The Professor Who Caught Salman Khan’s Attention

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When you first come across Professor Sandeep Desai, there doesn’t appear to be a hint of weariness or an air of insincerity around him. He welcomes us with a warm smile into a bright, airy apartment which was once a school until 2013. “One thing that we noticed that the schools under the government’s management have enough ways and means to provide primary English education to the underprivileged children. That was when we decided that if the government implements the Right to Education Act, the children from rural areas will not be placed anywhere because there are no schools and we will run these schools. The place where we’re sitting right now was one of those schools starting from 2005”, he smiles.

“The whole effort is based on the premise that the public will support it although that was not the case initially. Charity means that it is heartfelt and without any attachment. We were able to raise funds earlier by conducting workshops but that cannot be counted as charity. We started setting up rural schools in 2010 by getting the citizens to contribute and not through internal transfer of funds to the trust”, asserts Sandeep.

School in Udaipur

Talking about the schools he’s setting up, he says, “We have one school in Rajasthan under construction which we’re finishing by May, this year and one which is coming up in Yavatmal. It’s not a very good number considering how big a task at hand it is. If I can do it in one place, then I’m sure 500 people can do it in five hundred different places!” Brushing off his newfound popularity on social media, he laughs it off by saying, “There’s a stark difference between “liking” a post on Facebook and actually fishing into your pocket and donating a sum. Charity is then and now. There are people who felt for the cause at that moment but backing it up with actual funds is a big thing. You don’t need deep pockets but a large heart for charity. If anyone sees the response on the post, they’ll be led to believe that I’m minting money for the trust”, he guffaws.

When we prod him on the fondness Bollywood star, Salman Khan has taken to his cause, Sandeep quips, “Salman is already doing a lot in terms of charity. His foundation has been bearing expenses of heart surgery patients anywhere between the ages of 2-14 years and cannot afford to foot the bills. So it’s a big thing that he’s been so charitable.” One more thing that Salman and him have in common apart from their philanthropic nature is their brush with the legal system.

A court case was filed against Sandeep alleging that he was causing nuisance on the train while propagating his cause in May 2015. “The Act says that you cannot conduct monetary transactions on the railway premises which we weren’t doing in any case. What’s the worst that can happen? We’d get convicted and that will be news. Any publicity is good publicity and that’s how I look at it”, he retorts. On asking him if it affects the prospective donors pouring in, he says, “Not at all! In fact, there are people who shut people up if they speak against me. Everyone is going to face trouble when they collect money in a public place. Sometimes people say negative things out of sheer jealousy or loathing. Its more psychological than anything else; ‘How can someone walk into a compartment, say something and collect money?’, he echoes the thought.

“Being humble is one thing and being criminally man-handled is a completely different ball game”, he asserts. So has the road become smoother, we ask. “Actually, if my target was just 2 schools, my struggle would have been easier. In fact, I’m planning to approach IIT’s and IIM’s to get the passing batch to donate funds so we can set up one school with the monies collected from one batch. Look at the things our politicians are bickering about! You don’t have to say ‘Jai Hind’ and ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’ to prove your patriotism. Prove it by making a change in the system of the nation. The whole point of doing this is to make people a part of my vision.”, he implies. As much as his reputation for being a popular figure precedes him, he makes quite the statement with his words. “If every MP had to contribute a crore, we’d have 540 schools by now. There’s absolutely no shortage of manpower. Why are Indians all over the world? It is because they speak English. You cannot go to Ireland and say that you’re going to converse in Marathi. English language IS the need of the time. My purpose is to provide equal opportunities to children in rural areas as much as children in the cities are exposed to”, he shoots.

“Arvind Kejriwal got in touch with me because of the attention I grabbed in the media. He was on the lookout for people who were doing something different and wanted me to contest for the Lok Sabha elections which I turned down simply because I did not want to put an end to my cause by rubbing other existing political sects the wrong way”, he hypothesizes about his association with the Aam Aadmi Party and his stint in politics in 2014. “The most touching moment was when a parent in Ratnagiri told a television channel that I’m as good as God for them. So if I, who simply provided the education could be called God, what should each person who donated be referred to as?”, he philosophised.

Towards the end of our conversation, we asked him if he taught students that are a part of this cause, he nonchalantly says, “Oh! I have no patience with little children. They may hate me if I teach them.” And what happens to his project which is his hard work’s fruit? “My cats may probably take over from me”, he laughs. “On a more serious note, we will look into that in the next couple of years”, he signs off.