On a hot Wednesday afternoon in June, Laxmi (14) and Ritika (11), residents of the walled city, braved the heat as they made their way through the crowded lanes of Old Delhi to arrive at a cramped quarter in Churiwalan, Jama Masjid. The dated signage and dilapidated environs may have served to put them off their mission, but they persevered. After all, they had it on the best possible authority––of their own older sister––that this was where they would receive school textbooks for the upcoming academic year.
These hardworking sisters are a few of the many girls and boys lining up outside the doors of the unassuming Hazrat Shah Waliullah Public Library, which distributes course books for children once a year, free of cost, to support them in their pursuit of education despite financial and other constraints. In 1987, in the wake of curfew following religious tensions in Old Delhi, a group of young friends turned their energies towards the upliftment of destitute locals.
They began by distributing rations, medicines, and scholarships to deserving widows and others in need, under the banner of the Delhi Youth Welfare Association (DYWA); but felt this action, though noble, did not make the desired difference to ground realities. Illiteracy due to poor financial conditions and the resultant lack of resources was a chronic problem that needed their immediate attention. Hence, they started sponsoring the education of deserving children, and opened the Hazrat Shah Waliullah Public Library, sometime in the 90s.
Muhammad Naeem, the President of the DYWA, has been associated with the organisation from the beginning. Narrating an incident that summarises the need for their organisation, he says, “Financial conditions are bad for the locals here. As soon as they clear their ninth standard exams, they want to move to Open University instead of going to school, so they can work and earn money. This is true for both boys and girls.”
Amidst this, the Hazrat Shah Waliullah Library strives to encourage a love of reading and learning–– an art that is swiftly being sidelined. SM Changezi, the General Secretary of DYWA and custodian of the library, wears his royal ascendancy from Chengez Khan with pride. However, he only displays it to the world through his passion for beautiful and rare old books.
The library’s vast collection includes a 100-year-old Quran with every page written in a different style, a copy of an illustrated Ramayana in Persian, and even one of the last copies of Bahadur Shah Zafar’s poetry, printed and sealed in the royal press while he was still in power. About 50 percent of the books in the library are donated by locals who support the organisation, and the remaining are bought from the organisation’s funds.
With the increasing number of books, the association is now planning to open a second library in Haryana’s Nuh to cater to the local slums in the area. Apart from free course books, the DYWA sponsors the education of around 30 girls. To this effect, the DYWA collects and pays Rs 2.5-3 lakh per annum towards children’s fees, all from donations made by people who believe in the cause.
Other initiatives include inviting celebrated personalities originally from this area to speak to the children about making a success of their life. This happened recently when Air India pilot and social activist Captain Zoya Agarwal and Heena Sodhi Khera of women’s networking platform Queen’s Brigade, met the children for their course distribution ceremony.
Khera explains, “Capt Zoya shared her own experiences of being judged for her big ambitions. Yet, she achieved what she wanted and encouraged the kids to do so as well. The children were ecstatic and listened to her with rapt attention.”