Ensconced in the sprawling Vice President Mansion in the heart of Delhi, an unassuming and hospitable lady emerges to welcome us in a newly and tastefully done aesthetically designed sitting room. The lady Salma Ansari, is the wife of the Honorable Vice-President of India, Mohammad Hamid Ansari who besides being a wonderful person is endowed with a noble soul, working for the upliftment of a section of Indian society who are forgotten from the ambit of development.
With statistics on her finger, Madam Ansari showed a lot of passion and frankness while elaborating on her pet project, the Al Noor Charitable Society in an exclusive and rare interview with The Times recently.
“It must have been more than decade ago; one day while out horse-riding off the beaten track in Aligarh, Uttar Pradesh, I came across a young child casually drinking water from a nearby sewer. The sight upset me so much that it has remained etched in my memory forever. I decided to pursue the matter further and that is when I discovered whole settlements living in abject poverty and appalling conditions. I met children who had not eaten for days, did not have proper clothes, who lived in houses that leaked when it rained and was freezing in winter.”
It laid the foundation of what was to become a movement
Detailing the genesis of founding Al Noor Charitable Society, Madam Ansari recalled, “I visited slum colonies where the stench from stagnant water, open sewers and human effluence floating in it. The scene was so overpowering that I nearly reeled back with revulsion. Piles of garbage were lying in the open nearby and mosquitoes and flies festered around, but undaunted by any of these, several children were playing in the filth and splashing around gleefully in the sewer water. I realized that this innocence and joy of childhood would soon vanish and turn into sorrow and bitterness when they grew up and faced life’s innumerable challenges.”
“The poverty and lack of education would exclude these children from the opportunities available to others. Some of the children aged only 8 or 10, who should normally have been in school, were already working in dimly lit dingy buildings and were destined to lead a life of deprivation like their parents before them. That was the time when I recognized that education was the key to breaking this vicious cycle of perpetual poverty. It was education that would provide these children with equity, access and opportunity; it was only education that would enable them to join the mainstream, avail opportunities and realize their own dreams. And this was the spark that led me to launch the Al Noor Charitable Society.”
Al Noor Charitable Society, which was founded in 1998, has in the course of the last 15 years established its credentials as a charitable organization that is both noble in its intent and effective in its implementation. The people living in the slum settlements around Aligarh were refugees displaced by the violence of the Ayodhya demolition of 1992.They were living in shanty colonies without basic amenities and were mainly daily-wage earners or temporary workers who could not afford even government schooling for their children. As a result, literacy was as low as 0.2 percent among children in these colonies.
“Over the years the Society has provided free education for approximately 1,800 children each year from these extremely marginalized and under privileged families. We envision empowering marginalized children, not through an education that is rigid but rather through a system that molds around their needs, and is relevant to their context and which enables them, through their own experiences, to make a meaning of their lives,” said Madam. Ansari.
True to its name, the three public schools founded by the Society — Quila, Chacha Nehru and Al Noor — are spreading the light of knowledge and a ray of hope among children in the locality. The three schools attempt to ensure that all children, under the age of 14, of parents who earn less than INR 3,000 ($55) per month, receive a basic education. The children are provided with free books, stationary, uniform and a mid-day meal to encourage more parents to send their children to school. The schools are unique in that it empowers children with 21st century skills through the use of technology tools; in addition they are also given essential skills like English communication, fundamentals of Mathematics and the importance of health and hygiene. To complete the learning cycle, the schools also imparts vocational training that enables future employment opportunities for the children.
The holistic form of education imparted through Al Noor Charitable Society's schools, allows children to realize their aspirations in the context of their lives; it inculcates in them a feeling of self-respect and empowered with English language skills these children are able to continue their education in mainstream schools. “While the schools function only up to the 8th Standard, over the last five years about 20 percent of the children have started going in for higher education in public schools across Aligarh. Our teachers work diligently to ensure these children receive scholarships to public schools.
“The Society is run completely on charity and is a non-profit organization. We believe that education should not be denied to anyone and we aspire to educate every child, regardless of age, caste and religion, who have been left out of a formal education. And for this we look to receive the goodwill and support of the public to continue successfully along this path. A contribution of two thousand rupees helps to provide uniform, books and stationary for a child for a year; definitely not a big amount when you consider that for that amount you are not only providing a school-kit for a child, but also helping to break the cruel cycle of dehumanizing poverty that destines so many to so little all their lives,” concluded Madam Ansari.
Madam Ansari was gracious enough to show us a short video film of the project. The short documentary was a touching reminder what the underprivileged and weaker sections of society had to undergo to just eke out a living. The humble soul that she was, it seems that destiny ordained such a noble task upon her and empowered her for the cause.
But more than anything, the commitment and determination that sparkles on Madam Ansari face gives a clear indication that changing the course of thousands of under privileged children and ushering a ray of hope is a indeed a matter of great satisfaction and should command salutation for the noble cause from everyone.