Coimbatore’s ‘gear man’ who did self less service
Amma, don’t stress yourself today. I will have breakfast and even pack my lunch from SSS,” says Ramasamy, a bank employee, to his mother as he leaves for work. This is a familiar scenario in most of the households in a locality called Singanallur in Coimbatore. SSS (Shanthi Social Services) has been a boon to the people of Coimbatore since 1996 when it was set up by the founder of Shanthi Gears P Subramanian. The sprawling facility houses a medical centre, diagnostic lab, radiology centre, blood bank, pharmacy, eyecare centre, petrol bunk and a spacious canteen. It also runs an LPG crematorium close by and has optical shops across the city.
‘Service to humanity is service to god’ had been the mantra of Subramanian, who passed away last December. So popular was this philanthropist that his obituary was run in newspapers by people at their own cost and posters depicting his charitable spirit and service propped up all over Coimbatore. Totally media shy and a very low-profile man, Subramanian shunned all publicity and awards or citations. “It is rare to see such outpouring of grief and tributes from all over for a man whom they have only heard of and not seen,” said a staff member of the SSS canteen.
But even though the “gear man” of Coimbatore has passed on, his mantra of selfless service is reflected in every service facility of SSS. Lunch is served free for at least 300 needy people while 10,000 people get food at a nominal cost each day. “I eat a full meal here every day and it costs me just ₹10 and dinner costs ₹15,” says Ibrahim Basha, an autorickshaw driver. The lunch menu includes unlimited rice, sambhar, greens, rasam, vegetable curry and buttermilk. Dinner includes varieties such as idli/dosa, sambhar, chutney; poori, subzi; vada or pongal. Tea costs ₹5 and coffee ₹10. The unhealthy refined white sugar is replaced with a healthier demerara sugar. Drinking water is dispensed from an RO unit and sanitation staff sporting grey t-shirts with the founder’s mantra printed on its back; mask and gloves in place, are quick to clean up tables unobtrusively.
The canteen serves nutritious vegetarian food in a hygienic setting. “We don’t include maida, ajinomoto or any such unhealthy ingredients, instead millets, grams, sprouts and ragi are used liberally,” says a canteen employee, adding, “our ayya (owner) was particular that only healthy food should be served. We don’t want people spending unnecessarily for treating diseases due to unhealthy diet, he would say.”
“Subramanian would often say, ‘I am only sharing with people around me what god has given me’,” says one of his closest acquaintances, a Rotarian, who does not wish to be named. “Although I knew him very well and know what a gem he was, I don’t want to speak about him to the media because I respect his sentiments even after he has left us,” he adds.
The admin manager at SSS also echoes the same thought. “Our ayya was steadfast in his philosophy: What the right hand gives, the left hand need not know. Although people have suggested that publicising his services could inspire many others, he would still say, ‘I do this in my personal capacity. There are several others who are doing good in their communities and there is no need for one to replicate the other.’
Subramanian was a first-generation industrialist when he set up a gear manufacturing unit to cater to the textile sector in the city in 1960. This grew into a private limited company — Shanthi Gears — in 1972 after which he became popular as ‘Coimbatore’s gear man’. The company was sold to the Murugappa group in Chennai in 2012 allowing him to totally focus on SSS, his pet project, which he established in memory of his wife. Apart from his activities in the manufacturing sector, his social service activities made him a formidable personality. He stood by his policy to not accept, request or solicit donations. He was awarded Padma Shri in January this year for his outstanding contribution to trade and industry.
The trust’s other services are also as economical as the canteen without compromising on quality. “The hospital services come at a price 50–75 per cent lesser than any other in the city. The doctor charges just ₹30 whenever I bring my family here for consultation; I have not visited any other hospital ever,” says Basha. The crematorium services are free for the needy and at a nominal charge for others. Medicines are sold at 30 per cent less than the market price. SSS provides educational aid to meritorious students, supports government schools and construction of roads.
The balvadi that SSS runs provides nutritious food and teach values to children. Parents can leave them there as early as 7 am and pick them up as late as 8 pm. It is a boon to working parents who have nowhere else to leave their children, and it is totally free.
The petrol bunk is famous for selling fuel at the same price at which the stock was procured, despite subsequent increase in price. “‘The commission I get from purchasing the stock is sufficient and I don’t want to make unreasonable profit, he would say,” says his acquaintance, adding, “he was a karma yogi. Every day he would be in the canteen and when people appreciated him, unaware of his identity, he would just smile; but he would take critical feedback seriously and rectify the shortcoming immediately. I am truly blessed to have been in his company.”
Getting a house for rent in this locality is tough because people hardly shift from here as they are so used to benefitting from all services of their neighbourhood SSS. Even after his passing on, he lives in the hearts of thousands of people, in every single meal and in everybody’s thoughts, says Ramasamy.