“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”
― Nelson Mandela
As the train leaves Churchgate station, a deep voice announces in chaste Marathi, “Vidya daan sarva sreshtha daan aahe. (Donation towards education is the greatest donation.)” Standing amid the crush of commuters in the humid second-class compartment, a middle-aged man with a rucksack follows up his opening aphorism with a one-minute speech on how a small donation from commuters could help rescue the poor from the scourge of illiteracy. He proceeds to deliver the same speech in fluent English and Hindi and then extends his donation box.
Professor Sandeep Desai has been following this unusual routine of begging in trains. A marine engineer by profession and an MBA from a leading management institute, he has sailed the world with leading shipping companies and has had extensive experience in Marketing in MNCs. He later switched to teaching at the prestigious S P Jain Institute of Management and Research in Mumbai. Every morning, he boards a Churchgate-bound train from Goregaon and does the grueling commute back and forth between the two stations to collect donations for his half-constructed school at Nanar village in Ratnagiri district. “I do this for six hours daily,” says the Professor.
Desai’s social service began in 1997 when he quit his job and took up other assignments to fund Shloka, a free English-medium school for children from the Goregaon slums. He gathered the initial capital with his savings, and donations from well-wishers. He also generated funds from the numerous workshops he conducted on advertising, management and business communication. “We soon realised that the students were particularly weak in English and Maths, subjects they would need the most when they move on to higher studies,” says Professor Desai.”Even villages with a population of 3,500, 4,000 don’t have a school nearby. The Shloka Missionaries (Public Charitable Trust) that he started in 2001 along with his mother Sudha and a friend, Noorul Islam, runs four schools – including one in Mumbai – where free education is provided for the poor. It aims to build one school each year in rural India.
In 2005, the Shloka Trust set up a primary school for slum children in Iraniwadi, Goregaon, Mumbai. In the first year itself, the school had an impressive turnout of 285 students. “After the first school, we began our second school at Ratnagiri for poor rural children, but the construction got delayed due to a shortage of funds,” he says. Professor Desai was in for a rude shock when he approached corporate houses for funds. “Most of them gave pathetic excuses. There was no place for extending help for such a cause in their minds”. In April 2008, armed with a donation box, he started approaching shopkeepers in Mumbai. “The amount we collected was not much, but the response was great,” he recalled. Emboldened by the success of this venture, he decided to take the next step. He started begging for funds on local trains — the lifeline of Mumbai which ferry millions of passengers every day. “The response has been great. I collect Rs 3000-Rs7000 a day,” says Desai.He used to collect a few hundred rupees when he started this initiative in 2009,but now people know him and donate more.
“In 2011, I was able to collect Rs 27 lakhs. It includes funds that I received through donations, cheques and also from Mumbai locals,” he says. The professor says it isn’t just about money—he actively looks for teaching volunteers as well. “So far 15 people have volunteered,” he says. “The volunteers are free to teach whatever subjects they want, but we insist that they teach for at least 10 hours a month.”
“I usually begin after noon and end by 6 pm. Commuters are usually reluctant to open their purse during peak hours,” he says. Initially he did feel awkward passing his hat around. “The first day I could not even make a speech till the train reached Andheri. But an inner voice told me that I was not begging for myself but for a greater cause that will change the lives of thousands of poor kids across Maharashtra,” he says. At times, some of the kinder passengers offer the professor refreshments — as he tirelessly repeats his well-rehearsed speech to garner funds. Since he is not allowed to enter the ladies’ compartment, a generous female passenger has offered to seek funds on his behalf there.
Desai accepts donations from Re 1 to Rs 1,000 with equal humility. “I go back and do my accounts till the last denomination and deposit the money in the bank account maintained by the trust,” he says. His contributors range from youngsters to senior citizens. “Once, two cops who got into the train to catch hold of some card-playing commuters heard my speech and donated some money. This school, when it comes up, will be a living testimony to the generosity of Mumbai commuters,” he concludes.
Actor Salman Khan was among the many people who came forward to lend a helping hand. The actor tweeted, “Prof Sandeep Desai ka jawab nahi. Kamaal karte ho yaar prof sahib,” The actor has not only donated money for the school but even tweeted the bank account number of the school so that his fans could contribute. “Salman called me up and he took my bank account details. He has told me that he will contribute,” Desai said, adding, “I have been inundated with calls and emails from across the world offering financial aid.”
But, according to Desai, he felt the “biggest” difference when he got into a train on a Monday morning and was about to deliver his one-minute speech in Marathi, Hindi and English on how commuters could help rescue the poor from the scourge of illiteracy. “People recognised me immediately and began donating money even before I began my speech. The response has been overwhelming and I collected Rs 8,200 in just three hours,” Desai said. “I think I can now fulfill the dream of my mother who was a school teacher. She too wanted to start a school in her village,” he added.
In Mumbai, the school they run is housed in a slum rehabilitation building in Goregaon, and caters to children who come to the city from rural areas. Started in 2005, the English medium school provides free education, free books, and free uniforms to the children. After providing them basic education Desai tries to accommodate them in regular schools .The other schools run by the trust are in Omerkhed (Yavatmal dist.), Kankavli (Sindhudurg dist.), and Sipur and Naijahr (Udaipur district in Rajasthan). In June 2013, another school, has been opened in Ratnagiri.
The experience is not without its downside though. The reactions that he receives every day are not always positive. Professor Desai has faced suspicion, ridicule, skepticism and hostility from commuters who refuse to believe his story; he has been accused of collecting the money for his own pocket. That is why the professor now keeps all his documents — pertaining to the Trust, the schools run by it and the funds collected every day — in his rucksack. He also keeps a meticulous account of the amount of funds he collects every day on the trains, right down to the last coin. Desai has to bear with ridicules and the occasional snide remark of a commuter. Once a lawyer challenged his modus operandi of collecting money, held him by collars, and took him to police. He says there is a thin line between begging and soliciting contributions from total strangers for a noble cause. He says that he explains his charitable work to the commuters and gives them his card and then seeks donations. As the good word about his work started spreading, the railway staff and even the police don’t harass him now.
A carefree bachelor married to his social causes, Desai says he had decided early in life that he would not marry. He took care of his father who was afflicted with Alzheimer disease for ten years. He later lost his mother to cancer. He philosophizes that the lord inspires him to do social work and those who contribute to his work have a reason to do that. “I have to speak about my work today; hopefully a time will come when my work will speak for itself,” says Desai.