The school at the top of the stairs

In India there is a hunger to learn, even without desks and chairs


Girls in an Aga Khan outreach program for high school dropouts in Hyderabad (photo by Robert Remington)


Robert Remington
March, 2015

Hyderabad, India

After touring this city’s elite, state-of-the-art Aga Khan Academy, set on 100 acres with an enormous outdoor swimming pool, green spaces, playing fields, art rooms and high-tech science labs, we venture into the old walled city, a world away from the manicured, almost resort-like setting of the posh academy. There is no swimming pool here, no student uniforms, no world-renowned  International Baccalaureate curriculum administered in Switzerland. The playing field is the street outside, set below the ruins of the medieval Golkanda Fort. Some of the cramped classrooms lack desks and chairs.

To reach the classrooms, we climb a set of narrow stairs to find a group of girls sitting on the floor of an outdoor patio. The school is located in a residential neighbourhood in rented upstairs rooms of local houses. In an adjacent room, three girls from conservative Muslim families cover their faces as we arrive.  They are smart, talkative and curious. Two want to be doctors; another a teacher.

The students in this poorer Muslim neighbourhood of Hyderabad are enrolled in an outreach program for high school dropouts run by the Aga Khan Foundation. The setting may be spartan, but there is something remarkable happening here. There is a hunger among families to educate their children, especially daughters, who have a high dropout rate.  According to a recent UNESCO report, India will be the only country in south and west Asia this year to have an equal ratio of girls and boys in primary and senior school  – rare good news considering that India was recently found to be fourth most dangerous country to be a woman.

It is the boy’s class, however, that strikes me most.  I look in to find young Muslim males being taught not only core subjects of math, science and English, but also learning values such as religious tolerance and gender equality that are fundamental to the Aga Khan’s ethics of diversity and pluralism. Their teacher is a Muslim woman.


Boys’ class at an Aga Khan outreach program for high school dropouts in Hyderabad. (photo by Robert Remington)

In another setting these young men, if left without education, jobs and hope, might be prime candidates for radicalization and recruitment by extremist groups. India, however,  has only seen a handful of its nationals join groups like ISIS.

“Influence of Islamic State on the Indian youth is negligible,” India’s home minister, Rajnath Singh, told a counter-terrorism conference in March.  Singh cautioned, however, about the internet as an ISIS recruitment tool saying,  “the appeal of ISIS to  young, educated people, in spite of its medieval ideology, is a cause for concern.”

India’s 180 million Muslims, who make up about 15 per cent of the population, are poorer than average with lower levels of education, poorer housing and fewer opportunities that the Hindu majority. India’s Muslims have made little progress since the publication in 2006 of a study, the Sachar report, which  showed Muslims to be stuck at the bottom of almost every economic or social heap. Yet Muslims in India remain fiercely moderate.

According to Indian expat Shikha Dalmia, a policy analyst living in the U.S., “Rampant prejudice in housing and elsewhere — along with occasional outburst of Hindu nationalist violence — has hindered Muslim progress, relegating Muslims to the lowest socio-economic rungs. Yet, Indian Muslims have avoided the sword and eagerly seized the opportunities afforded to them by their country’s (imperfect) democracy,” she wrote recently for Time Magazine. “Indian Muslims are proud of their tradition of tolerance and moderation and guard it zealously from Wahhabi influence. They’ve even refused  to bury   the bodies of Muslim suicide bombers, including the Mumbai attackers, the ultimate punishment because it forever deprives the bombers of a spot in heaven. Indeed, in recent years many Indian Muslims have been fighting  tooth-and-nail against Saudi-funded Wahhabis who are trying to take over India’s madrassas and Muslim shrines.”

This tradition of tolerance and integration offers little cause to rest for Matt Reed, CEO of the Aga Khan Foundation in India. The Aga Khan’s work here, as for all NGOs in India, is daunting. Nearly a third of India’s Muslim population live in poverty, he notes, with 65 per cent located in hard to reach rural areas.

“Much has been said about the rise of India’s middle class, but to put it in perspective, it is 300 million people out of a population of 1.2 billion,” he told a visiting group of Calgarians touring Aga Khan projects in India.  Statistically, the portrait of India is dire, according to Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) figures:


Housing, rural India. (Photo by Robert Remington)

– 30 per of the population lives in extreme poverty;

– 60 per cent of children are malnourished; 45 per cent suffer from stunting;

– More than 50 per cent of Indians do not have toilets;

– the literary rate is 65 per cent, and 59 per cent among the Muslim minority;

– only 62 per cent of the population, and 44 per cent of Muslims, complete primary school;

– only seven per cent, and four per cent of the Muslim population, completes higher education.

Although the Aga Khan is the spiritual head of the world’s Ismaili Muslims, a progressive branch of Shia Islam, the Aga Khan organization pursues its development goals without respect to race, creed, gender or politics. More than 90 per cent of its 80,000 worldwide employees are non-Ismaili. Its schools are secular and its staff, who come from all backgrounds, are recruited on merit, as are students to its elite academies.


Part of the Qutb Shai necropolis in Hyderbad, being restored by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture and designated to become World Heritage site. (photo by Robert Remington)

Its many tentacles include hospitals, banks, schools and large-scale economic projects.  Its work can be  grandiose, such as the restoration of archaeological sites to United Nations World Heritage status. (In Hyderabad, the Qutb Shahi necropolis is being restored by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture).

Its work can also be simple and life changing, such as reducing infant mortality by promoting breastfeeding in rural areas. For the past three years, the Aga Khan Foundation India and its partners have worked with 400,000 mothers from marginalized communities in rural Bihar, one of the poorest regions of the country, to encourage breastfeeding within one hour of birth, which has been proven to dramatically reduce neonatal deaths. The program involved working with elders and religious leaders to change religious and cultural practices, explained the Aga Khan Foundation’s Lukhi Linnebank. In some parts of India, breastfeeding is often delayed until a visit from a Hindu priest or, among some Muslim women, until after an obligatory rest period.

Poor breastfeeding practices lead to 800,000 child deaths each year in Bihar – almost 12 percent of all child deaths in the state. By initiating breastfeeding within one hour of birth, exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months and introduction of appropriate complementary feeding at six months of age, the program saw vast improvements in breastfeeding practices among mothers.

In Bihar and other rural provinces, the Aga Khan Rural Support Program and other NGOs face enormous challenges. Reed, an American who joined the Aga Khan organization because “I wanted to do something meaningful in my life,” says it is vital for the organization to train and build trust with villagers and stakeholders.

“In my organization the ultimate stakeholder has been the person in the village,” Reed said recently in an interview with the online magazine Sustainability Next.  “Does that person get value from what we do and has that changed his/her life? We facilitate community organizations around all of these things.”


Street scene, rural India. (Photo by Robert Remington)


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