The Robin Hood of education

Updated December 21, 2014


Bandit Jam Khan Sundrani stands inside a class of a makeshift school on the floodplain bordering Ghotki.—Fahim Siddiqi / White Star
Bandit Jam Khan Sundrani stands inside a class of a makeshift school on the floodplain bordering Ghotki.—Fahim Siddiqi / White Star

When a child in any home in the kutcha area or the floodplain bordering Ghotki refuses to go to school or fakes a tummy ache to achieve the same result, his or her parents only have one advice to give: “Run along to school, my child, or Jam Khan Sundrani will come to get you and take you there himself!”

If the children are facing some issue in school, Jam makes sure that it is resolved, if transport is a problem, Jam will be waiting outside their homes on his motorbike to take them to school and personally ensure that they do not miss a single lesson. During floods, walking in waist-deep water he has carried children to school on his shoulders. He also makes sure that the teachers are present at their jobs six days a week. The sense of responsibility and ownership of the area taken up by this man is so impressive that you would want to meet him.

But Jam doesn’t take phone calls. Sending messages his way results in a counter-message with an invitation to meet him instead across the lake in the kutcha area, where he resides. “Please try and understand my predicament, and please don’t mind.”

Something about the message suggested humbleness instead of arrogance: so a four-wheel drive was arranged to travel to the kutcha area over the lush fields, ditches, muddy canals and on the barge pulled from one side of the lake to another and travel some more until the jeep looked like a buffalo coming out after a dip in a muddy swamp.

“Thank you for coming,” the man greets you outside the mosque adjoining a little makeshift school with wooden benches under a shady tree and you realise that you are standing face to face with a bandit in hiding in the kutcha area.

“Would you like to meet the children? Rather chilly this morning, so I requested the teacher to shift classes inside the mosque,” he says before taking off his sandals while gesturing you to do the same.

The school is co-education and Sindhi-medium with Urdu and English included in the curriculum. Little girls and boys are called up to the front of class for reading from the blackboard. Among them the girls stand up trying not to trip on their chadors, which are bigger than themselves. Jam watches them with pride as they read. “I cannot do that,” he says. “Actually, none of us older lot here can. Even now when someone calls me on my phone, I don’t answer because not being able to spell, read or write I can’t save any number and don’t know who’s calling,” he says. “But our children will not be like that!”

The kutcha where no one is expected to reside has a substantial population that the government doesn’t acknowledge. Politicians may want their votes but won’t provide them any facilities. According to Alif Ailaan, there are 1,998 government schools in Ghotki district. Of these

1,875 are primary, 73 middle, 10 elementary, 33 secondary schools and seven higher secondary schools with almost 94 per cent of the government schools catering to primary level.

The schools in the kutcha area may be registered with the government but aren’t really run by it. That’s where Corporate Social Responsibility comes in. This was bandit country where no law and order existed until some 14 years ago when two sides playing chor-police eventually called truce by raising the literacy slogan.

“Those were difficult times. This entire place was a dense jungle and we would be in constant conflict with the law. Then we got an SP, Ghulam Shabbir, who together with DC Hidayatullah Rajper made a group of village elders including some bandits create awareness among the people here to end the crime. We cut the jungle, converted it into agricultural fields. To become humans from animals we need education,” Jam shares. “Maybe some of my people don’t agree with me, but I have sworn on the Quran that our children will go to school.”

“We look after 12 schools in the area, including one in Noor Lakhan with a computer lab, but they are all primary or middle schools that need being promoted to Matric at least as the boys may travel to other areas for higher studies but the girls cannot,” says Dr Sadoro Naz Keerio, business stability adviser for Engro who is supervising the Kutcha Education Programme on a voluntary basis. “Engro pays for the teachers’ salaries, stationery material, sports events, etc, for these schools. We have an annual budget set aside for all this, but more is always welcome from other donors,” he explains.

Recently, it being bandit country after all, a school was found missing six solar panels after which a message was promptly sent out to return those or else the corporation was pulling out. That’s when Jam stepped in once again to convince his people to return the panels ASAP. Dr Keerio smiles: “You may see him as a bandit, the police may see him as one, too. But I only see as a human being working for the promotion of education here.”

Published in Dawn December 21th , 2014