tea garden workers, Saju believes that they too deserve new clothes. “A festival in India is incomplete without new clothes. Dressing up in new clothes is an intregral part of the joy of celebrating a festival. As a child, I used to feel sad that I didn’t have new clothes to wear during Durga Pujo. Even today, hundreds of children in the tea gardens do not have the privilege of wearing new clothes on festivals. I wish that these children and families get an opportunity to celebrate the festivals with as much joy as the people in the affluent families”, says Saju.
He feels sad that even new born kids do not have the privilege of having new clothes. The elderly tea garden workers too have to depend on his services to get old clothes. He mostly receives old clothes like saris, frocks, shirts, T-shirts and trousers. But warm clothes for winter are hard to come by. Even good quality old clothes for kids are difficult to get. He wishes to start distributing new clothes to as many as possible. “I cannot do this myself, I am dependent on my supporters. I distribute the old clothes given by the supporters. Now I want to distribute new clothes and warm clothes for children and elderly and I need the support through funds, so that I can buy the new clothes as per the requirement.” says Saju. He wonders how happy these people would be if he is able to distribute new clothes for the less privileged but hard working tea garden workers.
Please support Saju Talukdar to fulfil his dream of distributing new clothes to the ones who need them the most.
(Saju’s four-wheeler, which was his means to a livelihood and to distribute clothes, recently met with an accident in February, 2019 and was damaged quite extensively. “I was on the way to get clothes from Siliguri and had an accident. I had bought the car with help of a loan in 2015. Due to financial crisis, I couldn’t pay the insurance costs and now the car is lying at a police station on the highway. I do not get it home because it has no use now and it will make me really sad. I had to ask my elder son to drop out of college and start working so that we can sustain ourselves.” says Saju. Saju’s son left his 2nd year college studies and today works as Amazon delivery guy in the nearby town. Saju wants to put him back in college once the financial condition of the family becomes stable. If he gets the funds to buy a car then he can go back to work as a taxi driver.)