She is an expert in Russian language having studied at Moscow University. She was the interpreter where the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi inaugurated the Festival of India in Moscow in 1987. Later, she settled in California; but the strong desire to do something for her country saw her return to Mumbai. She started working in the areas of child education and women's welfare. She conducts balwadis and regular school at Goregaon and Malad which caters to about 1,500 children from the slums. She has also collaborated with the state government's Ministry of Child and Women Welfare to deal with cases of domestic violence and other atrocities on women. Meet Dr Avisha Kulkarni who is doing silent work to promote education among poor children and also to help women in distress. Excerpts from an interview by S Balakrishnan
What made you relocate to India when you were having a successful career in the U.S.?
I was doing quite well for myself in the U.S. But, my heart was in India or more specifically in Mumbai where I grew up. A strong desire to do something meaningful for my city overwhelmed me. I just packed my bags and landed in Mumbai and started work in Goregaon where I live. I reached out to the poor of Bhagat Singh Nagar which was near my house and started interacting with the women and children. The response was huge and I decided to dedicate my life for the underprivileged.
What exactly is the nature of your activities?
I was doing social work in my individual capacity. But later I realised I need an institutional framework to do my work in a systematic way. That’s when I joined a registered and strictly not-for-profit NGO called Desh Seva Samiti. For the past 15 years, I and my team have undertaken several programmes aimed at uplifting the lives of slum children and women. The BMC gave large classrooms in Goregaon and Malad where we conduct classes mainly in English. We have over 40 trained teachers who not only teach as per the syllabus, but also inculcate the values of patriotism and discipline among the children. Seeing our work, the BMC asked us to run its balwadis which we are running successfully through several centres in Goregaon and Malad. We are also active in implementing the Right to Education (RTE) Act.
What has been your experience in the field of Right To Education?
It is an excellent piece of legislation, unfortunately it has been diluted by excluding minority schools from its ambit. Minorities include not only religious minorities, but also linguistic minorities. Even an institution formed by Hindi-speaking persons is considered as a linguistic minority body. A school run by a Parsi has got minority status. Tell me, how many Parsi children are there in Mumbai in the first place? Also, the process of obtaining an income certificate, which is essential to apply for admission under RTE, is very cumbersome. One of the requirements is a letter from the local corporator. Where is the need to get a letter from the local nagarsevak to prove that an applicant-child lives in a particular locality? Isn’t the electricity bill of the parent or ration card not sufficient? There are several such deficiencies which make a mockery of this Act.
The Maharashtra government recently announced the formation of Admission Monitoring Committees to oversee school admissions. Please comment.
At the risk of being termed a cynic, I would like to state that nothing will come out of these committees. Education has become a big business these days and several leading politicians have educational institutions of their own. They charge exorbitant amounts by way of donations at the time of admissions. Do you think they will let these committees interfere with the admission process? I have serious doubts. Unless the education sector is freed of the stranglehold of politicians, I do not see much hope.
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