In conversation with Mr. Sadiq Ali of Topudu Bandi, a grassroots organization working to bridge opportunity gaps for the students from disadvantaged backgrounds

A pushcart reaches places that aren’t accessible by an automobile. This governing idea led Mr. Sadiq Ali to establish Topudu Bandi—a grassroots initiative that aims to spread the joy of reading—especially in rural India. He traveled hundreds of miles to places with limited access and distributed books free of cost.

This modest goal turned into a ten-year project to address learning losses due to COVID among the disadvantaged communities in Khamman Mandal or subdistrict, Telangana, India.

In this TALScouts Hour episode, the leader of focus is a former journalist, Mr. Sadiq Ali, currently dedicated to bridging the achievement gaps in education. He spoke to us about his journey, goals, and driving forces.

In 2014, with the initial goal of encouraging people to read, he loaded a pushcart with books and traveled across his home city, Hyderabad. He named this social enterprise Topudu Bandi (Pushcart). Every day for nearly a month, Mr. Ali walked 6 to 10 miles (10-15 km), selling books at extremely low costs.

“Creating awareness for book reading… our basic idea was inculcating the reading habit. With electronic devices, TVs and mobiles, and other similar gadgets, people nowadays have forgotten to read,” he expressed his concern. He believes that a world without books could be damaging.

Excerpt from the interview: Topudu Bani Origin Story.

Mr. Ali then extended this initiative to the rural regions. Over 100 days, he traveled on foot with his cart to the interior parts of Telangana state, covering 600+ miles (1000 km).

This journey gave him up-close glimpses of the ground realities, he said. It saddened him to see the inability of children from low-income backgrounds to afford books. He believed that lack of funds should not prevent a child from reading books.

“Then we started giving them books freely [free of cost],” he said.

The young people he interacted with expressed the need for regional libraries they could access. The Topudu Bandi team was quick to act on this. They set up 156 libraries across rural Telangana. Further to this, they extended the library project to some of the most remote regions in the state.

In all, they distributed books worth $ 66,000 (INR 50 Lakhs).

Excerpt from the interview: These children (from low-income backgrounds) are smart and capable, says Mr. Ali

For the past year or so, they decided to concentrate their efforts in one region for the past year or so. The Topudu Bandi team adopted the 68 primary and secondary schools located in a Mandal (subdistrict) of the Khammam district, Telangana. They are focusing their efforts on making books, reading materials, and school supplies available for these schools.

In the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, these efforts proved to be very fruitful, claims Mr. Ali. There is a drastic drop in absenteeism rates at schools, he said. They are also employing community tutoring and other similar efforts to encourage more students to stay in school.

He is confident that their initiative would produce the cream of the society from these marginalized backgrounds within the next five years.

Mr. Ali’s wife, a currently serving top-level government official, also helps him with this project.

“We don’t have children. So, we think all these 5000 students are our kids,” said Mr. Ali affectionately while explaining the motivation for their unwavering dedication to Topudu Bandi.

Excerpt from the interview: Mr. Ali talks about his upward social mobility and the pilot project: a ten-year plan for the schools they adopted in Khammam Mandal or subdistrict to empower young people with similar struggles.

Hailing from marginalized communities themselves, his wife and he gained social mobility with some support from “friends and well-wishers.” Providing similar opportunities for youth in similar situations as their younger selves will create a chain effect for the better, he said.

Stressing on the importance of reading, he calls out to all who can contribute to the TALScouts Book Donation drive. An old storybook, unused workbooks, school supplies, or similar items can help an underserved student stay in school, thus paving the way for a better future.

Click here for more information on the TALScouts Book Donation Drive.

Watch full interview here