The Grassroot Heroes Who Empower Deprived Lives Through Education

After the 2010 sweltering summer thawed in Kashmir, a village in Baramulla district broke the jinx. The village had, till then, no government official until a journalism graduate and a humanities student were appointed as teachers. A decade later, the duo has heralded a remarkable change in the literal landscape of the village.

Text/Photos by Tanveer Magrey

BARELY two kilometres from Kreeri area of Baramulla, a new blacktop snakes through the Karewas, called 'Vudr' in Kashmir, and culminates at Tilgam. In between it fulfills an overdue demand of a village: brings the road connectivity to Waripora Payeen, a small quaint hamlet where pastoral life is too conspicuous to ignore.

Spread over 55 households, with three clans of Illahi, Yatoo and Thakur inhabiting it, the villagers eke out their living through manual labour.

One day, a decade back, when these struggle-hardened simpletons woke up to the news of the first government appointments in their village, they rejoiced for days together.

But the appointed teachers, Riyaz Rabbani and Fayaz Ilahi, posted in their own and only village school, Government Middle School Waripora Payeen, knew they had a big task at their hands.

As infrastructural funds would come in spurts and children mostly engage with unnecessary errands to run for family, the duo wanted to stop both at the first priority.

Pooling in money from their own pockets, from teachers, and a shoestring budget from government would make enough to kickstart the renovation of the school.

“Beautiful setting always attracts the kids and with this aim we started our journey to keep the drop-out and bunking at bay,” teacher Rabbani says.

The revamped literary scene soon moved an eye or two in the village and whispers started growing in the nooks like sweet nothings of lovers about this unprecedented change.

Fast forward to 2020, and the Government Middle School Waripora Payeen gives a semblance of a private school, until your gaze locks on the board nailed over the gate at the threshold of school premises.

Housed in three single-storey buildings—decked up with some Urdu couplets and murals done by Rabbani—the school caters to the 52 students from first to eighth grade.

A mural on the school wall painted by Rabbani

Each classroom has benches according to the strength of the students. A proper ironed uniform, tie, and a school identity card clipped with the lanyard, make students of this school look second to none.

A well-maintained toilet has come up against the school wall. A small godown is sandwiched between office and other building. Doubled up as kitchen, two ladies are spotted there — winnowing rice and cleaning other eatables meant for mid-day meal.

Apart from the campus overhaul, the duo’s efforts have completely transformed the academic scene of the school. Conducted by District Institute of Education & Training (DIET), the result registers of Class 8 of last eight years that the writer himself went through reads the “pass” on every page.

“Being the first graduate from Waripora Payeen, Rabbani along with other teacher has improved the education graph in the village,” says Ghulam Mohammad Bhat, the school headmaster, calling the duo’s posting as blessing for villagers.

Having seen the travails of poverty at first hand, Rabbani asserts that only the wearer knows where the shoe pinches.

“I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth but have worked hard to make a cut in government sector,” the affable teacher says, while laying bare the efforts he made in his career.

“I would bind books, paint the walls, made signboards to fund my education. My teachers would drop by, every now and then, with a helping hand to keep my education journey on the rails.”

Rabbani, a journalism graduate from Degree College Baramulla, continues that his students have been doing really good at academic front, as well as in various co-curricular activities for a long time now, thus setting a kind of record in the zone.

As students kept on passing with flying colours, the literal landscape of the village also witnessed an unprecedented change.

Students attending morning prayers

Naseer Yatoo, a son of a farmer, is one of the alumni of this school, embellishing the CV of the school, with his academic acumen.

Pursuing his graduation in Political Science from Dayal Singh College which is affiliated with Delhi University, Naseer reasons the lack of counseling, besides poverty, behind the educational backwardness in his village.

“While I was lucky enough to get a proper counselling at right time, which landed me in a Delhi campus, others continue to falter,” informs Naseer who enrolled under the Prime Minister Scholarship Scheme at his college.

Though everyone has not the stars on their side but Naseer’s journey to Delhi brought home the point that you can avail these schemes and let your children’s education go unhindered despite financial hiccups.

“Now, a lot has changed in our village,” continues Naseer, who ranked 11 in Arts stream in the entire Kashmir division, in his Class 12. “People take a mileage out of different schemes for the education of their kids which is a positive sign for the village.”

While many credit the teacher duo for the change, some students still end up in quarries and in fields because the tentacles of poverty are too hard to snap off.

“Most village students drop out because of the hand-to-mouth income back home,” complains Fateh Mohammad Ilahi, the local Panch, sporting a trimmed beard and a skullcap. “They would’ve gone ahead in their lives and careers, but due to poverty, they’re forced to start earning to supplement the family income.”

The village, therefore, has half a dozen graduates—some of whom vainly continue to apply for different posts, while other disillusioned lots have given up and landed in the fields as sun-tanned workers.

Among them is Hafizullah Ilahi, who does many odd jobs, to keep the hearth going.

A Humanities graduate from Degree College Baramulla, Hafizullah’s dreams hit the dead-end when he witnessed financial conditions at home in dire straits.

“Poverty doesn’t allow you to sit home and prepare for exams, it takes away that luxury,” says Hafizullah, with a wry smile. “The home condition compelled me to work in quarries to supplement family income rather than look for jobs.”

Aware of these disadvantaged stories, the teacher duo, raised by hard times, tirelessly works to educate and empower their own people.

And while acknowledging their efforts, one of their students, Sahil Rasheed says the duo always goes out of their ways for students.

“They teach us in a friendly way which gives us freedom to pose questions whenever we’ve doubts regarding any subject,” says Sahil, as his classmates nod in approval. “They make the school a much desired place for us.”

Sahil looks into camera in his classroom at Waripora Payeen's Government Middle School

Much of this compassionate connection with their students comes from their own deprived upbringings.

“In my student days,” says Fayaz Ilahi, another teacher, “I would give a miss to classes on two days every week.”

During those two days, he says, he along with other village boys would work as labourers to earn their school fee and finance their needs.

“That’s how,” he says, “I’ve grown up and studied.”

The hard life used to make him melancholic, quite often, but Ilahi would pledge to change it someday.

In 2010, his moment came, when he was recruited as Rehbar-e-Taleem teacher, on his Class 12 qualification basis, and was posted in his own village. He got regularised in 2015.

“In all these years, I’ve seen many village boys ending up in fields and quarries,” Ilahi continues. “We’re trying to shore up their spirits, so that they could earn their livelihood in a much respectable way.”

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