For me, it’s a dream come true… this place is wonderful, fantastic, unimaginable. Particularly as I have watched in the last two years how hard these Rotarians have struggled against all odds associated with Covid and fundraising, etc to give us this wonderful place… itney chhotey chhotey vichar hei isme… (small details have been taken care of) that the jaali should be such that not even a fly should be able to come into the children’s room. Then there is provision for solar panels… there are boilers, a generator as a back-up, if there is electricity failure, so that the children should not get scared in the dark.”
This ecstasy is expressed by Renu Gavaskar, president of the Pune-based Eklavya Foundation, an NGO that she runs, which is an all-encompassing educational facility for children of sex workers, street children and those who are about to be trafficked or rescued after being trafficked.
Exactly four years ago, in the April 2018 issue of Rotary News (https://rotarynewsonline.org/she-wages-a-war-against-child-trafficking/), the work of Renutai, as she is universally and affectionately called in the social service circles of Maharashtra, helped by members of the Rotary Club of Pune Laxmi Road, RID 3131, was featured as the cover story. It described the passion and dedication with which the members of this club, led by its past presidents, Sadanand Bhagwat and his wife Deepa, were helping her in the challenging task of protecting and saving as many children as she could from being sucked into the black hole of the flesh trade or the world of crime including theft, drug peddling and the like.
The crux of that story was that Renutai was conducting her classes for children from a makeshift corporation facility which was under litigation and could be taken away anytime. “It was a constant sword hanging over her head and we promised to give her a home for her children,” recalls Bhagwat.
Even then he had identified some donors of Indian origin in the US, who were willing to donate funds for the land and the building of a hostel-cum-school, but the funds had to be channelled through a Rotary club in the US to save on taxes. But that scheme got caught up in all kinds of bottlenecks and fell through.
Such small details have been taken care of that the jaali should be such that not even a fly should be able to come into the children’s room.
– Renu Gavaskar
But the determined Rotarians of this Pune club, led by the determined Bhagwats, raised the money required, nearly ₹3 crore, including ₹1.1 crore to buy a plot of 2.5 acres in Kudal, on the border of Maharashtra and Goa, about 85km from Panjim. “We were not able to find anyone to donate the land, so we purchased it at commercial rates, but I brought down the rate by pleading with the seller that this land is being bought for a charitable cause and he came down by ₹20 lakh — from ₹1.3 crore to ₹1.1 crore, but there is much more begging to be done yet, as some more work and facilities are still needed,” smiles Bhagwat. He takes me around the spanking new and sprawling Eklavya Children’s Educational Centre, comprising a boy’s and girls’ hostel with bunker beds, washrooms and toilets, kitchen, dining hall, a study and computer room, a huge multi-purpose auditorium which can be used for training and educational purposes, entertainment and also an indoor play area. In Renutai’s scheme of things, play forms a very important component of childhood.
One glance at the buildings tells you that the best of construction material has been used for this facility, and surely this must be because Bhagwat himself is in the construction business, I comment. He smiles and says, “I was… I have retired and decided that I will use whatever time and experience I have in this field only for such charitable work.” Thanks to his expertise, a structural audit was done of the existing building, which was then strengthened and reinforced with a special roof, and extensions were added. Taking me around a big room, he says, “This room can take in 20 boys; it has an attached toilet, and provision for solar energy.” The facility includes a guest room for parents when they visit, “because we don’t want to send the children out.”
RC Pune Laxmi Road president Ketan Shah slides the windows to show me how they have been designed not to allow into the room lizards, flies or other creepy crawlies. “All children tend to be careless and not shut windows, so lizards can get into the room; these have been so designed to keep out these creatures and yet provide ventilation,” he says. Adds Deepa, “not only lizards, but also snakes can get in. When the work was on here, we found about five or six snakes on the plot.”
While the land cost ₹1.1 crore, the construction and plot development cost ₹1.9 crore in Phase 1 of this project, almost half of which was donated by a philanthropic family who wishes to remain anonymous. “The involvement and passion of the Rotarians who have come for the inauguration, done by RI director Mahesh Kotbagi, is palpable and many of them have done the 8-hour journey in a bus from Pune to share the children’s joy at finding a permanent home. Small wonder then that the club’s charitable trust raised a whopping ₹1.08 crore through donors in India and overseas. “We still have to raise ₹45 lakh to pay the bill of the contractor, who was so gracious that he said I will complete all the work; you can pay me later,” says Bhagwat.
We still have to raise ₹45 lakh to pay the contractor. He was so gracious and said I will complete the work; you can pay me later.
– Sadanand Bhagwat
He explains that as there are frequent power outages in the area — sometimes the power doesn’t come back for 8 days, I am told — the urgent need of this facility was a genset and Bhagwat’s persuasive powers got him ₹7.2 lakh from a Rotarian’s friend, to buy the generator set!
The entire building was virtually built in five-and-a-half months. “We started the work and then there was a month-long lockdown due to Covid.” I understand what Renutai meant about attention to little details when I am shown the space reserved for drying girls’ clothes with the comment…. “girls’ undergarments should not be visible when they are hung out to dry in the open, so we have provided this space.” This very thoughtful gesture to preserve the dignity of the girl child really warms your heart.
Kotbagi complimented Renutai for her selfless service and compassion displayed in changing the lives of so many underprivileged children and said this was an exemplary project done by RC Pune Laxmi Road.
I sit down for a chat with Renutai and the first question is if she will stay in Pune, where the Eklavya headquarter is or Kudal, quite a distance away from Pune. “Well I will be travelling between Pune and Kudal, but will stay here, for the emotional reason that I consider myself a Konkan kanya; my native place is about 20km from here, so in this last phase of my life, I want to do service from my region.”
Talking about the major issues facing today’s children, she says we’re seeing an increasing number of suicides committed by teenagers in India, and when the reason was probed it was found that they felt unwanted, uncared for or unloved. “They come out of class, pull out their mobiles and see there are no missed calls, no messages and feel depressed and unwanted. Our generation did not have that; we knew for sure that we were loved by our parents, our siblings, our families.”
Quoting Bertrand Russell, who had always maintained that a child who has been allowed to play, laugh, run around, scream in joy is a happy child, Renutai links up such children to Tagore’s famous poem on “where the mind is without fear, and the head is held high”, and says: “This is the young India that I dream of.”
Now that this beautiful building has been gifted to her and Eklavya, what is her next plan? “I’ve been in this field for over 40 years, and realise that the opportunities denied to so many of our children, who had a childhood without play or laughter and love, have resulted in a horrible life for them. They feel so helpless; they need both home and education but more important is the home. People like us may not understand the importance of the home but those born without it feel it most acutely. I am thrilled that at last some of these children have got a permanent home from where no one will ask them to go away, where there will be safety, security and mental solace for them.” She admits that this problem is huge but at least one step has been taken and it will go a long way. The beginning is always difficult but once it comes, “you go a long way. I am very much obliged to the Rotarians of RC Pune Laxmi Road and especially Sadanand and Deepa Bhagwat who have helped me so much during the last four years.”
I have worked with such children for 40 years. People like us may not understand the importance of the home but those born without it feel it most acutely.
– Renu Gavaskar
Recalling the cover story in Rotary News, she says after that article in 2018, so many mediapersons picked up this story, and she got a lot of help for her children from “the common man of Pune”.
Though the new facility can accommodate 100 children, Renutai feels that immediately she won’t be able to find so many children in Kudal. A survey will first be done; for eg, corona had made many children orphans… “what about their home, their education, their future? We will try and bring them here; though there may be space for 100 children, we need the resources too for all of them. So we will begin with 20–30 and then gradually and steadily increase the strength.”
The Pune facility of Eklavya will be looked after by one of her own ‘boys’ — Malhari Kamble, who was 10 years old and in Class 4 when she first met him. “He was brought up by the institution, has completed his higher education and now works for Eklavya as both teacher and manager. He has been with the Foundation for 15 years, and is experienced enough to manage our Pune operations.”
Malhari’s story is poignant; his father was an alcoholic and extremely abusive; he had four children and a wife and “out of extreme frustration and a lot of abuse, she left the house for Dubai where she is now working.” Eventually three children came to be under her care. Malhari decided to stay with Eklavya and while pursuing his PG course in Economics, is teaching the younger children math and science.
Once a child told me; “people always give us old clothes. They treat us like a wastepaper basket; I made a promise that day that I will never accept old clothes for my children.
– Renu Gavaskar
Renutai ensures that all the children who are interested in learning are sent for higher education; “they all study at the Vigyan Ashram and the money for their education and living comes from the common man, Rotary and Lions clubs, and individual donors.”
Extremely conscious about protecting the dignity of children, she hasn’t forgotten what a teenager told her once; “people always give us old clothes. They treat us like a wastepaper basket; during Diwali they buy new clothes for their children and give us old clothes. I made a promise then and there that I will never accept old clothes for my children.” Since then all her children have been getting four sets of new clothes every year. We ensure that along with the clothes they also get “dignity and self-respect,” she adds.
Asked how many children she will be able to transfer from Pune to Kudal, Renutai says, “Under the Juvenile Justice Act we cannot take children from one area or region to another and for each and every little thing, we need to get government permission. But sometimes the children are in dire need of immediate and urgent help. That’s why I have had discussion with several government authorities saying that you have to be liberal, please trust me as I have worked for 40 years with children. Sometimes they agree, sometimes they don’t.”
But she is determined that she will help as many children as she can, with or without government help, but without breaking any rules. Giving an example of some urgent situations that need immediate action, she says that in normal circumstances a child from Pune can’t be brought to Kudal, even though both are in Maharashtra, but if there is an extreme case, such as one involving murder, “and if we put a proposal, I am hopeful of getting the required clearance.” She is presently grappling with a case of two young girls who were eye-witness to murder and have been brought to Pune, and urgently need a secure shelter.
She proudly points out that none of the children she shelters and educates have any addiction problems… to drugs, drinking, etc. “I once attended a de-addiction session and was very badly affected by what I saw, returned and made all my children promise me that they will not take tobacco or liquor.” What helped was one of their own voluntary teachers, who had lost her son to alcohol addiction, opening out her heart to them. “They were so deeply affected that they made this promise to me.”
Indirani, Renutai’s 40-year-old daughter, has joined Eklavya and helps with its management; she is the CEO and her mother is the president. Pointing to the huge expanse of land at their Kudal hostel, she says, “We are so fortunate to get this facility; in Pune, for long years we have been struggling to find adequate space for our children. We have never owned any place; we always felt like a dhoom tara… we’ve always aspired for at least a tiny space that we could call our own… and now we’ve got it.”
She is all praise for the “dignity and respect with which the Rotarians from RC Pune Laxmi Road have always treated us and our children. They’ve never ever made us feel that we were accepting charity from anybody.”
Endorsing her views, Renutai says the Rotarians always deal with the children with the utmost affection. “For example, helping us celebrate the children’s birthdays. When he was a child, on his birthday, Malhari, who used to attend other children’s birthday parties, would sit outside, banging away on a drum, light a diya, and a firecracker and wish himself: ‘Happy birthday’. Because there was nobody to celebrate his birthday. But these Rotarians have changed that!”
I chat with a bunch of older kids who have grown up with Renutai, completed their schooling and are now undergoing further education/training at the Vigyan Ashram in Pune. Ganesh Salamtappe, 17, is undergoing training there in rural technology, and operating machine parts, learning welding and electrical wiring etc. He wants to come to the Kudal facility as a faculty member. While Prakash Patole (14) wants to become an engineer, Rekhraj Gautam wants to “study computers”.
Lakshmi Yadav, all of 17, exudes confidence and is all set to shatter gender stereotypes by studying rural technology, and is training to repair machine parts, and learning welding, fitting and fixing electrical appliances. “She is very good at drawing… is multitalented, and a very bright girl, who passed her higher secondary exam with flying colours,” says her mentor.
Chandni speaks with great confidence and is studying biology; she wants to become a doctor, following the footsteps of Sujata, who was looked after by Eklavya and is now a qualified doctor employed by a nursing home in Pune. “She is the daughter of a sex worker, and is now married, but had a very difficult time during marriage because her background was known to the boy’s parents. But she is happy now,” smiles Renutai.
So who is their role model? Two very clear winners emerge — Renutai and Malhari. Says Lakshmi, “Mine is Renutai, because we were nothing, we were mere duds, but she talked to us and made us believe in ourselves… that we could get educated and become somebody in society… and our lives changed for ever!”
Another narrative that comes through is how much the children want to do for their mothers. Most of them saw their mothers, either abandoned or abused by their fathers, struggled to give them food and clothes. Watching the girls, one of them render the invocation at the inaugural event in a mellifluous voice, it is difficult to believe that these girls, at the age of 7 or 8, were employed as domestic servants, and despite the hard labour they put in, were often thrashed by the women employing them, till Renutai rescued them.
But now they have been rescued, and educated, “they want to do something for their mothers, particularly the girls…”
Little Raj sums it up neatly when he says, “Both Renutai and Dada (Malhari) have given us the best of things… from head to toe what we wear, has been given by them. And now she is going to give this beautiful new home to children like us. We owe it to her, Dada and ourselves, to work very hard, study well and make something of our lives.”
It’s an ecstatic Renutai to whom I say goodbye at Kudal: “Life is really beautiful; you heard these children say I have given them so much. But trust me, they have given me back so much more. Some of the most precious moments of my life have come from these children.”
Pictures by Rasheeda Bhagat
We have to stop girls’ early marriage
About the children who will inhabit this beautiful facility in Kudal, Renu Gavaskar says that sex workers’ children in Kudal will be much smaller in number compared to a Pune or Mumbai, but as everywhere, here too, the dice is heavily loaded against the girl child. “Traditionally, when the parents die, the children are accommodated in the larger family, the uncles and aunts take over, so there is much less chance of the girls being trafficked as in a Mumbai or Pune.”
But the girl child continues to be greatly disadvantaged; “even though they accommodate the children, a major hurdle is that the chachi or mausi, at the first available opportunity, wants to get the girl married… so that she is no longer their responsibility. The girl readily agrees because she is too young to know what is good or bad for her. She gets new clothes, a mangalsutra, and a new home, and is excited. But with an early marriage their future is over. The girl gets married at 15, and gets a child at 16, when she is herself a child.”
Making a strong plea for stopping the marriage of teenage girls, Renutai says, “at that tender age she is not prepared, either physically or mentally, to look after the children. And education ends with her marriage.”
So does she welcome the government’s move to increase the age of marriage from 18 to 21? “Yes of course, but even that comes riddled with a problem… between 16, 17, 18 and 21, what will the girls do? This proposed Act, when we study it, comes with its own repercussions and implications. What will these girls do, because there is no money available with the families for the girls’ higher education.”
And hence, at the Kudal centre, Renutai and the Rotarians are planning several skilling and training courses to ensure that the girls who have completed high school get vocational training which can get them economic empowerment.
Renutai, who has closely studied and grappled with the issues confronting teenage Indian girls for 40 long years, says these girls face various problems and dilemmas, depending on their cultural, communal and family background. “Now take the hijab controversy and the girl (Muskan) who loudly chanted Allahu Akbar and insisted she will wear the hijab. Why? Because she wants an identity and feels insecure and unprotected without the hijab.”
She adds that whether it is the hijab of Muslim girls or the ghunghat adorned by thousands of Rajasthani women even today, it is all done for an identity or tradition. Hitting the nail on the head, this social reformer says that what matters is not that a girl wears a hijab or a ghunghat; “the important thing is that she has to be educated, feel loved and respected.”