“I became the biggest beggar”

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PROFILE: In this section, we will be highlighting people who are doing exemplary work in the field of education. Today, we are featuring Baba Iqbal Singh. He runs 129 CBSE affiliated English medium schools in remote rural areas in India and aims to touch the figure of 500 schools in the coming decade.

We all have heard stories about private schools charging exorbitant fees from students in the name of tuition fee, funds for activities, uniforms, books or even donations. Almost everyone, who has money, wants to open a school as this is considered a profitable business model. In an age where education is seen as a business, it comes as a whiff of fresh air to see someone invest his money to provide quality education to underprivileged children.

Meet Baba Iqbal Singh (popularly known as Babaji). After retiring as director of agricultural department in the state of Himachal Pradesh, he decided to dedicate his life to improve the condition of people living in rural India by providing them access to quality education. Following the footsteps of his gurus, Sant Attar Singh and Sant Teja Singh, and inspired by the ancient form of Indian schools, Gurukuls, Babaji decided to build a school where both teachers and students live together in austerity. ‘High thinking and simple living’ is the philosophy that guides his schools, Akal Academies. Through these academies, Babaji wants to spread the message of Guru Nanak, the message of love and peace in the world.

“There is a difference between literacy and education. Literacy is learning any subject and there is no question of character building or personality building. But value-based education involves combining spiritual values with literacy” 

It is with this mission that he started teaching students in 1986. From a class of five students studying in a hut at Baru Sahib in Himachal Pradesh, he now has 65,000 students enrolled in his 129 CBSE affiliated English medium schools in several states of North India – Himachal Pradesh, Punjab, Rajasthan, UP and Haryana. And schools led to universities. Today, Babaji under the aegis of The Kalgidhar Trust/Society, runs 3 universities (total 80 streams), 1 hospital, 3 de-addiction centers, a free teacher training institute beside the schools. Interestingly, he has managed to build all this in just a span of three decades.

“Some divine power is guiding me. I am myself surprised how I put together all this,” he says. Babaji believes that if a person’s intention is good, the Almighty ensures that he/she is successful.

Akal academies take pride in ‘value-based education’. Their mission – to re-invent the erstwhile Gurukuls (on the pattern of Nalanda and Takshila) wherein moral values could be harmoniously woven along with modern scientific education in youth to produce good global citizens. “There is a difference between literacy and education. Literacy is learning any subject and there is no question of character building or personality building. You only teach with no emphasis on values. But value-based education involves combining spiritual values with literacy,” explains Babaji.

There is a reason why academies are popular among people. Despite building hundreds of schools, there has been no compromise on infrastructure or quality of education. The schools charge almost negligible fee from students, offer smart classes (in 2015, 2,000 classrooms across academies were connected by smart boards) even though they operate in remote rural areas; have pro-student approach like no-homework policy (there are no school bags as students are encouraged to complete their homework in school itself). A few schools have already started teaching without books. What’s more, the school maintains a healthy student-teacher ratio of 20:1 (even the most popular private schools in the country usually have a student-teacher ratio of 40:1). The schools have indeed set very high standards for themselves.

Despite building hundreds of schools, there has been no compromise on infrastructure or quality of education. The schools have pro-student approach like no-homework policy and maintain a healthy student-teacher ratio of 20:1

But has the adherence to this kind of quality education not put a lot of pressure on the financial health of the organisation?

“Sant Teja Singh’s disciples helped me once they came to know about my venture. They collected funds and the word spread. I became the biggest beggar. When you ask for someone’s help, you become humble – learn tolerance because you learn to listen to people, at times, even to abuses. In the process, you quash your ego; and that’s how we grew. Since the quality of our education was good, people came forward to help. And with people’s support, we kept on opening schools,” said Babaji.

Benedict Paramanand in his book, Baba Iqbal Singh, however credits this success to Babaji’s “smart financial and business strategies with a servant leadership style.” He explains – while most of the private schools spend a lot of money on constructing the school building, Akal Academies follow step-by-step organic growth model, that is, a small part of the building is first constructed to accommodate kindergarten and as students move up the ladder, so does the construction of the school building. Hence, by the time the kindergarten students reach class XII, the school infrastructure is fully in place. This way, the immediate capital investment is less; and also, the quality of students produced is not compromised.

Paramanand also praises the innovation shown by academy in “creating and nurturing a bank of about 2,500 dedicated teaching staff.” He writes, “One of the academy’s unique social engineering initiatives is how it spots and trains its teachers. It chooses more than 300 tenth pass girls every year from poor background from remote rural areas. It provides intense residential training for 4-6 years, free of cost.” Most of these teachers are then employed in Akal Academies.

Inspired by Babaji’s selfless seva, a group of youngsters have formed a company, Jivo Wellness. The company donates all its profits to the Babaji's trust to support its education, healthcare and social welfare activities

While all these measures do help in reducing the costs, the fact remains that building such a vast organisation requires money, a constant flow of money. And that’s where the trust presents an interesting example.

Inspired by Babaji’s selfless seva, a group of youngsters have formed a company, Jivo Wellness. The company produces Jivo oil which is one of the leading canola cooking oil brands in the world. The profits earned are donated to the trust to support its education, healthcare and social welfare activities, as per Jivo Wellness website.

Recipient of numerous awards including the Sikh Lifetime Achievement Award 2016, there’s no stopping Babaji. He has already defined a new goal for his team – to increase the Akal Academies to 500 in the next 10 years. And even as work on new institutes is in progress, existent schools are preparing for their new future – paperless classes and cloud classrooms.

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