OCTOBER 2002

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New York Cab Driver Steals The Show
From Indian Tribune

Some 600 NRIs [Indian citizens not residing in India] crowded into the swank Starlight ballroom on the 18th floor of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel on Sept. 13 night to listen to Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee. They were the “créme de la créme” of the Indian Diaspora in America - Wall Street bankers, tech millionaires, fat cat physicians, geeky academics, and petty, squabbling NRI “netas.”

But there were no newspaper kiosk vendors. Or 7-11 managers. Or cab drivers. Being more “doodh” - if that - than créme, they didn’t fit in. You see, they are the “other Indians.”

As any New Yorker will tell you, more than 50 percent of New York cabbies are South Asian, with Punjabi the “lingua franca” on their two-way radio. Indians are also widely present in franchise outlets like 7-11 and Dunkin Donuts. Indians run many newspaper kiosks and gas stations in the area.

Blue collar they may be, but they are also an important part of the Indian Diaspora whose contribution needs to be solicited, and where it exists, needs to be recognized. Om Dutt Sharma is but one example. Sharma, who is now 65, is more than just a cabbie - he’s a cabbie extraordinaire.

A native of Doobher Kishanpur, a small village outside Sahrananpur near Delhi, Sharma was born to a poor farming family. His unlettered father gave him education, and Sharma went on to become an income tax official and later a marketing man before coming to New York in the mid 1970s. Not finding a steady job, he became a cabbie, having always enjoyed driving.

After more than two decades of cab service, Sharma was stricken with thoughts of doing something for his native village - like starting a school. He began to reduce household expenses much to the dismay of his wife Krishna. He began putting away his tips. He started badgering his customers for higher fare to fund a school he wanted to start in some remote Indian village.

The result was the Ramkali Kanya Pathshala, a five-room girls’ school named after his mother was inaugurated in 1998 in Doobher Kishanpur. His mother’s contribution to the school was Rs11,000 (about $300 in those days), her entire life savings. His own contribution was about $25,000.

It wasn’t exactly IIT - but it was more than what most NRIs do. It made no headlines, except for a few stray reports months after it was opened. Today the school has 100 girls in five classes with four teachers.

Sharma is now looking to start a hospital before he finishes driving the cab next year. On June 30, 2003, Sharma’s latest five-year lease on his cab ends, and by New York laws, he has to ditch the vehicle and buy a new one. Instead, Sharma plans to sell his New York Taxi medallion, a license that now fetches as much as $200,000. Doobher Kishanpur will certainly have its hospital.

Where do you think Sharma was when the fat cat NRIs were partying after their now annual tryst with the Prime Minister? While the visitors and their “desi” party didn’t attract a single line in the New York media, Sharma was on the widely-watched ABC Nightline's half-hour-long Up Close program being interviewed about his modest saga. It was more than anyone in the Starlight room had managed.

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