Meet Sandeep Desai, The Man Who Wants India's Villages To Learn English

16/03/2016 1:44 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST
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Humans of Bombay

Sandeep Desai's voice crackles with laughter as he tries to narrate the events of the first day he actually set out to 'beg' on a Mumbai local. Desai, a former marine engineer and a management professor, had spent the better half of September that year (2010) trying to convince his colleagues to not disown him for what they called an 'outrageous' idea. Then one soupy afternoon, he cajoled his co-trustee Professor Nurul Islam to accompany him to the Goregaon station. Islam had agreed to stand at a distance and watch as Desai tried to convince commuters on a train to contribute money to build English medium schools in villages.

"So I got on to a train with my colleague watching me from a distance. I was carrying a bag and in it, a plastic donation box. I had pasted a label with the name of our trust and a few lines about what we are trying to do on it," says the 65-year-old former professor of SP Jain Institute Of Management and Research.

Four stations passed and the train had reached Santa Cruz, but Desai couldn't even bring the box out of his bag, forget kicking off a speech aimed at unknown, possibly disinterested train passengers. "My colleague then came over and said in a hushed voice that I either do what I intended to, or get off at the next station. I think the ultimatum worked," laughs Desai.

If you watch at this video, it becomes clear that following the rough start, Desai made himself both comfortable and visible in trains full of usually dismissive strangers. "Vidya danam, sreshtha danam (Education is the best gift you can give to someone)," Desai is heard saying, his voice resolutely countering the grating sound of train wheels. That, he said, was learnt from practice.

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Annual day function at the Yavatmal school.

"The first time I spoke, my voice was barely audible above the sound of the train," he tells HuffPost India.

On his first day out, he pooled in nearly Rs 700. "I worked for two-three hours and that's how much I raised," he says. Desai used to be on trains almost daily for six hours a day for two-three years starting 2010. "On days, I would go around talking to people and reaching out to them for 12 hours. These were the times when we needed the essential stuff for building the schools, bricks, cement, labour etc. These would mean shelling out no less than Rs 7-8 lakh at one go," he says.

Six years on, Desai has one school in the drought-hit Yavatmal district in Maharashtra and three in Sipur, Sadakadi and Naijhar villages in Udaipur.

The school in Yavatmal has 180 students till standard two and five teachers. The students in standard two will begin classes in the third standard this year.

The three schools in Udaipur's tribal belt have 310 students in total and seven teachers. These too have classes till second standard now. The school in Yavatmal and one in Udaipur have already received government recognition. "There are certain criteria for government accreditation. For example total school area, classroom space. We are trying to fix those. But I know schools being run in crummy, rented areas which have got government affiliation only because political connections and other such shady deals," he observes.

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A class underway at the Yavatmal school.

The Beginning

Desai's trust, called Shloka Missionaries, was set up in 2001 to provide education to underprivileged children. Under that trust Desai and his co-trustees set up a school in Goregaon (east), a Mumbai suburb, in 2005. The school, Desai says was built in a area that was easily accessible to children from several slums nearby. Over the years, the school acquired nearly 700 children and offered classes upto the eight standard.

However, in 2009, Desai decided to discontinue the school. "That was when the RTE Act was passed and it was made mandatory for private schools to provide admission to underprivileged children for free. Twenty five percent of seats in private schools are supposed to be reserved for poor students and for free," says Desai.

He and his colleagues spent the next few years making sure the students of their school were admitted to four private schools nearby in accordance to the RTE Act. In fact, they had to educate the schools about the RTE Act to compel them to take the students in.

"The parents of these underprivileged students are not aware of their rights and the private schools will never willingly provide education for free," says Desai.

These schools weren't exactly waiting with open arms to take the children in. "Which is when we had to explain to them that if this is brought to the government's notice, they will have to cough up Rs 10,000 a day as fine," he says. The moment that math became clear to the schools, they grudgingly admitted the students from Desai's erstwhile school.

After that, Desai decided to turn his focus on areas which have little access to education, and resultantly no English medium schools. Yavatmal, hit with recurrent droughts and farmer suicides, was the perfect place to start with.

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Sports day at one of the schools.

The challenges

The first, as enumerated in the Humans of Bombay post and widely written about in the past couple of years in the Indian media, were the funds. The corporate bodies, almost 250 of them, either didn't respond to Desai's request to pool in funds. Some wanted to sponsor events like annual function etc but not an entire school. Others had their own corporate social responsibility (CSR) programmes in place and weren't interested in Desai's vision. That is when the idea of reaching out to people on trains hit Desai.

"See, you first need a captive audience for your idea. The corporates turned their backs initially. And I am pretty sure if I landed up at your doorstep, seeking funds for a school you have not heard about, you would have slammed the door on my face. In fact, you wouldn't even listen to what I had to say, as I didn't have anything to sell. That's how people are built and I don't blame them," Desai explains.

So he had to find a place where there were many people and they had no choice but to listen to him. In Mumbai, Desai couldn't think of a better place than trains. "The train passengers have two options. One to listen to me, two, to throw me out," he laughs. Desai says while some people listened to him, asked questions and donated money, some others accused him of being a fraud.

"However, there were always some people who would take my side and shut the others up. Once, I had met these guys - usually referred to as taporis (loafers) in Bombay - on a train. One of them gave me two rupees saying that he would have spent the money on gutkha. And since I am asking for money for education, he was giving it to me," says Desai.

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This boy's friend raised a question Desai has had to face too many times now. "What do you know what he will do with your money?" To which, the other boy responded that he had donated the money for a good cause, whether or not the professor kept his promise was up to him.

He has even been hauled up by the Railway Police Force (RPF) for 'begging', but little incidents like the above, kept him going.

The schools

After the money, getting children from these poor districts to attend a school which sought to teach them English and in English, was a daunting task. And it started with getting teachers appropriate for the job.

"No English speaking graduate from a city can be convinced to move to a village to teach children there. It will like teaching a foreign language. So we had to get locals or people from nearby districts," says Desai. These professionally qualified teachers, products of state board, regional language schools and colleges themselves, weren't well-versed in English themselves. So Desai had to first coach the teachers extensively to even begin the school.

"I cannot say that the results have been fantastic. We have a long way to go. These teachers need a lot of training themselves, which we are trying to provide constantly, so that they can teach the kids."

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The school building at Yavatmal.

Then came the part where they had to convince the families of the children to send them to their school. A mid-day meal, it is in common knowledge, is an huge incentive for poor families to send their children to school. Desai's school is yet to offer such a scheme. When asked about how he dealt with this, Desai says, "You are right. Some of these children go and collect leftover chhaas (buttermilk) from the richer houses and that's the only thing the entire family eats their roti with. Education is not a priority for them, food is," say Desai. "So I had to go to houses to convince them that this will feed their children once, or twice. But a proper education, will help them earn their bread for a lifetime."

However, the drop out rates were very high in the first two years the schools were set up. There is still a steady drop out rate which Desai hopes to fix with a provision of at least one meal. "So instead of a meal, we are trying to provide an evening snack which is nutritious and high on protein to the children. We will go around collecting cereals from whichever houses and willing to donate and buy the rest of the stuff," he says.

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Corporate help

Apart from being a great first step towards fundraising, Desai's move to reach out to people on trains - loosely likened to begging by some - did help garner the attention his project needed. Nearly two years after he started campaigning about his schools on trains, national newspapers and TV channels featured his efforts.

Personal contributions started trickling in too and the corporates, who had initially not shown interest, warmed up to the idea. In 2015-2016 alone, Desai says he has raised Rs 40 lakhs in corporate donations.

Apart from that Desai holds lectures on the subject of public education at corporate summits where people are now willing to hear him out. Several such summits, the former professor says, have resulted in organisations coming forward and donating money.

Desai was even roped in by Arvind Kejriwal to join AAP before the elections in Maharashtra and later asked him to run for the Lok Sabha polls. "I knew that would be a disaster and I declined," he laughs. Though he is not actively involved it is work, Desai still holds an AAP membership.

He has taken a break from 'begging' on trains for the time being, but the 65-year-old promises to go back when he is needed to.

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