Saturday, January 6, 2001

Educating the nomads

Due to the sustained efforts of the Dehra Dun-based Rural Litigation and Entitlement Kendra (RLEK), more than 21,000 Van Gujjar adults became literate during a three-year programme. The kendra was awarded the UNESCO literacy award in 1998 for its outstanding commitment to the cause of literacy, writes Radhakrishna Rao

EVEN at the best of the times, educating the illiterate is a tough and daunting task, strewn with uncertainties. One can well imagine then the difficulties and hurdles involved in educating a nomadic community residing in forests and for centuries isolated from society. But Padma Shree Avadesh Kaushal, chairperson of the Dehra Dun-based Rural Litigation and Entitlement Kendra (RLEK), and his colleagues accomplished the impossible by organising one of the largest and most innovative literacy programmes in the forests of the Shivaliks for the benefit of the Van Gujjar community.


Due to the sustained efforts of the RLEK Forest Academy, more than 21,000 Van Gujjar adults were turned literate during a three-year programme.

The kendra was awarded the UNESCO literacy award in 1998 for its outstanding commitment to the cause literacy. The kendra was also commended by the Rotary International for its bold experiment in adult education. The Government of India has also selected RLEK to run a state resources centre (SRC) for adult education in the newly formed state of Uttaranchal.

Van Gujjars attending a ‘literacy fair’ held at MohandThe kendra set out to educate the Gujjars with a missionary zeal. To begin with, it managed to gather a team of volunteers (teachers), many of whom were young couples. For these volunteers, educating the nomads was an experience of a lifetime. They had to share the frugal food and adopt the tough lifestyle of nomads in whose huts they stayed. They also had to face harassment from forest officials who claimed that educating the community inside a national park was illegal.

Every year these nomads shift to the alpine forests in the summer and go to the Shivalik forests in the autumn with their buffaloes. The nomadic lifestyle of this peace-loving tribal community came under severe threat in 1983 with the creation of the Rajaji National Park.

From day one, the park authorities were out to evict the hapless nomads, citing the Wildlife Protection Act. However, Van Gujjars managed to resist the pressure for they felt that there was no place for their distinctive lifestyle and culture outside the forest.

However, the simmering strife between the Van Gujjars and the park authorities reached a flash point in September 1992, when the park authorities stopped Van Gujjars from entering the park on their way back from the hills. This was a move to force them to go to a marshy stretch near Hardwar. The Van Gujjars camped near the park on the busy New Delhi-Dehra Dun highway. There many of their buffaloes died following the consumption of poisonous weeds. This tragic turn of events led Avadesh Kaushal to take up the nomads’ cause. Eventually, the nomads were allowed to enter the park.

After the initial victory, Kaushal and his associates at RLEK felt that literacy was the only way to empower the Gujjars. As Kaushal was aware that it would be impossible to educate the nomads in a conventional manner, he came up with the novel idea of creating a "forest academy." He got together around 350 dedicated teachers who were ready to move with the nomads in the jungles of Shivalik.

To get appropriate textbooks was a big problem. So Naya Safar (New Journey) was developed by a team of RLEK experts. It took into account the community’s knowledge about animal husbandry, environment, milk production and bio-diversity. The stories in the books dealt with something that the students could relate to the problem of a dying buffalo, a dispute between two friends and similar stuff.

A couple reading textbooks designed by RLEKAs many as 48 community empowerment centres have been set up in Van Gujjar settlements in Shivaliks. These provide information on environment, sanitation, health, dairy farming and forest management. The nomads are also being provided vocational training in various crafts and are being taken on "exposure visits" to other parts of the country. A mobile library run by RLEK keeps them supplied with books on a variety of topics.

Inspired by the success of their literacy campaign RLEK opened two formal education centres to impart education to Van Gujjar children. As many as 120 children attend these schools. These well-equipped schools resemble a typical Van Gujjar dwelling. The traditional dress of the community with the colourful Krishna cap has been adopted as the school uniform. For those children who cannot attend these educational centres, another literacy programme has been launched. As many as 4000 Van Gujjar children attend 200 "in formal education centres" spread across the districts of Dehra Dun, Hardwar and Pauri Garhwal in Uttaranchal, Saharanpur in Uttar Pradesh and Sirmaur in Himachal Pradesh. The age group of the children is from six to 14 years. The programme is of three years’ duration. The children are prepared up to the fifth class level in the first two years and up to the eight class level in the third year.

The kendra has prepared reading material in the form of two primers called Nami Bade Pahaf (New Dawn). These books cover lessons in Hindi, social studies and general science. The contents of these lessons are based on the syllabus of the formal schools but they are designed to suit the needs of the children of this pastoral community. These lessons relate to their day-to-day experiences and are well illustrated with drawings. According to Avadesh Kaushal, this unique educational programme would enable the Van Gujjar children to join the mainstream.

Since the area covered by this educational scheme is vast and rugged and not easily accessible, the teachers stay with the community. In March last year, 4,000 Van Gujjar children participated in the "saksharate mela" (literacy festival) held at Mohand and displayed their newly acquired literacy skills.