“It is an incredible experience to be anonymous in life. Yes, it has been a satiating experience working among the most deprived sections of the society.”

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Venugopal Panicker was popular with his seniors and peers in the bank he worked for years ago. So when he announced he was taking over an ashram ‘Srishti’, in remote Odisha, friends scoffed, considering his happy-go-lucky nature. Today, 25-odd-years since, he has manifested into Swami Om (or simply) Venu Gopal, doing yeoman service.A. Radhakrishnan in conversation with the reclusive Swami.

What is your philosophy about serving the downtrodden?
Selflessness, sans publicity or expectation. The instinct should come from the core of the heart. My perception towards life changed when, as a banker, I read about Baba Amte in the Indian Express. That propelled me to travel alone from Mumbai to Nagpur in 1985. Shri Baba Amte and Swami Chinmayandaji are the two people who have inspired me. Since childhood, I have always had the desire to help the needy and the downtrodden.

What prompted you to adopt this ashram Shristi?
In 1988, Baba Amte organised a ‘Bharat Jodo Bicycle March’ (Knit India March). Seventy five youths from Arunachal Pradesh to Gujarat, representing 25 states, covered more than 9,000 kms, especially the Northeast for the first time, as part of a national integration programme. After the march, Baba suggested we each adopt an unknown village and help unknown people without any selfish motive. I spontaneously adopted village Boxma in Kuchinda Sub Division, Sambalpur District, Odisha.

Swami Om with the village children

Once I identified the needs of the villagers, observing their lifestyle, I decided to focus mainly on their education and livelihood. Looking back, it has indeed been my greatest achievement, and has given me great fulfillment. Obviously, if reborn, I would again adopt such a village.

How has the ashram served its objectives?
We set up the Women’s Dairy Co-operative Society in Boxma village in 1995, which in time has slowly expanded to 75 co-operatives in different villages in Kuchinda. The societies also include a self-help group, women and child health, and literacy initiatives.

We started a community-based rehabilitation for the blind in 1996, with the support of Sight Savers International, a U.K-based funding agency. Since then, we have covered more than 300 villages and rehabilitated around 500 rural visually impaired people. We have also been organising cataract operations at our hospital for senior citizens, for almost 15 years.

Almost 1,500 tribal boys have benefited in the past 20 years through a tribal hostel for poor children, which provides free food, accommodation and uniforms.

We have a high school, funded by Srishti, where we provide free education to both boys and girls. For the past 25 years, we have also been organising Rural Inter-School Athletic meet to expose rural children to sports activities.

Any success stories?
Ironically, prior to 1995, there was not a single drop of milk produced in the village. When Srishti organised the first Women Co-op Dairy Society, the first-day collection of milk was just 60 litres at Boxma village, but today we collect around 8,000 litres of milk per day through our 75 Women Co-op societies. That in itself is a revolutionary success story.

Presently, the procurement rate of milk by the state government is Rs.30 per litre. So per day, earnings are around Rs.2,10,000 through milk sale, or around Rs.7.66 crores per annum!

Village girls, though capable were discouraged to take up higher education or jobs, but Srishti has been successful in encouraging them to take higher education and join professions like nursing, police, teaching, engineering, architecture and railways. This is women empowerment at its best, very crucial for the development of our rural society.

How did you identify the needs of the populace? What were the problems you faced personally setting up the ashram?
The basic problem in all of rural India is health and education. One should be mentally strong to adapt to the new situation when you are a social worker. The reciprocation has been very positive. It’s an all-learning experience, which cannot be explained in words.

Do you get sponsorship easily?
There has been an avalanche of support for this noble cause. When your intentions are pure, you will get support from an unknown force, without even seeking. There is no lack of funds.

Should our economic policies have been village intensive, rather than industrial?
India is home to almost 1/6th of the world population; 1.13 billion people, and around 80 percent of this population live in rural areas. I feel, apart from agricultural activities, some small-scale industrial projects would help the unemployed youth.

Why are villages still so underdeveloped?
Poverty, malnutrition and corruption are the culprits. Despite numerous awareness schemes, thanks to ignorance and lack of common sense, people don’t want to change. To cite an example, there are government schemes to help widows and senior citizens through pension, but the money is misused by the local Panchayat bodies, Block Development Officer, Sarpanch and local politicians, resulting in most funds not reaching the end beneficiaries.

The new government has for the past two years implemented effectively a few projects like toilets for every household. However, there are no skill-based schemes for unemployed youths. Education and health awareness are paramount for developing villages. We need selfless political leaders and bureaucrats, as also the co-operation and participation of fellow villagers.

How would you describe the average villager?
It’s a small village, with agriculture as the main occupation. Basically, villagers are simple folk, self-reliant, friendly and humble with limited basic needs, but a mixed type of characters abound.

Thanks to the mid-day meal scheme, children attend school regularly. Mobile usage has become a basic necessity, but sadly, the caste system is still prevalent, and it being tribal-dominated, alcohol abuse is a part of their tradition.

What do you feel is the cause for farmer suicides?
I have not come across any incident of a farmer committing suicide during my stay here, and hence I would desist commenting.

Any thoughts on poverty alleviation?
My experience of living in a village tells me population is the biggest hurdle in our society. Poverty alleviation can be achieved only if we control our population, which is burgeoning.

What is wrong with this present world? Why is it so troubled?
There is nothing wrong. One should be more sensitive towards human suffering. Peace is constant, but the human mind, is cunning and calculating, and creates situations which are unpalatable.

Has the ashram won any awards?
Personally, I don’t prefer to go around for awards and recognition, as I love a low profile.

Do you have mantra chanting and yoga practice?
Reciting the Bhagavad Gita shloka-s is compulsory for our daily morning payers at the school. Yoga and guided meditation session are also part of our school curriculum.

Why are you a recluse and shun publicity? When you look back, are you satisfied?
It is an incredible experience to be anonymous in life. Yes, it has been a satiating experience working among the most deprived sections of the society. Any kind of service should be selfless and not be highlighted for one’s own selfish motive.

Describe your schedule.
I do not follow any rigorous schedule. I visit the villages along with volunteers and if anyone requires any help we fulfill them. Celibacy has not been a problem, for if you are a selfless worker, your energy is diverted towards your work. That is the secret mantra.

I normally have a vegetarian diet of rice, dal, and vegetables. Every evening I take contemplative walks. I believe in ‘Be Good and Do Good!’ Every day is an interesting day in my perspective, only if you are selfless.

Your concept of God and Babas.
My concept of God is Selfless Seva. I do believe in good karmas. As for the fake Babas, no comments.


A. Radhakrishnan

A. Radhakrishnan, Pune based freelance journalist, with close to four decades of experience in mainstream print journalism, is aiming for the digital platform. Making friends interests him and for company, he loves music and books. He also writes short stories and indulges in poetry.

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