Berhampore, West Bengal: For more than seven years, Babar Ali, 17, has been teaching children from poor families for free at a school he founded in a West Bengal village, while studying at another school.
Ali opened the Ananda Shiksha Niketan at Gangapur village in Murshidabad district in 2002, when he was just nine. Today, the school has more than 800 students. Another 200 have applied to join in the next session—making it larger than most schools in the neighbourhood.
Catching themyoung: Babar Ali interacts with his students at Ananda Shiksha Niketan. Goutam Roy/Mint
Most students come from the families of migrant labourers, bidi workers and weavers who are too poor to afford formal education. Often, they are dropouts of other schools.
Ali, who is now in class XII, helps them rejoin mainstream education from class IX.
Such has been his success that the state government wants to recognize Anand Shiksha Niketan and bring it into the mainstream. But Ali prefers to remain autonomous.
“It will upset the way we work,” he says. The “principles on which the school is built” would be gone if it became a part of the mainstream.
Other teachers at the school are Ali’s friends—school-going teenagers like him. It is their informal teaching style that makes the school tick, says Feroza Begum, headmistress of the government-run Pulinda Girls High School.
“Students feel very comfortable at Ananda Shiksha Niketan because the teachers are more like friends,” says Begum, who is also a member of Ananda Shiksha Niketan’s managing committee. “What they teach there is the same as in government-run schools, but the way they teach, makes learning really enjoyable.”
Tulu Hajra, a door-to-door fish hawker, has played a crucial role in adding to the school’s strength. She keeps an eye on children dropping out of other schools and persuades their parents to send them to Ali’s school.
One of Hajra’s recruits was Mohammad Sabir Hussain, who has been going to Ananda Shiksha Niketan for three years.
“Though I have to walk for half an hour, I look forward to going to school every day because I have made friends with the teachers,” says Hussain, now in class VIII.
His classmate Najma Tara says she loves Indian classical dances. Ali’s school, which she has been attending for five years, has made it possible for her to perform at several cultural programmes.
But more students means more costs for Ali. Last year, he spent nearly Rs3 lakh on running the school, he says. A local chartered accountant audits his accounts.
The money comes from donors, well wishers and prizes that Ali has started receiving for his effort.
Ali fondly recalls the school was founded with help from his father, a jute trader. Now, he counts people such as Mukesh Ambani, chairman of Reliance Industries Ltd, and actor Aamir Khan among his patrons.
“Money isn’t really a problem for Ali anymore. My only concern is he is too young to handle the limelight,” says a Kolkata-based patron who wishes to remain anonymous. “He’s already a force to reckon with—politically and otherwise—in his village.”
Some local politicians have tried to wrest control of the school in the past, but Ali says the district administration has always helped him ward them off.
“People have started questioning my intentions…but I don’t care,” says Ali, who wants to become a bureaucrat when he grows up. “As long as the children love and support me, I will carry on.”