Actions of greatness often emerge from painful experiences of struggle, and Shaukatali Shaikh is one such example.
From being rejected for a job as a teacher, opening a business as a tailor, to eventually starting the first higher secondary school in a remote village of Maharashtra, Shaukatali has seen and experienced a lot.
In a family of six brothers, he grew up in abject poverty. His father, the village kotwal (constable), earned a meagre salary of Rs 130 in Tuljapur, Osmanabad, in Maharashtra. The income was barely enough to feed eight mouths.
Owing to this, despite being a bright student, Shaukatali had to get married even though he was only in Class 11.
Even faced with discouragement from family members and villagers, he fought hard to continue his education and finally graduated with a BEd degree.
Speaking to The Better India, “It was a huge deal for anyone from the village to gain such a degree. I was proud and confident that despite several odds, I had managed to pass with high marks. But, the confidence faded when I started looking for jobs in Osmanabad. Despite my merit, everyone wanted me to pay up first. One place even asked me to pay Rs 50,000 to get a job as a teacher. My dream to become a teacher was shattered. I decided to look past all that and move to Pune for a better life.”
With his own family to support, Shaukatali, who knew tailoring, began to brush up his skills.
“I worked under a local tailor there for a few months, until I was good enough to start my own little business. In a small rented room with a rented sewing machine, I began my journey as a tailor,” he shares.
Fortunately, this faired well and in a matter of two years, he managed to get his own house and lead a comfortable life.
“Once things had settled, my calling as a teacher began to ring again. So, I went to my son’s school which was till Class 7 and offered my services for free and start higher classes. Lucky for me, the school authorities agreed, and I began working there as a teacher,” he adds.
From 2000 to 2005, he continued two jobs–as a teacher during the day, and a tailor in the evening.
His life, however, took a turn when the school management, impressed by his work, offered him to start a school in Velvand, a remote village in Bhor taluka.
Established in 2005, this school, Samarth Vidya Mandir, now stands as the first and only secondary school, across five villages within a 35-kilometre radius of the taluka.
Hidden amidst the hilly landscapes of Bhor, the school provides education to tribal students coming from villages as far as 40-50 kilometres away.
“When I joined in 2005, the school was a two-room dilapidated structure with almost no students. The leaking tin roof, lack of washroom and transport, further deterred students from coming to school. It did not even have government recognition. So, for students to start coming to school, I had to take care of all that,” he added.
Although the government authorisation was received in a few months, convincing parents to send their wards was a challenge.
Setting up a school in a place where education was perceived as luxury was difficult.
“In Velvand, the youth was largely illiterate. Most of them would migrate to nearby towns and cities to do odd jobs as labourers or factory workers. Their parents also perceived those to be lucrative options as it brought in a steady flow of money. Changing that mindset and helping them see the larger picture was a challenge, so I would visit every house in all nearby villages to explain to them the need for education,” says Shaukatali.
He added that getting female students was a bigger challenge, due to the distance and lack of proper amenities in the school premises.
Yet, his own adverse experiences gave him the strength to continue.
“My struggles taught me one thing, that only education can truly liberate you. And, Velvand was my empty canvas which gave me the opportunity to provide its children with all that I couldn’t get in my childhood,” he says.
Additionally, the structural issues of the school, along with the necessary facilities were soon solved with the help of Alfa Laval and Rotary club with their donation of over Rs 40 lakh. This helped him build an eight-room school with classrooms, laboratories and a library.
The next challenge was the distance and the lack of proper transport. Being a hilly area, he recalls that students would often drop out during monsoons as the terrain would become inaccessible.
To remedy that, he explored introducing a school bus, which would travel as far as 30 kilometres to pick up students and drop them back safely.
After 14 years of incessant efforts, Shaukatali has finally brought the school to a progressive state.
From zero, the school now has 56 students (16 girls and 40 boys) studying in Classes 8 to 10.
And, for the past three years, the institution has been maintaining the 100 per cent pass results.
But academics are not the only emphasis here. To make education more relevant and holistic, he has incorporated skill development programmes within the curriculum. Two such courses include teaching the skill of tailoring to students and their mothers, along with a special graphic designing class.
With each day, Shaukatali is moving towards fulfilling his dream to make this school a haven of learning and self-sustainability- a tall example for the world!
(Edited by Shruti Singhal)