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For Harekala Hajabba, journey from orange cart to Padma Shri began with a foreigner’s question

Harekala Hajabba, who never went to school himself, started out as an orange-seller and is now lauded as a hero of education.

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Mangaluru: 17 June 2000 — Harekala Hajabba, one of this year’s Padma Shri awardees, remembers this date with utmost gratitude. “It was a Saturday,” he told ThePrint, explaining how this was the day his dream of setting up a school for the children of his village began turning into a reality.   

The Government Higher Secondary School, spread over 1.33 acres, is a labour of love that Hajabba initiated from his earnings as an orange-seller. Hajabba, who could never attend school himself, started on this path after an incident 31 years ago left him “embarrassed” and acutely conscious of the importance of education.   

“In 1990, when I was selling oranges at the bus depot, a foreigner asked me for the price of oranges. I couldn’t understand them,” he said. “It made me sad that I didn’t study because of abject poverty and lack of access to school. I wanted children of my village to study.”

The ensuing journey has been long, but rewarding.

Ever since the day a barefooted Hajabba received the Padma Shri — the fourth highest civilian award in the country — from President Ram Nath Kovind, his phone and those of his relatives haven’t stopped buzzing with congratulations and invites to events.

Harekala Hajabba receives the Padma Shri from President Ram Nath Kovind on 8 November | ANI
Harekala Hajabba receives the Padma Shri from President Ram Nath Kovind on 8 November | ANI

The route leading to his village, Harekala in Mangaluru, and his dream school in adjoining Newpadpu is pasted with huge posters showing him receiving the Padma award.  

All the attention — although not new — overwhelms Hajabba. 

“This is not my award. This is for the school. I am not such a big man,” he said, adding that people from across all communities and sections came together to make it happen. “The school is a result of hundreds of kindhearted donors and assistance from the government.”

Also Read: A 1996 incident at a crematorium that changed Padma Shri awardee Jitender Singh Shunty’s life

‘Akshara Santa’ Hajabba

Despite all the activity around him, Hajabba patiently waits on everyone visiting his house, serving them tender coconut. While slicing tender coconut for a team of medical professionals who came to test him for Covid right before his travel to New Delhi, he hurt his left thumb. A white plaster still covers the injured thumb.

A small room adjacent to Hajabba’s residence at Harekala stands witness to his journey from orange-seller to ‘akshara santa’ or saint of education. 

Housed in this room is memorabilia — hundreds of certificates, photos, awards, and plaques conferred on Hajabba by governments as well as private establishments looking to recognise his service. The Padma Shri is the latest addition to this room.

“I saw our President, our Vice-President, even the Prime Minister at such close proximity. They were all so wonderful to me,” Hajabba said.

“How could a poor man like me wear footwear in front of them and receive such a prestigious award? I removed them (his shoes) for that reason,” he added.

He has been flown to several places, even abroad, for felicitation earlier but this time around, it was special, he said.

The school premises in Newpadpu, located in a hilly region, are surrounded by lush greenery. When Hajabba arrives and takes a seat on a stone partition in the ground, students dressed in blue uniforms surround him, and an interaction ensues. 

People involved with the school are in awe of Hajabba.

“Hajabba lived in poverty and sold oranges for a livelihood. Yet, he saved up whatever he could, approached donors, collected aides, requested elected representatives, pleaded with the government to set up a school for children of this village — who like him hail from extremely poor families too,” Sushim Shetty, a social sciences teacher at the Government Higher Secondary School, told ThePrint. She has been working here ever since the school was built. 

It may be a government school but for local residents it will always be “Hajabba’s school”. 

From classes in a madrassa to two school buildings 

For two years after the 1990 incident, Hajabba approached local leaders with requests to set up a school, while also saving some of his earnings for the cause.

“Do you see that mosque?” Hajabba asked, pointing to the Twaaha Mosque. “In 2000, our then MLA U.T. Fareed set up a classroom for 28 students in the madrassa building of the mosque,” he added. 

The first teacher was provided by the Dharmasthala Rural Development Project, a charitable trust promoted by Dr D. Veerendra Heggade of the famed Dharmasthala Manjunatha temple in Karnataka. More staff was later provided by the Mangalore Shadimahal organisation, a business family’s venture that owns buildings and event halls.

With his savings and a whole lot of help from donors, Hajabba bought a piece of land and handed it over to the government to build a school for the children of Newpadpu and nearby villages. At the time, the closest school for children of Newpadpu and Harekala was 7 km away.

In 2001, a building was constructed and Classes 1-5 began to be taught at the school. For the next four years, Hajabba strived to get approvals for higher classes and, in 2005, Class 6 began. By 2010, Hajabba’s school had its first batch of Class 10 students appearing for board exams. And suddenly, there were more students and less space. 

“Hajabba once again contacted donors, arranged for money and bought an adjacent piece of land taking the total size to 1.33 acres. Funds from various donors, including NABARD and Hindustan Petroleum, were used to build the high school building that was inaugurated on 14 June 2012,” Laxman Puduval, headmaster of the Newpadpu school, said.

Hajabba’s own daughter studied at the school till Class 10. Now, his grand-niece is a student of Class 1 in the same school.  

People from all walks of life come together

Walking around the school, Hajabba points out plaques on walls that list the names of donors, alongside the sums they donated. From individuals who donated Rs 2,000 to big companies that chipped in with lakhs in funds or equipment — everyone’s contribution is acknowledged. Everyone except Hajabba’s. 

Hajabba points to plaques on the school premises that list the names of donors | Anusha Ravi Sood | ThePrint
Hajabba points to plaques on the school premises that list the names of donors | Anusha Ravi Sood | ThePrint

“It is all them. Not me,” he said, when asked why his name wasn’t on the list.

In Newpadpu, roads snake around hills with steep slopes and rocky terrain. 

With the rough terrain, building a school here was far from easy.

“We had to spend lakhs of rupees just to level the land before beginning construction. It is no mean task what Hajabba has achieved,” Shetty said.

From the first MLA who helped him begin classes to the incumbent district in-charge minister — Kota Srinivas Poojari, who allocated funds for the school — Hajabba credits everyone for their contribution.

“I am a Muslim but people from all communities have helped build this school. I lived in a thatched hut till 2015. A Christian donor built my existing pucca house. Our temples, churches, mosques and their organisations have helped with funds,” he told ThePrint.

“All leaders — from local MLA U.T. Khader, our MP Nalin Kumar Kateel, to our minister Poojari, everyone has come forward to help,” Hajabba added.

The coming together of so many people despite their differences — especially in a communally-charged Dakshina Kannada — is a true testimony to Hajabba’s service.

The educationist already has his next goal in sight. “All I want now is to build a pre-university (PU) college. I request citizens and the government to help me build that,” Hajabba said. 

Shetty added that they “want more students to study”. “There are neither roads nor connectivity to the school. Our students walk to school since there are no buses. If that can be fixed, more students — especially girl students — will come to school,” he said.

(Edited by Sunanda Ranjan)

Also Read: Day after Padma Shri, Haryana wrestler starts protest in Delhi over ‘unfair’ treatment by state


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