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The babus who give, not take

The babus who give, not take

Author: Riddhi Shah
Publication: Hindustan Times
Date: September 2, 2007

Introduction: A Bunch Of Do-Gooders Who Dispel The Stereotype Of The Corrupt Government Official

When Prashant Salunkhe, 37, was promoted to the position of clerk (he used to be a peon) at the University of Mumbai, his first reaction wasn't that of excitement. Instead, he was worried if he'd still be able to make it for the Lanja Rajapur Sanghameswhar Taluka Utkarsh Mandal's annual excursion to Ratnagirihe had to report for his new job right in the middle of the trip. Eventually, Salunkhe managed to do both: he went to Ratnagiri, but cut the trip short to return to Mumbai and then rejoined the mandal for the remainder of the fortnight.

It's a surprising level of commitment by any standards, made even more surprising by the knowledge that the mandal isn't some sort of social networking club, given to organising activity-filled holidays in different parts of Maharashtra. It is a reg istered NGO, comprising mainly of government clerks who collect funds for the 100-odd schools around Ratnagiri. They then spend two weeks of precious leave-time every year, crisscrossing through remote hamlets, towns and villages, distributing supplies bought with the money.

"It all began during a holiday to my village in the Rajapur area when I met a seventh grade student who stood first in the entire taluka. He was planning to quit school because he needed to go back to the tea stall where his family worked. They didn't even have a proper home," says 56year-old Madhukar Pawar, a clerk at Nair Hospital and General Secretary of the organisation.

Thus, 17 years ago, the mandal was born, and all it had to show by way of funds was a small amount Pawar had borrowed from friends. This year, the 60-member group collected an impressive Rs 14 lakh.

Their modus operandi is simple: place an advertisement in local newspapers asking schools to send in their requirements, stay away from politicians trying to get mileage out of the cause, and raise funds from the city's famously indifferent middle-class.
But what really sets the group apart from other NGOs in the state is the earnestness of their efforts - an attribute they put down to the fact that most of the members grew up in the very same schools that the mandal visits today.

"We've also studied in village schools. We know how bad it gets," says 55-year-old Vilas Sawant, a valu ation officer with the Bombay Port Trust. Sawant went back to his old school to distribute uniform material and science textbooks only two years ago - an experience he says he has no words to describe.

Their earnestness comes through in other ways too - when one hears of how group members scour wholesale markets for the best value deals on uniform material and then cut it into squares themselves. Or when Pawar narrates an incident in which a donor fell through at the last minute and he had to convince his wife to sell off her jewellery (finally, a friend put in the money). And when the group talks of the time they waded through rivers and walked several kilometre to get to a school without power. "We've even battled floods and bro ken cars. The children are expecting us, and we just can't bear to break their hearts," says Pawar. "It's like the Pandharpur yatra; you just have to do it every year," pipes in Namdeo Dalvi, a 63-year-old income tax clerk.

Mandal members say that their biggest rewards aren't the press publicity or the compliments about their altruism, but the success stories of children who've made it big. Take the case of Nanda Bapu Gorule, a student from Lanja who stood first in the Secondary School Certificate (SSC) examination in the taluka. The organisation offered to pay for the rest of her education; today she works as an engineer in the Ratnagiri zilla parishad. "We try to offer more help to girl students. Our adoption forms also don't ask for religion or caste," points out Pawar.

As I'm leaving, Pawar and Co make me promise to join them on their next jaunt; I'm non-committal, but as I look around and catch sight of the ragtag bunch of unassuming bureaucrats, chattering away excitedly in the fading evening light, my faith in the city's much-maligned administration is renewed, even if only for a brief moment.


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