This was first published on Firstpost as ‘Lessons in hope: Babar Ali, the youngest headmaster in the world, offers students a lifeline.‘ Some of these photos have also been published by various national and international publishers, namely, Terra Green Magazine by TERI, Annick Press — Children’s Book Canada; Sanoma Utbildning — Sweden, Oxford University Press.
Do you remember a regular day of your life when you were eight or nine years old? I don’t remember a great deal, but I can tell you this, it wasn’t much to write home about. For most of us, a regular day started early morning with us still trying to rub the sleep off our eyes while waiting for the school bus, followed by our teachers telling us about many wonderful things in the world in which we had no interest. After-school hours were largely made of stubborn refusal to take our afternoon nap, rush to colony playground, then some more refusal to “Do your homework”, “Finish your food” and “Go to bed.”
But a 9 years old Babar Ali was something else.
Babar would listen to his teachers with wondrous eyes grasping as much knowledge as he could, and rush back home to spread the knowledge among other children in his village who didn’t go to school. “I used to come back from school and see my siblings and other children of village playing around doing nothing. I didn’t like that. So I just made them sit around me and started telling whatever I learned that day,” Babar recalls how the school started in the backyard of his family hut.
It was not like Babar belonged to a well to do family. He comes from the same impoverished sections of the society where children cannot afford to go to school because their parents don’t have the money to buy uniform or books; or because they need to work as child labourers so there younger siblings can survive; girls don’t go to school because it is too far from home and the roads are not safe and so on. Babar is the first person in his family to get a formal education. And the heart warming story is that it didn’t end at him, it was the beginning.
At the tender age of 9, Babar Ali had the heart, the vision and the dedication to bring education to hundreds of children in his village. By the time he was 16, he was running a full school and was declared the Youngest Headmaster in The World by BBC and awarded a TED Fellowship. Today the school provides education to around 300 students per day. Babar has also roped in his whole family in the school activities. His younger sister who was one of his first students (she didn’t go to school because of the distance) is now studying for Bachelors degree and teaches in the school. All other teaching staff are also ex-students of Babar. Not only his family, Babar’s contagious enthusiasm for knowledge has caught on with the whole community. Dulu mashi, the only non-teaching staff, is a retail fish seller. She would often curiously visit Babar’s school and inquire what’s going on with all these children. Today she is the caretaker and time keeper of the school.
In November 2009 I was attending the TED India conference as a TED Fellow. Within hours of the BBC article going live, entitling Babar as the youngest head master in the world, the TED team had airlifted a shy introvert 16 year old Babar and dropped him at the center of the TED Conference. Tom Rielly, Fellows Director, introduced me to him and assigned the responsibility of helping him figure out things at the conference.
Inspired by his story, in 2013, I made a casual trip to his village Bhabta on my way to Murshidabad for my SWBT trip. I received an overwhelming hospitality from Babar’s family and came back with a life time of experience.
Babar had by then been featured on Aamir Khan’s TV series Satyamev Jayate. A photo of Babar with Aamir Khan proudly displayed at the crumbling door to his tiny office.
A volunteer teaching staff of the school made the children stand in queue for the morning prayer.
Classes started soon after. Children enthusiastically studying under a tin roof with no electricity even as it rained incessantly outside. Girls outnumbering the boys. Dulu Mashi came and rang the bell. Babar started taking the classes along with 2-3 other volunteer teaching staff. He also requested me to hold a few lessons. I remembered how excited the kids were to have a didimoni from the city.
Attendance was a low because of the rains, but students kept tricking in slowly. Some of the young girls carried their younger siblings in their lap. When their mothers are off to work as agricultural labourers, these girls stay home to take care of the younger ones. This explains why they do not go to a school which is far off. With Babar’s efforts they now get education close to their home.
Babar strongly feels for women’s education, and is proud that there are more girls in his school than boys. “Today, girls are ready to outshine the boys in every field, and only by enabling them to excel the nation will develop,” said Babar.
As on date, Babar has received support from the government, the school has been recognized as an unaided school up to VIIIth standard, the makeshift tin roof has been replaced by a permanent building and some land is granted for further construction. But a lot remains to be done. The school does not charge any tution fees from the student and as such is not able to pay any salary to its staff. One wonders then whether the efforts are sustainable or not. Apart from monetary support, in the remote area of Bhabta Babar needs sound administrative support, documentation work, teaching staff, connectivity and much more.
There are many models of success. A young student walked miles from the remotest of his village to the nearest school and he kept walking, to higher school in the city, to the State University in the capital, and finally to the elite universities in a first world country.
This student walked the distance and then turned around, to go back to where he came from to share the knowledge and opportunities with younger ones. If you wish to follow him, go ahead and spend a few days at Babar’s and share your knowledge with the children.
For more details visit:
Ananda Siksha Niketan
Vill + P.O. – Bhabata, P.S. – Beldanga,
Dist. – Murshidabad, Pincode – 742134,
About Babar Ali