True News|Apr 15, 2006 1:21 PM| by:

The Redoubtable Babus of Mumbai

Here’s an example of how the meek might inherit India. Here too, is an insight into what really makes India tick, keeping hope alive amidst unrelieved chaos and selfishness. A small bunch of office clerks, typists and receptionists in Mumbai have found themselves a mission. During work hours they were viewed as rulers of ossified interiors of government offices. After work, they seemed to have no relevance.

A chance offered itself 15 years ago to shrug off their ghost like existence in the big city. They grabbed it to become people who matter, instead of people seen-if at all-as hurdles. Every year they visit the Konkan coast bearing goods and support for hundreds of schools. The rest of the year, they work to plan for that visit.

They are babus transformed into guardian angels of Ratnagiri’s poor school-children. They run the Lanja Rajapur Sanghameshwar Taluka Utkarsha Mandal or ‘Association for the Uplift of Lanja, Rajapur and Sangameshwar Counties’.

How Green-and Grim-the Valley

A vast district in southern Maharashtra, Ratnagiri is for the most part green and pretty. But despite abundant annual rains, its intrinsically agricultural community faces an unobvious sort of poverty due to recurrent droughts.

Education though esteemed, is elusive. Majority of schools are located many miles away from scattered homes, past steep hillocks and streams that overflow in the rains; it’s a daily trek that many children make without shoes, umbrellas or school uniforms.

Almost none of the schools have furniture; classes are held on the floor with as many as five different grades handled simultaneously by a single teacher in one classroom. And for this service, there are fees to pay which though modest, are still beyond the means of most parents. Thus it is, that it’s hard to keep children in the 1500 or so schools of Ratnagiri’stalukas. Most students drop out of school by class 7 or 8, to become farm hands or industrial apprentices in nearby towns.

Clerical Energy

By 1990 Madhukar Krishnaji Pawar had already been a clerk for 15 years in Mumbai’s government-run Nair Hospital. That’s long enough time, you might say, for one in a secure job, to forget his early days of deprivation in Lanja taluka of Ratnagiri district. But Pawar, a man in his fifties, with a professorial demeanour had been silently restless in Mumbai, while searching for a way to express his gratitude for having made it after a fashion. A chance meeting, during a visit home that year, gave him a lead: he ran into a bright boy who had dropped out of school for a trifling reason. Then he met a few more similar boys and then some more.

Back in Mumbai, he found it hard to keep pushing his pen. When he shared his impressions with a few Ratnagiri natives, a response to the problem seemed within their reach. Fellow hospital clerks, Pradeep Salunke and Ganpat Devrookhar and two clerks from the Mumbai Port Trust, Vijay Chavan and Dilip Chachad and Pawar himself, huddled around the problem. Yes, we must do something for the place we came from. But where do we start?

They decided to ask how they might help. They wrote to a few headmasters.

15 Years on the Road

The response was immediate and grateful; headmasters asked for notebooks, furniture, school uniforms and scholarships for bright students. It was only then that they turned to money issues.

A cloth merchant donated textile for 500 sets of uniforms. They began to collect partly used stationery. The rest of the requisitioned items had to be bought. Pawar took a loan for Rs.15,000. Let us pause a moment to applaud a clerk who borrowed to give and so founded a mission. They hired a van and travelled for a week to rural schools in Lanja taluka. There at simple meetings, they distributed their collection. And returned home fulfilled.

That pattern has barely changed in the last 15 years, though everything has grown and become organised. Within three years, what began in Lanja taluka, extended to Sangameshwar and Rajapur talukas. They began to communicate through advertisements in local papers as the response grew steadily. In 1994, the Lanja Rajapur Sanghameshwar Taluka Utkarsha Mandal was formed as a charitable trust. Today with some 50 busy, salaried clerks as members, the Trust runs an operation spanning 3 counties, hundreds of schools and children, calling for an average annual budget between Rs 500,000 and Rs 900,000.

Regular as the Monsoons

The Mandal’s two main activities are to provide materials and supplies to schools and children, and to find sponsors willing to adopt promising children’s continued education. The exercise begins a couple of months before every monsoon. In March-April headmasters respond to the Mandal’s advertisements in their local dailies and send in their requisitions mostly stationery, basic furniture, clothing, shoes, school bags etc. Trivially priced for most of us but unaffordable for thousands of rural children.

After sifting through hundreds of responses, members prepare a master shopping list. It’s a rule they have that only the best will do; no cheap goods just because the children are poor and in the countryside. They shop for best value deals.

The Mandal began its adoption programme in 1996. Under it, promising students are selected based on their needs, diligence and potential to benefit from the programme. Teachers and headmasters endorse applicants and during annual visits, Mandal members personally interview short listed candidates. Detailed files are prepared on each and sent to donors.

Mandal’s criteria for selection and terms of offer are noteworthy. The application form asks for no details of caste or religion. What they ask in return for support is that the student maintains a minimum of 90% attendance and passes all exams, every term; there is no pressure to top the class or score high.

If these two requirements are not met the Mandal withdraws all support to the school. These conditions motivate teachers, headmaster and the whole village community to monitor and support the child, lest the whole school should forfeit assistance. The support funds are deposited in a local bank account jointly operated by the headmaster and the student.

So Affordable for Us

It costs a mere Rs 2,000 per year to support a child’s entire education. To take a child from early education, through to a three-year bachelor’s degree in college it costs but Rs 30,000 spread over ten years. The Mandal has never approached the government for help, because it works on the basis of caste. Supporters have not been lacking. Early donors were Mandal members. Soon doctors in Nair Hospital where many Mandal members are clerks, adopted several children. Others followed. As of date, the Mandal has arranged totally supported education of 171 children, 91 of them girls.

Most of the Rs 500,000 they raise annually for purchases come from members’ own contributions and their friends’. They never run active campaigns or approach any firms. Pawar firmly believes the middle-classes must take to philanthropy. “There is a belief in India that philanthropy is for the rich,” he says. “We want to show that everyone can afford it.”

His faith has not been belied. Most of the funds are from faces in the street, offices and trains.

Once every two years, they stage a Marathi play as a fund-raiser, the proceeds from which are considerable. They bring out a souvenir volume on the occasion, featuring articles by members, teachers and beneficiary students. Details of Mandal’s activities are included.

Whenever there is a short-fall, a member takes a personal loan for a year, to be repaid from Mandal’s proceeds next year; this goes on by rotation. “There is no lack of money for good causes,” says Pawar.

In Delivery Mode

When the shopping has been done, it’s time to plan the trip to deliver the goods to the schools. The Mandal has a well ordered structure. Besides the President, 3 VPs and a General Secretary [Pawar], there is an Executive Committee of 19 members. No one is ever paid anything, not even incidental expenses. The Mandal has zero-overheads. What they raise equals what they give. All incidental expenses are picked up by member subscriptions.

The annual trip by a hired van, costs about Rs 20,000 contributed by Committee members whether or not they make the trip. Several of them make the week-long trip, often foregoing pay at work.

June: the monsoons have arrived in Mumbai and the west coast. It’s time too for the Mandal’s annual date with Ratnagiri’s rural children. Local dailies would have announced the babus’ schedule; country schools await them, having arranged a series of little ceremonies.

The Mandal van slugs from village to village on rain soaked roads. Often narrow roads turn into streams and streams become impassable bodies of water. Getting to some schools means parking their vehicle up to 3 kms away, trekking up hills and wading through knee-deep water.

What pushes them along are memories of earlier meetings where eager faces awaited them; of successes they have wrought. In 15 years they have touched and assisted 650 schools; helped create 27 graduates, including an engineer. Many more under support, are still young but will one day realise their potential.

These little known clerks know ways to make some rural dreams come true. So they keep their dates. They arrive as regular as the monsoons. They have done so for fifteen years now. Even as you read this, they are getting ready for this year’s tryst.

(This article was taken from GoodNewsIndia is dedicated to little known stories of positive action and is published by D. V. Sridharan)

Lanja Rajapur Sangameshwar Taluka Utkarsha Mandal
9/5, Arya Nagar
Tardeo, Mumbai- 400034
Phones: 022-24964032;24940287;24961282;
Gen. Secretary: Madhukar K Pawar [Mobile:0-98694 28469]
email: [email protected]