One day, at the age of seven, Gazi Jallaluddin thought he was having the best day of his life.
Skipping all the way home, with a heart about to explode with joy, he bursts into the door to break the news to his family that he had topped his class in school.
But, the world beyond that door had a starkly different vibe; his family was living in a grim parallel reality. "My father had no money, and told me that I will have to leave school,” recounts Gazi.
Gazi’s father was a farmer in Thakurchak village, located in the Sundarbans, West Bengal. He just had a quarter acre of land, which did not give enough yield to return even the inputs, sometimes leaving the family starving for days. Hoping for better prospects—maybe one meal every day—the family moved to Kolkata. However, Gazi’s father was unwell and no one would hire him. Before long, Gazi ended up begging in the streets of Kolkata.
A few years later Gazi started pulling a rickshaw on the streets of the city, and it is when the dream of educating children of his village kindled inside him. In 1977, then 18-year-old Gazi learnt to drive a taxi.
But, troubled by the thoughts of children succumbing to abject poverty and unable to wait any longer to start turning their lives around, he immediately formed a committee back in the Sundarbans. He named it "Sunderban driving committee,” and identified about 10 underprivileged young boys as members. "I told them I will teach them how to drive and get them jobs, and in turn, they must pledge five rupees from their salaries every month, and furthermore teach and educate two more kids, who will also become members and educate two more. The donations collected will be given to any child who does not have the means to join school,” he explains.
There are now around 400 such young men from Joynagar driving taxis in Kolkata.
In addition to this initiative, Gazi also started asking his passengers if they wanted to donate books, medicines or old clothes for destitute villagers. Many people did do so and Gazi made sure they reached needy people in the village. Many kids who, like Gazi, had to leave studies due to lack of money to buy books were able to study again with his help.
He wanted to do more and expand his project further. He did everything he could think of. "I asked lot of people in my village if they can donate some land to build a school, but no one agreed, few even laughed at me."
Refusing to give up hope, Gazi had to make do with whatever he had. He setup classes in his own house and spread the word. He personally urged his fellow villagers to send their kids to the school. Initially no one was interested because they didn’t see how it could make a difference in the long term.
"They were not ready to send their kids, especially girls to school. I explained to them how they have to run back to the doctor or a literate person to read even simplest things, like how to take medicines. Even urgent letters went unread until someone could be found to decipher them,” he says.
But in 1998, Gazi’s efforts started paying off. He started ‘Ismail Israfil Free Primary School’ (named after his two sons). The school started with 22 students and 2 teachers. By 2012, he managed to build 12 classrooms, 2 washrooms and a mid-day meal with donations offered by his passengers and his savings.
He got helped from 2 of his passengers in buying a land, some took responsibility to pay to the teachers, while some helped with the mid day meal. In 2009, with all helping hands, he built his 2nd school ‘Sundarban Sikshayatan Mission’, in Purv Thakurchak, Sundarban.
It was during this time he realised that many of the students were orphans and despite wanting to help them, he couldn’t do anything because of the dearth of resources.
Gazi’s efforts slowly started getting recognised all over the state, and it eventually helped him to give wings to another ambition of building an orphanage which finally came into being in 2016 as the Sundarban Orphanage Mission. He arranges all the residential requirements of these orphans by saving money from his earning and help received by those who donated. Despite several humble pleas to the government nobody has come up to offer him any help.
Gazi is proud of what he does. "Now my two sons are also driving taxis, and they help me to support the cause of the deprived children in Sunderbans. I personally ask donors to become lifetime members of the Sunderban Orphanage and Social Welfare Trust and participate with me in my journey,” says Gazi.