Published: 23rd October 2021
Padma Shri is not just an honour for me but an honour for my school: Karnataka 'orange-seller' who built a school, Harekala Hajabba
Initially when Hajabba started a school, it functioned in the madrassa. Later, he decided to buy a piece of land from his savings and build a school for kids from all the communities
November 8, 2021 is going to be a big day for Harekala Hajabba because he will receive the prestigious Padma Shri at New Delhi from the President of India. He was declared the recipient of the civilian award on January 25, 2020. If you wonder who Hajabba is, he is popularly known as Akshara Santa who built a government primary and high school by selling oranges and the money from little donations made by individuals and politicians. He said, "I received a letter from the Government of India which read that I will receive the award as well as a certificate from the President in the month of March 2020 but it was delayed due to the pandemic. Recently, I received the call and I was informed to travel to Delhi to attend the ceremony and receive Padma Shri."
Though he has received several prestigious awards along with the Padma Shri, Hajabba has always remained humble and grounded. Even during the pandemic, Hajabba ensured that he went to school to clean the premises so that nothing is destroyed and children come to school happily after the pandemic. The state government has decided to take care of all his travel expenses to New Delhi. He said. "I will be leaving to attend the award ceremony on November 7. Padma Shri award is not just an honour for me. It is an honour for my school as well as thousands of individuals, government officials who helped me in all the ways to improve my school infrastructure and the quality of education here. Thus, educating thousands of kids from Harekala and surrounding villages."
But what was the purpose that moved this man so much that he wanted to build a school when he did not have a place he could call home? Narrating his story, Hajabba says, "When I was selling oranges in the Mangaluru market, a couple came to me and tried to communicate in Kannada and asked for an address. I have never been to school and I could barely speak the language, but I could communicate in the local languages Tulu and Beary (a language spoken by people especially muslim communities in Dakshina Kannada and districts bordering Kerala). That day I felt that I must have studied and learnt Kannada. Hence, I decided to start a school, but had no clue how to go about accomplishing this. Since I used to work for Twaha Jumma Masjid in New Padpu, I asked the masjid committee members if we can start a school. They agreed and the affluent from the community donated money. In 1994, we started Ravalatul Ulema Madrasa in New Padupu and several children from the Muslim community joined the madrasa. Classes went on successfully and my work was recognised. I was appointed as the treasurer of the Twaha Jumma Masjid Committee."
Hajabba did not stop with this because he was thinking of girls who would want to study beyond class V and children from other communities who wish to go to school. "The idea of starting a Kannada-medium school was always on my mind. When I approached the government officials to ask for permission and implement my idea in the madrasa itself, the officials informed me that Arabic is the only medium of instruction in madrasas. Hence, I decided to save money and ask for people's help to buy some land to build this school," says Hajabba.
While approaching government officials and getting their attention to solve issues is easy now, it was not the same for Hajabba back then. Whenever he would visit the government offices, they spoke rudely to him. They would even give him 50 paise or 1 rupee coins and ask him to leave. Anyone else would have felt insulted enough to turn away from the cause forever, but not Hajabba. He was clear about what he wanted. He says, "My intention was to build a school and I did not step back. I don't exactly remember the amount I had saved, but in 1999, I bought a small 40 square feet land in New Padpu. Again, with the help of philanthropists, I bought another one-acre land in the same place. After running from pillar to post, it was in the year 2000 that the Education Department of the Government of Karnataka sanctioned permission to build this school."
During this difficult phase, Hajabba also came across a few humble government officials who were ready to help him. He points towards a wall on the premises on which the name K Anand, the then Block Education Officer of New Padpu, is mentioned. "Thanks to this man who hand-held me through this noble initiative. Though my journey of building this school was challenging, there are a few kind-hearted people I came across who still call me to find out if everything is fine at the school and ask if I need help. Not just money, people even helped me with heavy construction machines and cement required to build the school. Since the land looked like a mountain, we had to first level it to build the school. Around six bulldozers were put to work and within a few months, we built a school with eight classrooms and two toilets. On June 9, 2001, this school was inaugurated amidst huge celebrations. My eyes were filled with tears of joy because my dream had finally come true. As days went on, local politicians and wealthy individuals came forward to donate benches, desks and other necessary materials for this school. Today, we have 91 kids studying in the higher primary school building," says the man who has earned the title Akshara Santa (letter saint) through his philanthropic work.
A new post for him
Like every other government school, the Education Department asked Hajabba to form a School Development and Monitoring Committee (SDMC) if they needed funds from the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan for school development. As per this scheme, the government allocates funds to every government school to develop infrastructure or for purchasing necessary material for the school. Hajabba never dreamt of becoming the Vice-Chairman SDMC. He says, "The then headmistress, Veena GH, suggested my name for the post. A bank account was created in my name to receive funds. Whatever money we received from the government was spent on the development of the school. At the same time, we even started a computer lab for our children here. Today, we have four computers for children to study the basics and children make use of it whenever necessary."
Hajabba's dream of starting the school had come true but his desire to do more did not end. After a few months, he wanted a high school to be built. Since there was enough space on the school premises and the government officials knew him by now, he was able to get the building sanctioned. In 2003, Hajabba started saving money again by selling oranges and collecting donations from people. "The construction began in 2010 and it was finally completed in 2012. Like all the other schools, this school has a library and more than six classrooms where children from classes VIII to X study. The classrooms are named after famous personalities including Rani Abakka, Kalpana Chawla, Swami Vivekananda and a few others. The idea is to inspire children to achieve more by reading these names and remembering their story," explains Hajabba with a smile.
When we ask Hajabba what his plans for the future are, he says, "I have asked a few people to donate money to build a college for PUC I and PUC II. But the plans got delayed as the pandemic hit and there were continuous lockdowns."