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Saturday, November 27, 2021

Fruit vendor who put aside savings to travel and raise funds receives Padma Shri

A question in English that he couldn’t answer steeled Hajabba’s resolve to get a govt school for his village. The fruit vendor who put aside savings to travel and raise funds is now a Padma Shri, and a hero for Harekala.

Written by Kiran Parashar |
November 14, 2021 3:44:23 am
Hajjaba at the government school in Harekala that he helped build. It now has 177 students from Classes 1 to 10. (Photo: Kiran Parashar)

Two days after Harekala Hajabba received his Padma Shri, the government school the former fruit vendor helped build started on a typical note. Even as Karnataka Road State Transport Corporation staff were at his home to felicitate him, the private bus that is among the only ones which caters to Harekala village, located just 25 km from Mangaluru, got late, meaning classes could begin only at 10.15 am instead of 9 am as scheduled.

However, for many who take the bus from up to 8 km away, the Dakshina Kannada Zilla Panchayat Primary and High School at Harekala — known all around as “Hajabba’s school” — is the only good one they can afford. And one that Hajabba, 68, has raised with pain and patience — and battling ridicule from many who thought he was “mad”.

With a population of 7,081, Muslim-majority Harekala has six schools, of them only one government-run. “Hajabba’s school” stands on 1.5 acres, with 177 students from Classes 1 to 10.

“I once thought Hajabba was a D Class employee as he would daily clean the classrooms and toilets,” says Mohammad Nihal, 22, now an engineer working in Mangaluru city. Saeed Anwar, a mechanic, smiles at the irony, saying the villagers who once mocked Hajabba are now putting up posters hailing the Padma Shri.

Mohammad Ishaq, 60, a wholesale fruit vendor at Hampanakatte market in Mangaluru city, was among those who joined the felicitations for Hajabba’s award.

He admits he was among those who laughed that Hajabba was “daydreaming” when he first talked about building a school. “We met in the early 1990s. He would take oranges from me, sell them from his cart and come back with the earnings. He would take around 150-200 fruits, and was lucky if he sold them all at the end of eight hours. I earned Rs 35-40 and he Rs 10-12 a day,” Ishaq says.

Born to a Muslim family, Hajabba says what drove him on despite the meagre earnings was the regret over never going to school, having been forced to start earning young. An incident when some foreigners asked him the cost of his oranges, in English, leaving him nonplussed, particularly rankled.

Hajabba resolved to ensure children from his village did not face the same situation. Putting a part of his earnings aside, he used the money to make the rounds of politicians, businessmen and officials for help for a school.

By 2000, a building attached to the local mosque started classes with 28 students. Hajabba raised Rs 70 lakh for a plot of land and building, convincing hundreds to pitch in. Others donated equipment like microscopes and computers, or furniture.

In 2004, as his achievement got noticed for the first time, a media organisation announced an award of Rs 5 lakh for Hajabba. For the first time in his life, Hajabba boarded a flight, to travel to Mumbai. “At the hotel I did not take a bath as I did not know how to turn the taps on and nobody understood when I asked,” the 68-year-old laughs.

Hajabba’s new goal is to build a Pre-University College (Classes 11, 12) in his village, and has got a teacher at the Harekala school, Sushim Shetty, to prepare a report. With 77 of the students at the school in higher classes, Hajabba hopes to ensure they pursue studies and don’t drop out. He himself makes the rounds of homes to convince parents to send children to school.

Akshatha L Nayak has been a teacher with the Harekala school since it operated out of a temporary structure. She says that in the last decade that she has been working, only 25-odd of their students have gone on to complete graduation apart from the few who did technical courses for a job. Only one of those 25 has been a girl, Nayak says, despite girl students doing well at school level.

Sahana Fathima, who is from Baruva, 4 km from Harekala, is that girl student. Enrolled for a Masters in physiotherapy, she says she didn’t realise till recently the difference Hajabba made to their lives.

Teacher Shetty admires his persistence, even when parents and officials ignored him. “Many officials did not understand his Kannada. Some would not let him enter because of his attire. He would often squat in offices, as he urged for help,” she says.

Hajabba’s passion remains the same as the first day she saw him in 2008, Shetty adds. “He took me to the BEO (Block Education Officer) to complete all the formalities. Next day, he was there at the school to open the classrooms and clean them. It has been 13 years and he continues to do the same.”

In 2013, Hajabba stopped working on the doctor’s advice. His sons, 26 and 23, did not study beyond Class 10 and work as painters.

Badruddin, president of the Harekala gram panchayat, says they no longer turn away Hajabba when he comes to them, making the case for roads or for other works. “We do our bit… We can see what he has done for future generations.”

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