Walking home from school in a small town in West Bengal, a nine-year-old boy saw some of his friends work as rag-pickers. The thought that his companions were unable to study like him because they were poor so agonised the young Babar Ali that he decided to do something about it and bring school to those who could not afford it.
Determined to share his education as a fifth grader at a state-run school at Beldanga town in Murshidabad district, about 200 km north of Kolkata, he turned teacher to his poor friends in the backyard of his own home. With a dream to make India's children have access to quality education despite their economic backgrounds, he has been, over these many years, a silent crusader imparting education to hundreds of poverty-stricken child labourers in the state.
"I couldn't tolerate my friends picking garbage while I attended school. So I asked them to join me in the roofless backyard of my home, so I could teach them how to read and write," Babar, now a 25-year-old youth, recalled to IANS in an interview.
That backyard became Babar's school, Ananda Siksha Niketan (meaning Home for Joyful Learning), in 2002, making him possibly the world's youngest headmaster.
"My school began with a total of eight students, including my five-year-old younger sister Amina Khatun. We sat together under a guava tree for three hours every afternoon learning to read, so that the children who worked as rag-pickers or 'beedi' (handrolled cigarettes made of unprocessed tobacco) rollers could continue to work in the mornings," recalled Babar.
With a population of about eight million, Murshidabad district has a large section of its adults and children working as daily-wage labourers in farms and rolling beedis. The district is among the largest manufacturer of beedis in the country. Collecting used-up chalk pieces from his school, Babar continued to teach children in his neighbourhood how to read and write in Bengali along with basic math, science and geography, completely free of cost, while he was in school himself.
"Teachers at my school thought I was stealing chalk to scribble on the walls, but after they learnt that I was teaching other children at my home, they began to offer me a box of chalk each week," shared Babar.
The support from his mother Banuara Bibi, an anganwadi worker, and father Mohammad Nasiruddin, a jute trader, both of whom were school dropouts, allowed him to pursue his vision to create an educated neighbourhood, he said.
"The children I have been teaching receive very little support from their families and are often left to fend for themselves. With help from my family and teachers at school, I have been able to run my school and provide the kids with uniform, books and other reading material," added Babar.
Admitting that it was a difficult task convincing families to send their children to his home school, Babar said he gradually won the trust of parents as students grew fond of him and enjoyed his classes.
Collecting used-up chalk pieces from his school, Babar continued to teach children in his neighbourhood how to read and write in Bengali along with basic math, science and geography, completely free of cost, while he was in school himself
Donations from teachers at his school, district officials, Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officers from the region and other individuals has kept Babar's institution running through the years—and in 2015, it shifted into a building near his home, with a recognition as a private school from the West Bengal School Education Department.
"The focus is on holistic education at Ananda Siksha Niketan, as I want the students to positively impact the society through whatever professions they choose in the future," he stressed.
In a span of about 16 years, from 2002 till date, Babar has taught more than 5,000 children from Classes 1 to 8—a few of whom have have returned to his school to work as teachers. "Six of my former girl students have returned to the school as teachers after finishing their under-graduation courses," said Babar, who holds a MA in English literature from the University of Kalyani, about 50 km from Kolkata.
Pursuing another Masters in History from the same university, Babar remains an ambitious headmaster who wants to bring about change in the district's poor female literacy rate, which stands at just above 55%, according to data from the district administration.
"Several families are still reluctant to send their girls to a school and prefer to marry them off in their teens, but through continuous effort we are seeing a change in their attitudes. Parents are realising the need for education as children are in turn helping them read, make a signature on paper and write," he added.
Babar Ali: “Governments alone cannot change the system. We need people of all sections to come forward and work together to bring in quality education for all our country’s children, irrespective of their social classes”
The co-education school currently has 500 students, 10 teachers and one non-teaching staff, with classes from 1 to 8.
"We require more classrooms and infrastructure as our building can accommodate only 350-400. I also want to expand the school up to Class 10 so that kids do not have to go to other towns for education."
Babar, who is also a motivational speaker, offering talks across the country inspired by venerated Hindu monk-philosopher Swami Vivekananda's (1863-1902) teachings, wants to set up more such schools catering to the poorest sections across the country.
"Education for all will remain my life mission and, to realise that, several institutions and individuals need to come together," he reiterated.
Babar's inspiring journey has also made it to the first year English text book of pre-university (Class 11) in Karnataka's state board and Class 10 communicative English text of the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE).
"Governments alone cannot change the system. We need people of all sections to come forward and work together to bring in quality education for all our country's children, irrespective of their social classes," stressed Babar.