Prakash Rao is a chaiwallah in Cuttack, the capital city of Orissa state, which lies on the eastern coast of India, south of West Bengal. In 2019 Rao was awarded the Padma Shri, the fourth highest civilian award in the country, for his contributions toward children’s education. It made news because never before had a chaiwallah been singled out for such an honor.
If chai is a beverage that’s all heart, it appears that the chaiwallahs who make it, are even more so. They are that familiar, friendly figure, brewing cups of a beverage that’s consumed for sustenance, comfort, or a pause in the day. Most chaiwallahs in India are small vendors, often selling by the roadside or in tiny hole-in-the-wall spaces, and with limited income. None expect to make millions. Which makes their stories unexpected and heartwarming.
As a child, Rao began helping his father at his tea stall every day. Money was hard to come by and when his father fell ill, Rao dropped out of school to run the tea stall and help pay the bills. But it seems to have bothered him not to have had the opportunity to study, seeing he had thoroughly enjoyed school while it lasted. His childhood dream was to become a doctor.
Nearly 20 years ago, Rao decided to do something about helping children around him complete their schooling. Many were like him, smart but without opportunity. He felt that without intervention, they’d never be able to have a chance at a better future. In 2000, he opened a school in his house, in which four children enrolled. Half of his daily earnings from selling chai—on a good day he made $10 (INR700)—went towards the upkeep of the school.
In an interview, he said, “Instead of enrolling them in schools, these children were enrolled in menial labor. Working odd jobs and becoming domestic helpers, whatever money they earned was often snatched by the men in the home, who would buy alcohol and turn to domestic violence. It deeply affected me, every single day.”
In the beginning, parents were not happy to have their children attend school as it reduced the family’s earnings. But Rao persisted and slowly the numbers of children attending school increased until there were too many to fit in his two-room house. Someone offered a building with more room and the school relocated there and was officially named Asha o Ashwasana (Hope and Assurance).
His family—a wife and two daughters—were supportive, with his wife working as a nurse and her income supplementing his own family’s needs. Every morning Rao would sell chai from 5 am to 9 a.m. before going to his school from 10 a.m. – 1 p.m. After lunch, he’d return to sell chai until 9 p.m. that night.
As a small school, Asha o Ashwasana does not qualify for many benefits, including the mid-day meal subsidies. For families that struggle with money, the provision of lunch is an incentive to allow their children to remain in school. Rao recognized this and in addition to schooling, he began to cook and serve lunch to the children.
Asha o Ashwasana caters to children between 3 and 8 years old, after which Rao helps them enroll in a government school. Thanks to his efforts, several of the children who have begun their schooling here have gone on to complete college-level education.
On India’s Republic Day in January 2019, 62-year old Prakash Rao walked up to the President of India to receive the Padma Shri. It was a rare honor, and a worthy one. Sadly the celebrations didn’t last long because two days later, he suffered a stroke that paralyzed the left side of his body. More bad luck arrived in April that year when the Cyclone Fani wreaked havoc on his home state. Both his home and school were extensively damaged.
Milaap – an Indian crowdfunding platform for social causes began a fundraising campaign to help Rao rebuild his home and life. His house is now nearly ready, and the school has resumed functioning with 180 children and 10 teachers.
Rao is on the road to recovery. Although unable to make chai or teach children, he still visits his tea stall and school every day. His daughter, Priya, helps him with managing both. His illness has slowed him down but not stopped him, “There’s still a lot to be done,” he said.