Sipping a cup of tea at his Goregaon home, Sandeep Desai chuckles as he recalls the first day he boarded a local train with an agenda in mind and a transparent acrylic box in his bag almost seven years ago.
His friend and co-trustee of his non-profit organisation, Shloka Missionaries, Prof. Nurool Islam, Emeritus Professor of Symbiosis, boarded the train as well but stood at the end of the compartment to observe how people reacted to Desai. Islam had warned Desai that if something went wrong, he would not help him out. The train continued to speed from Goregaon to Vile Parle, and Desai could not get himself to reveal the box.
Then suddenly, Desai decided it was time. “I told myself, it’s now or never,” he says. He took a deep breath and yelled —
Vidyaa Daanam – Shreshtha Daanam
Gramin shetron mein hum angrezi maadhyam ki nishulk schoolein chalate hain.
Agar aap kisi bhukein koi khaana khilaate hai uska palan aap sirf ek samay karte hai
Agar aap usi ko shiksha dete hai toh usko aap zindagi bhar aone pairon par khada kar dete hai,” says Desai.
(Education is the best gift you can give every child.
We run free English medium schools in rural India.
If you feed the hungry, you just feed them once, but when you fund a child’s education, you make him independent forever.)
While nobody dared to give him a single currency note back in the day, he made Rs 700 in coins of different denominations on day one. And since then, there was no turning back.
Sandeep Desai, a former marine engineer and academician, is a resident of Goregaon and the famous Mumbai man who begged on local trains to start rural English medium schools across villages in Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Bihar.
The earliest inspiration in the life of this man who imbibed the value of charity in education, were his parents. While his mother was alive, Shloka Missionaries Trust bought an entire floor of a SRA building under construction to start an English medium school for children living in the slums. They used the funds they collected under their own Shloka Missionaries trust, for this purpose. The school, named The Shloka Missionaries Public School, worked from the same building until end of academic year 2013-14, where over 800 students studied in two shifts, up till 8th grade.
When the Right to Education Act was passed in 2009, the Supreme Court, after much debate mandated, that all private schools provide free & compulsory education to at least 25% students of their new admissions. Desai then decided to shut down the Goregaon school and set up English medium schools in rural areas, that typically do not have access to good education, and very few English medium schools. Yavatmal, a drought-hit district in Maharashtra, was a natural choice.
However, the road to raising funds was not easy.
For the longest time, the funding came from the workshops Desai and Islam conducted on creativity, advertising, and communication skills. But it wasn’t really charity because they earned those funds as fees for workshops, which were used to run the school.
But now, they were looking at a model where people would contribute without expecting a service in return. This need to raise funds let to Desai begging on local trains.
“We raised Rs. 65 lakhs in 2004-5 for Trust to purchase property in a building under construction in Goregaon under the Slum Rehabilitation Authority (SRA),” he says.
In a matter of 5 years, he raised over one crore for the construction of 2 schools in villages of Yavatmal and Udaipur districts. From Sept 2010, when he started collecting funds, they were able to set up 4 schools.
Another school, which is being funded by former students of Desai’s alma mater MERI (Marine Engineering and Research Institute) is under construction in the Dharharwa village of Sitamarhi district of Bihar.
Desai lets out a hearty laugh going down the memory lane when he and Islam were brainstorming ways to raise funds. While Islam was convinced all of Sandeep’s ideas would lead to a disastrous end, Desai was convinced there was only one space where he could attract and hold the attention of people off guard — the local trains.
“In local trains, people are seated in such a way where they are looking at you and some are facing back. You just have to do something, interesting enough to make their heads turn. The worst that could happen was them asking me to get off the train,” he says.
He does not blame the people in Mumbai who looked at him with scepticism because he had a clear conscience. “I aimed to find people who would genuinely feel for the cause, and ensure that I do not offend anybody with anything I spoke, even if they were difficult to me.”
He recalls several instances where he had to face insults, verbal abuse and open hostility from passengers. There were times he cried tears of humiliation, but got right back up and continued his work. However, he also remembers incidents where people would go out of their way to help him out, and some of them even got him gifts!
In 2015, when there was a crackdown on fake trusts collecting money in the trains, Desai was taken by RPF to Railway Court along with other hawkers and agents hired by fake trusts.
“I was told that as per the Railway act, I could not collect funds, but when I responded by saying that, ‘I do not plead guilty!’ the judge looked up and recognised me. I told them that I am not a beggar. By definition, a beggar begs for himself, but I am begging for charity, so I will not plead guilty for doing my bit for the sake of education of underprivileged students who deserve it,” says Desai.
The case continues to be on record with hearing dates getting delayed for over 2.5 years now. The Railways Act is in contradiction of the Bombay Public Trust Act which states that a Registered Charitable Trust can collect funds anywhere.
“Today most parents in rural India know that their children will not be able to turn their lives around without English medium education. The sad truth is that none of the smaller English medium schools, including mine, are at equipped to teach English,” he says.
But they have been working hard to train their staff enough to help these children learn, understand and write the language. They continue to move one class up and transform the lives of these rural kids.
“Through all the journeys I have ever taken, there are several people who walk up to me saying when these kids do not speak in Marathi and Hindi why are you teaching them English? I think these are double standards. How many of these people send their kids to regional medium schools?
“If they cannot treat them as their children, the least they can do is treat them on par with them. Why are we blatantly denying equal opportunities to children based on the background he/she comes from? If they want them to have the same opportunities to work at the state, national or international level, they should get the same kind of education. It does not matter whether they work on a farm or an MNC, education is their basic right, and we are bound to help them access it,” he says.
If Prof Sandeep Desai’s story inspired you, get in touch with him at email@example.com, or WhatsApp him at 7045526636 or call him on 09167587739. Support the cause by donating at:
Name of Trust: Shloka Missionaries
Bank: Bank of India
Branch: Goregaon (W), Mumbai
A/c. No.: 002210100040149
IFSC Code : BKID0000022