She wages a war against child trafficking This woman has taken on the mantle of saving as many girl children as she can from prostitution, and boys from child labour, in Pune. For this she needs both raw courage and compassion… qualities she has aplenty.

In the corridor of a modest building, which has now been covered nicely with a decent roof thanks to the largess of a Rotarian in Pune, Renu Gavaskar, famous in Pune as Renutai, is interacting with her 50-odd children. What she is doing for them restores your faith in humanity. These bright-eyed, intelligent, vivacious children, both boys and girls in the age group 4 to 11 have virtually being rescued from a life of extreme trauma, violence and imminent danger of being trafficked and sucked into the flesh trade.

Rtn Sadanand Bhagwat and Deepa Bhagwat (far right) with the children at Renutai’s home-cum-school in Pune.
Rtn Sadanand Bhagwat and Deepa Bhagwat (far right) with the children at Renutai’s home-cum-school in Pune.

They are the children of sex workers from the Budhwar Peth red light area of Pune, estimated to have several thousand sex workers, and Renutai, a social worker of not only great grit and determination but also incredible tenderness and compassion, is singlehandedly responsible for getting them out of that environment of violence and fear and into her magic circle of love and caring. Thanks to the Ekalavya Trust started by her, the children go to a private school, get additional lessons in her little home-school, where there is not only singing and dancing and smiles, but also dreams.

The freshly scrubbed faces that greet me warmly are all excited and curious about the visitor. “They are going to ask me so many questions about you after you leave,” smiles Renutai, adding, “and I will tell them that if they study well and work hard they can also become like you!”

You can see the repercussions of these children being without somebody to protect them. The dreams are different; while other children want to be successful, these children want to overcome their suffering.

Rotary connect

Renutai’s connection with RC Pune Laxmi Road, D 3131, began four years ago when its former president Sadanand Bhagwat heard her speak at his club president’s installation meet. “I felt we should visit her school and work with her; we did that and found there was so much to be done,” he says.

Renutai runs two units; one housing children from Budhwar Peth and the other has 60-odd street children.

When he met her, the stories she had to relate shocked him. And once, while expecting some guests, an 8-year-old child asked her: “Ajji (Dadi), your friends are coming to meet you, but why aren’t you dressed in a red saree and not wearing lipstick. When my mother’s friends visit, she always wears a red saree and lipstick.”

At another time, at Renutai’s little home-come-school for these children, he was talking to an 8-year-old boy “and told him I am going to have a cup of tea, will you have milk? And he said: ‘No, I will have a beer.’ So I asked him how do you know beer. And he said my mother’s friends often give me ₹100 or 150 and ask me to get beer from the shop opposite our house. But they drink half and leave the rest and because it will go waste, I drink it.”

In Budhwar Peth I saw women who were standing and standing and waiting… just for a man, because the next meal for her and her child will come from him.

But what is even more heartbreaking is what Deepa Bhagwat, his wife, also a former president of the same club, relates. Very often, as there is no other place, children remain under the bed while their mothers are with their clients.

But the scene before me… filled with happy, chirpy kids who are assembled in the make-shift classroom — actually a corridor which has been given a nice roof by Bhagwat, who is in the construction business… lifts the spirit. “It cost less than ₹1 lakh,” he smiles, adding, “We did it because the children were spending a lot of time in the open corridor, exposed to the elements, sun and rain. So we first put the roof four years ago, and yesterday renovated it again.”

Renutai at a fun session with the children.
Renutai at a fun session with the children.

His club soon got involved and next, the flooring in the kitchen was changed and a platform provided. The children soon got from the Rotarians school uniforms, study material, notebooks, school bags and then desks. “They sit on the floor, and have to bend down to write. Imagine what it does to their backs. And I believe that one whose back is bent, has a bent mind too, and one with a bent mind can never stand straight, says Bhagwat, spelling out his quaint philosophy!

The children were extremely happy, because they thought “hamey bhi kuch milta hei (we also get something).” Then came the question of celebrating birthdays. They’ve found from their schools that in other homes the parents celebrate their children’s birthdays, but they had never experienced that. So now the Rotarians celebrate Renutai’s children’s birthdays by cutting a cake and presenting the child a new dress!


Dreams galore

In an interaction that is great fun, the children share their dreams, but these do have boundaries. Little Tarun, a Class 4 student, articulates the most common aspiration of most of the boys, and some girls too — he wants to join the police force. So does Saloni. When asked why, she says simply, “To get justice for the people”. Elaborates Renutai, “In their worldview, the police not only beat up people but is also corrupt; they take money and round up innocent people, so she wants to help such people and get them justice.”

My husband made me give up my job to work for society. He’d tell me to read books and work for those who don’t get love and affection.

If she becomes a policewoman and gets a good job, will she pull her mother out of this area, I ask her gently. “I will first get a good house, and put my family together (her brothers and sisters are separated, though one sister, Manisha, is also here). My two brothers are working in a garage, but in my house all of us will be together,” she says cheerfully. Mercifully, the siblings do get together and the mothers regularly visit the children.

The girls, I find, are much more forthcoming in sharing their plans about the future and rescuing their mothers from their present plight. The boys want it too, but maintain a stoic exterior and don’t articulate this. Anuradha, on the other hand, doesn’t flinch when asked what she wants to do for her mother. “She is suffering and is very sad. And I won’t allow her to do whatever she is doing now because she is very unhappy. I will get her out of here when I become a nurse and get a good job,” she says.

Quite a few want to become film heroes! “My favourite hero is Salman Khan,” Rohan smiles. Rajendra, who is a great dancer, wants to become like Salman too. Renutai is quick to add, “But the older boys here don’t like Salman because they think he has committed a crime.”

Pune has a heart and has given me everything. Once the people are convinced that you are sincere, they give in abundance. I never asked these Rotarians to give me anything. They themselves approached me.

Some of the other boys want to become Superman. As the chorus of “police” continues, Renutai says, “There is a special dimension here; they and their mothers have been so much harassed by the police that they want to protect themselves, and the hero does the same.” Lakshmi, Anuradha’s younger sister, wants to become a soldier. “She feels that’s the only way to protect the country, the community and rescue her mother. You can see the repercussions of these children being without somebody to protect them and provide for them. The dreams are different; while other children want to be successful and happy, these children want to overcome their suffering,” she sighs.


Child trafficking

The primary motive behind Renutai’s passion and devotion towards these children, and her determination to return their childhood to them, is to prevent child trafficking to the extent she can. She has no doubt that if left there, almost all the girls will end up being trafficked. “and don’t think the boys are safe. Look at Rohan, he is so handsome, and he knows that too! But he is at great danger too.”

From paedophiles, I ask, my heart sinking. “Not so much that, as being groomed to trap women into love marriages and lure them to the red light area from where escape is impossible,” says Renutai. She then relates the heartbreaking story of a nine-year-old girl she had rescued, but who was sold by her mother, “who was in debt, without our knowledge. She was a beautiful girl, we tried so hard but she just disappeared. When we approached the middleman trying to get her back, one of them said: ‘Aap itna dukh kyo karti ho, woh ab Bangalore ki khidki mei hei, yaha nahi (Why are you so sad; she is now in the Bangalore trade).’ That was some 15 years ago during the beginning of my work. And then I understood that every girl has to be protected. As boys too; to be fair and beautiful/handsome is a curse in this place.”

Learning from a teacher at the residential home.
Learning from a teacher at the residential home.

Boys, she adds, apart from being used to trap girls into marriage and bring them into the flesh trade, are also used for child labour, fetching food, daru and other work. “The child is happy because food is his necessity, education is not, and child labour is so much cheaper.”


Plight of street children

In her other facility, she has rescued 62 street children and put them in schools. “But I know there are another 62,000 boys who’ve come from villages and are staying on the pavements. I’ve told myself thus far and no more… jitna ho sakey utna karo (do what you can.) My daughter Gowri,who is with me, will carry on my work, I know.”

So what happens to the remaining street children?

“They go into crime… those living on the streets can commit robbery, murder or get into the prostitution racket. They go into crime because there is no alternative; they take drugs… so who will give them jobs? On the Pune railway station, you’ll see so many children roaming around. They know us by face, and run away when they see us because they don’t want to come here. They feel imprisoned, and who will give them drugs? They are happy with the vada pao they get by begging.”

She feels unless there is a herculean effort from the government, “these children cannot be rescued, and will continue to be trafficked or end up in criminal activities.”

Every girl has to be protected, and boys too; to be fair and beautiful or handsome is a curse in this place.

So what percentage of girls does she estimate ending up doing their mother’s job?

Directly, a very small one, she says, “because the mothers don’t want their daughter to enter this hell.” But the girls get married… it’s a love marriage mostly, but “what happens to them we don’t know. Because some of the men they marry… mahol toh wahi hei na… are already married, and ultimately abandon them. They often return with a child.”

Asked if the children’s fathers visit them, Renutai says some do, “but often it’s a false identity. The children accept somebody the mother brings; he leaves and some other man comes but they will accept him too because there is so much violence in their lives that they need a male member to protect them… they witness this violence daily, sometimes, tragically, from under the mother’s bed.”

Small wonder then, that having seen their mothers being subjected to cruelty so often, these children regard women as the weaker sex.


Pictures by Rasheeda Bhagat

Renu’s story

Renu Gavaskar had an unhappy childhood as her mother suffered from Parkinson’s disease when she was only 13, and “she died when I was 25. We lived in Mumbai and those 12 years were terrible. My father was very disturbed, and four months before her death, he died of cancer. So my childhood was marked by grief and unhappiness.”


A postgraduate in Philosophy, she got a job in Saraswat Bank through direct recruitment as an officer. She was “fortunate to marry Narayan Gavaskar, a true feminist who encouraged me to go out and work for the good of society. He believed that women should have total freedom and I am indebted to him for all the good things that happened in my life. He showed me the path to every good thing I’ve done .”

He also believed that only one partner should work and encouraged her to resign, “read all the time and go out and help people”. But her married life ended in just 11 years; he died of cardiac arrest at 42, leaving the 34-year-old Renu with two young children — 7 and 9.

But he had sown in her the seed to work for society; “he’d tell me read books and work for those who don’t get love and affection.” Over 20 years ago, she decided to move from Mumbai to Pune.

Asked why, she smiles and says, “Mumbai is cosmopolitan and huge and to find a place to do such work is more difficult, as is raising funds. Pune has a heart and has given me everything. Once the people are convinced that you are sincere, they give in abundance. I never asked these Rotarians to give me anything. They themselves approached me… that is the greatness of the way social and community work is done in Pune. They don’t make you beg.”

In Pune, Renu met Vijaya Lavate, an eminent social worker who has passed on. “She took me to Budhwar Peth to take care of a child with a fracture and a new world opened up to me. Of women who are standing and standing and waiting… just for a man, because the next meal for her and her child/children will come from him.”

She slowly connected with the children and their mothers in this area. “A kind builder gave me this place saying it is entangled in some legal hassles and no one is occupying it. I am sure you’ll make gold out of it, and this is our 11th year!”

In the beginning, some of the goondas harassed her because they found their next generation slipping through their fingers, but seeing her sincere work, she has got support from some policemen and politicians too.

She would visit the area with her daughter Gowri and talk to the mothers and “they were happy to allow me to remove their children from there. I have tried to preserve the childhood of these children… they play, sing and dance, and live here.” All of them go to the Adarsh Vidyalaya, a private school and their fees are paid by the alumni.

Additional teaching is done at her place and the Rotarians too help out, particularly with math and English. And Bhagwat’s sister Varsha Bhave, a renowned singer in Maharashtra, teaches them music.

Looking for a partner Rotary club in US

The residential home where 50-odd children get additional schooling, run by the Ekalavya Trust in Pune, now operates out of a Pune Municipal Corporation building that is caught up in some legal dispute as the contractor delayed construction. The case is pending for 20-odd years. After Renutai started her venture to prevent child trafficking, 11 years ago, the builder told her, “Anyway this building is lying unutilised, so why don’t you use it till the court decision comes.”

Deepa and Sadanand Bhagwat with the children.
Deepa and Sadanand Bhagwat with the children.

Now the dates for the case have been given and a judgement is expected. “We thought if this building goes back to the Corporation, these children will return to the same hell. So we are trying to give them a permanent place and have the commitment from NRI donors — Sudha Mahurkar and her 3 daughters — in the US, who are my clients, for ₹4 crore. The funds are ready to construct a good 7,000 sq ft facility for these children within a year,” says Sadanand Bhagwat, former president of RC Pune Laxmi Road.

But the donors’ requirement, to save on tax, is to donate this amount from their Trust in the US through a voluntary organisation based there. This can be done if a US Rotary club agrees to accept this money and then do a sort of joint project with the Rotarians in Pune, to ensure these rescued children get proper education and a decent livelihood.

Bhagwat says he has identified a 15,000 sq ft plot near SUS, on the outskirts of Pune city, and here a hostel for the older girls can be built. But the Rotarians are also committed to taking care of the 60-odd street children who now reside in Pune behind KEM Hospital, also run by Renutai.

He has also identified a plot of about 6,000 sq ft to put up a building for these children in Ambagaon, on the outskirts of Pune. “So these, and even other possibilities are there, but we have not yet managed to identify a partner club in the US, as the amount involved is rather big — around $600,000. The moment we find a partner club in the US, these children can be saved from an uncertain future,” adds Bhagwat.

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