It had been a tiring day, and driving back late in the evening in the pelting rain, Jalaluddin Gazi, a taxi driver in Kolkata, India, struggled to see the road. Stopping his yellow Ambassador – the city’s trademark taxi type for decades, and perhaps its most enduring identifier – at a traffic signal, he saw a young boy drenched to his skin, standing on the pavement and begging.
Catching Jalaluddin’s eye, the boy quickly ran up to the car. ‘Please sir, give me something, I haven’t eaten anything all day,’ he pleaded.
Before the driver could fish out his purse, the lights turned green. ‘OK, get in,’ shouted Jalaluddin, over the sound of the rain.
He drove to a roadside eatery, where he bought a meal of rice and fish curry for the boy and a tea for himself.
After wolfing down the food, the boy was about to leave when Jalaluddin asked him what he was doing out so late.
Barely 10, the boy told him he had run away from his home in Bihar several months ago because of an abusive parent and had ended up in Kolkata. Alone and hungry, he was begging to survive.
‘His story brought tears to my eyes,’ says Jalaluddin. ‘I remembered my younger days when I too had to beg on several occasions just for a meal. I thought to myself, “I won’t allow this kid to suffer”.’
Following the law, the 62-year-old cabbie first informed the local police station about the boy, then took him to an orphanage he’s set up on the fringes of the city.
Jalaluddin then enrolled him in a school run by his trust. ‘I felt so happy to have rescued a child from the street and given him a new life,’ says the father of four.
Jalaluddin Gazi has been dedicated to the needs of poor kids since he began to earn at the age of 17. Now, at 62, he runs two schools and an orphanage.
This was not the first time Jalaluddin had stopped to help an abandoned or runaway child. Over the past 18 years, he has helped over 40,000 poor and needy children – giving them food, a home and education. He has also arranged for hundreds of kids to return to their homes.
Those who refuse to return for various reasons are put up in two schools and an orphanage that he runs in the city. And he has done it all largely by setting aside a major portion of his earnings and soliciting donations from the passengers he ferries around in his cab across the city.
‘On an average I take home around Rs450 (about Dh25) a day from plying my cab,’ he says.
‘I set aside around Rs300 for the trust, which I set up in 1998.’
Jalaluddin has always been of a philanthropical bent of mind.
‘Since I started earning at the age of 17, I’ve wanted to help people, particularly less fortunate children,’ he says.
Forced to drop out of school at seven because his parents were too poor to buy books, Jalaluddin and his five siblings had to often fend for themselves. ‘I started begging on the streets and scavenging for food near Moulali in Kolkata,’ he says. ‘I would beg for a few days in the city, sleep on the footpath and return home in the suburbs with the money I earned and some food for my siblings and me.’
By the time he was a teenager, he’d saved enough to buy a second-hand rickshaw, which he used to ferry people around Entally in the city.
Although Jalaluddin earned a paltry amount as rickshaw-puller, he put aside part of the earnings to buy books for poor kids in his village in the Sunderbans.
‘I wanted to ensure that the minimal number of children end up on the road due to lack of education,’ he says. ‘So, instead of giving away money, I’d buy them books so they could remain in school.’
In his late twenties, keen to do more, he stepped up his charity work with a novel initiative. Forming a committee with 10 like-minded individuals, he decided to offer driving lessons free of cost to unemployed youth.
‘The deal was that once they got jobs, they would train five youths and donate some amount annually for the education of poor children in their locality.’
The initiative was a huge success. ‘Today, there are around 400 such young men from Joynagar driving taxis in Kolkata,’ he says.
Jalaluddin also saved up and bought a second-hand car, which he started driving as a taxi. His life was moving smoothly enough when one day, in 1997, he chanced upon a boy rummaging through a garbage bin in search of food.
‘I was so moved to see his condition that I gave him some money,’ he says. ‘He took that and raced off to a small roadside eatery to buy some food.
‘That night I could not sleep properly. I kept thinking about my childhood days. I realised nothing had really changed for the poor and underprivileged, and that the only way to bring about change was to become the change.’
The cabbie began to set aside a larger portion of his earnings and looking for more ways to help children. He started collecting used books and school bags, which he distributed to needy kids.
Soon, word spread about how he was helping poor children and there was a constant stream of people approaching Jalaluddin for used textbooks, clothes, shoes and bags. ‘It was becoming difficult to match demand,’ he says.
‘Once, I mentioned this to one of my passengers, and he suggested I seek donations from passengers.’
Since begging was not new to Jalaluddin he decided to do the same, with a slight difference. ‘This time I didn’t stand by the road, but requested my fares if they could spare something – books, clothes, bags, medicines or money – to help the poor.’
Jalaluddin’s impassioned pleas evoked a positive response and soon he was able to raise enough to help over 100 children get education in the first year.
Thrilled, he set up a trust called West Sunderbans Welfare Association, a registered body that boasts more than 1,000 members who regularly donate to his cause.
But Jalaluddin wanted to do more. In 1997, he decided to start a school for poor kids. ‘I went around my locality asking people if anyone could donate a piece of land,’ he reminisces.
‘When I couldn’t find a donor even after a couple of months, I set aside two rooms in my four-room house to start one.’
The next year, the rudimentary school started offering lessons to about 10 students. He found two teachers who volunteered to work for a small fee and were happy to help the students.
His wife was not pleased. ‘We barely had room at home,’ says Taslima Biwi, 55. ‘As a wife and mother, I felt we wouldn’t have space. Our sons, Ismail and Israfil, and daughters, Jahanara and Anwara, were growing up and they needed space.
‘Also, he would give me the bare minimum to run the house and keep aside the rest to maintain the school. I remember, for more than a year, I had to make do with just one good sari, which I used to wear when going out.’
But although they were struggling to make ends meet, Jalaluddin was determined to help as many poor children as he could.
‘We barely had enough for food and clothes, but I was happy that my dream was beginning to bear fruit. The school – Ismail Israfil Free Primary School – was becoming popular and more children were enrolling.’
Funds were trickling in too, but they were not enough. ‘There was just no space for children to study,’ says Jalaluddin. ‘It was then that a Good Samaritan called Arun Kumar Dubey stepped in.’ Hearing about the initiative, the Kolkata-based businessman donated a piece of land worth Rs1.1 million to construct a school.
A few years later, in 2006, two passengers who heard about the project donated a plot of land about 2km away from his home.
‘I began saving up more money and quickly built a second school in 2009.’
Now, there are around 16 teachers, six non-teaching staff and nearly 400 students in these two schools.
Education is not the only area Jalaluddin concentrates on. ‘Once the schools were up and running, I started requesting people to help fund an orphanage,’ he says.
Two years later, he raised enough money to build one. It’s home to 30 children.
Several kids who’ve studied at one of Jalaluddin’s schools have gone on for higher studies and even landed government jobs.
Kaushik Mandal, 30, a member of West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s security squad, is one such man who is all praises for Jalaluddin.
‘My parents were too poor to fund my education and I had no option but to drop out.
‘It was Sir who helped me with books and got me enrolled in his school. I need to thank him for all his help in getting me where I am today.’
Another student who benefited is Firhad Hasan, 25, who now teaches science at a state-run higher secondary school. ‘My parents were landless farmers. Forget about education, they struggled to provide two meals for us six children. Like my brothers, I also started working at a tea stall in the local market.
‘Sir spotted me and asked if I wanted to study. When I said yes, he went to my home and convinced my parents to send me to school.
‘That was the turning point of my life.’
Although Jalaluddin hasn’t received any government recognition yet, Rotary South Asia conferred the Literacy Hero Award on him for his commendable work.
‘I am an incorrigible dreamer,’ he says. ‘I dream that the kids studying in our schools will become doctors and engineers some day. And they too will pitch in for the cause.
‘I’m determined to realise my dreams for all the poor children.’
To contribute, call Jalaluddin on +91 973 556 2504.