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'Our mission is to set up a school every year in backward areas'

Last updated on: December 21, 2010 15:21 IST

The professor who begs for his students


Sanchari Bhattacharya
In our special year-end section, looks at people who wrote the India story this year.

Professor Sandeep Desai divides his time between running two schools -- one for slum children in Mumbai and the other in rural Maharashtra. To achieve his goal of setting up one school every year in a backward area, he collects donations from commuters in Mumbai's local trains.

Sanchari Bhattacharya meets a unique teacher.

In the last three months, Professor Sandeep Desai has been on the front page of a national daily, has been featured in a popular magazine and has received a personal endorsement from actor Salman Khan.

The neatly dressed professor made several heads turn earlier this year when he got on a crowded train compartment, clutching a donation box under his arm, and started begging for funds to complete the construction of a primary school in Zadgaon in Ratnagiri district in Maharashtra.

He appreciates the overwhelming appreciation and goodwill that he has encountered after the media, and Salman Khan via his twitter page, made him an instantly recognisable figure. But Professor Desai had a sincere request when met him for an interview: "Please understand that the mission is more important. Please focus on our mission in your story, not me".

Image: Professor Sandeep Desai on his noble mission
Photographs: Sanjay Sawant/

'I decided to try management principles in the real world'

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The mission that he speaks of is ambitious in scope and commendable in nature; but tougher in implementation.

The Shloka Missionaries Public Charitable Trust -- spearheaded by Professor Desai and his friend Professor Nurul Islam -- aims to build one school each year in rural India.

In 1998, Desai, a former marine engineer, gave up his cushy job as a professor in a prestigious B-school. He explains, "I was very impressed with the way principles of management could be applied successfully in a social set-up. So I decided to try them out in the real world, towards a non-profitable goal."

The trust started its quest by working with eight schools in the rural areas of Ratnagiri district in Maharashtra. "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.

Image: Professor Sandeep Desai collects donation on a Mumbai suburban train
Photographs: Sanjay Sawant/
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The goal is to set up one school in a backward area each year

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Appalled by the sorry state of education in rural India and the apathy of the government, the Trust decided to take on the formidable task of setting up one primary school every year in backward areas that needed an educational institution the most.

"Even villages with a population of 3,500, 4,000 (people) don't have a school nearby. The government doesn't seem to care. Look at the state of the schools in the cities; they demand such huge fees for imparting education," he says.

In 2005, the Shloka Trust set up a primary school for slum children in Iraniwadi, Goregaon, northwest Mumbai. In the first year itself, the school had an impressive turnout of 285 students.

Though he is a strong believer in the adage that "If you do something good, resources will come automatically," 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 our organisation in their minds".

Video: Prasanna D Zore/

Image: Corporates have not been forthcoming with donations for the cause
Photographs: Prasanna D Zore/
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'The common man should get involved'

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When the shortage of funds threatened to cast a dampener on his mission, Professor Desai took the bold decision of seeking funds from the common man.

He justified his hitherto unheard of strategy to raise funds, "What we are doing is a mass movement. We are doing something for the society; so the society or the common man should get involved, should contribute in his own way."

In spite of facing scepticism from some of his friends and well wishers, Professor Desai went ahead with his plans anyway. In April this year, 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.

Image: Professor Desai with school students in Iraniwadi, Mumbai
Photographs: Sanjay Sawant/
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'I will not get off this train'

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The people of Mumbai, often berated for their indifference towards the less privileged, reciprocated generously. They not only contributed handsomely -- the trust has collected hundreds of thousands of rupees since Professor Desai started seeking funds in April -- but also flooded him with offers of help for his mission.

Professor Desai spends almost six hours daily in the crowded train compartments, with his donation box and a rucksack over his shoulders, containing all the relevant papers about his Trust and the school it is seeking to build.

"People put in anything between Rs 2 and Rs 1,000 in that box. Lots of people come and talk to me. They ask if they can come and work as volunteers; they ask me if they can help set up a school."

At times, some of the kinder passengers offer the professor -- as he tirelessly repeats his well-rehearsed speech to garner funds -- refreshments and a little something to eat. Since he is not allowed to get on the ladies' compartment, a generous female passenger has offered to seek funds on his behalf there.

But the reactions that he receives every day are not always positive. Professor Desai has faced suspicion, ridicule, scepticism 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.

He recalls an unsavoury incident when a ticket checker ordered him to get off the train. The polite but firm professor told him, 'You can do what you want; you can take me to court. But I am just doing my job, and I will not get off this train.'

The professor prefers to brush off such incidents, choosing to elaborate on instances when complete strangers have surprised him with their warmth and generosity.

"A group of boys was travelling in the same compartment once; and one of them put some money in my box. I heard his friend asking him, 'How do you know that man is honest?', and the boy replied, 'I can't be sure of that. If that man is honest, he will put the money to good use. If not, he will put it in his own pocket. But I have donated the money for vidya daan (imparting education) and I have done the right thing."

Image: The donation box that Professor Desai carries with him on the train
Photographs: Sanjay Sawant/
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'What I am doing is right'

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During an unpleasant encounter with a suspicious man, who queried why the professor's visiting card didn't mention a cell phone number, a fellow passenger had interrupted, 'Maybe he doesn't have a mobile phone. Why don't you buy him one?'

Support for his cause also came from an absolutely unexpected quarter. After reading about Professor Desai's unique initiative, superstar Salman Khan called to offer financial help.

"I was so taken aback when he said 'This is Salman speaking', I actually asked him, 'Who Salman?'," recalls the bemused professor, and adds that the actor has pledged to donate enough money to set up one school every year.

The professor hopes that with Khan's help they will actually be able to set up two schools every year.

At times when the going does get rough, when he is challenged or quetsioned by passengers or sometimes by unkind railway personnel, Professor Desai's faith in the integrity of his mission keeps him from reacting.

"The way I see it, let people say what they want to say. The Lord is on my side and what I am doing is right."

Readers who would like to help Professor Sandeep Desai, can do so at:

Shloka Missionaries
Bank of India
Goregaon West Branch
Account No: 002210100040149

Image: Professor Desai with teachers of the Iraniwadi school
Photographs: Sanjay Sawant/
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