Rags to letters story in Tiljala slum

– Krishnendu Bandyopadhyay | TNN | Feb 7, 2015, 12.55 AM IST

KOLKATA: You wouldn’t give this diminutive 61-year-old a second glance but Mohd Alamgir is every bit the stuff of legend. He has single-handedly ensured 90% literacy in one of the most wretched slums of the city where most residents are rag-pickers and two meals a day make a party.

Darapara is a squalid, over-populated slum along railway tracks in Tiljala. Alamgir was one of the first few literates in the slum. He became a schoolteacher and was quick to realize that literacy opened up new horizons for him. But instead of basking in comfort, he reached out to rescue fellow slum dwellers from poverty.

It took up 25 years of his life but he has ensured that almost every person you meet in the slum can now sign, read and write, even converse with you in English. What he started in late ’80s has become a movement called Tiljala SHED — Tiljala Society for Human and Educational Development.

Now, some girls from these slums teach in schools and work in private firms. “Educating a girl is the most important since a literate mother will never leave her kid uneducated,” Alamgir points out the simple truth.

He has plenty of success stories to tell. Salma Khatoon, a beneficiary of his project, now coordinates the project. She liaises with international agencies. “It’s very exciting,” gushes Salma. Her sister Reshma is a teacher at Ballygunge Siksha Sadan. Another sister Sama is a chartered accountant.

“There are still a large number of rag-pickers, but we have managed to ensure that 90% families send their kids to government schools where they get mid-day meal. In the evening, we get them to our centres where they get special coaching and tiffin. So, their family needs to provide them only dinner at night six days a week,” said Alamgir’s son Shafkat Alam, who has taken over the baton and is equally passionate about the movement.

Their efforts have not gone unnoticed. Last year, Shafkat and slum girl Mehjabin Begum, who is now coordinator of Tiljala Shed Gyan Azhar Library for destitute girls, were invited to the Italian Parliament. “I was selected for supporting girls’ rights. I spoke about my role in the organization and also the importance of a boy speaking up for the rights of a girl to make this society equitable and just,” said Shafkat.

“It was a dream come true for me speak with personalities like Pietro Grasso, who was the President of the Senate and now acting President of Italy. We also met Laura Boldrini (President of the chamber of the deputies) to launch the Girl Declaration,” recalls an excited Mehjabin.

The United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) has invited Shafkat to New York from March 9 to 20 this year. “Its priority theme is ‘Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action (PoA).’ One of the critical areas of concern is elimination of all forms of discrimination against the girl child. But a lot our achievement is thanks to our Italian partner AIDOS (Italian Association for Women in Development),” said Alamgir.

“We have not stopped rag-pickers from picking up rags. The city looks clean because of them. If they are off the streets for a day, the city would look horrible. But we try to instill a sense of pride and self-respect. We gave them gloves, uniforms and badges. We have also tied up with organizations like Wipro, TCS and Siemens so that they don’t dispose of the solid waste they generate. Companies do not pay for removal of waste. They just stack the solid wastes at a particular place and rag-pickers go and collect them. We have organized a car to bring back the waste,” added Alamgir.

When working at such close proximity with the slum dwellers, he cannot help getting caught up in their tragedies as well. He is now fighting to deliver justice to the family of a girl who was burnt alive in 2012.

“We are fighting the case with our hearts and soul so that the family gets justice. I want the judgment to create
precedence in society,” he says. His latest obsession is Kolkata National Child Labour Project in Narkeldanga, which aims to protect children by withdrawing them from hazardous jobs. Some 50 former child labours are being rehabilitated, he said.