Saturday, September 20, 2007

Mobile schools boost literacy

Nomads may appear to be living an idyllic and carefree life. Far from that, they suffer serious deprivations. The absence of education for their children is a major problem. The Jammu and Kashmir Government has come up with the novel scheme of mobile schools, reports Ehsan Fazili from Srinagar

These nomadic women can breathe easier now as the mobile schools take care of the basic education of their children

For centuries change has been the only constant factor in the life of nomads. Every year in April-May, more than two lakh people from the nomadic Gujjar and Bakarwal tribes arrive in the meadows of Kashmir and parts of Ladakh from Rajouri and Poonch districts and other areas of the Jammu region with their flocks of cattle and sheep. These meadows are their home from April to September, after which they begin their return journey. Though this seasonal shifting of ‘homes’ ensures a regular flow of income for the families, it is the biggest impediment for those who want to ensure formal education for their children.

The bi-annual migration has taken its toll, as about two lakh nomadic Gujjars and Bakerwals mostly remain illiterate due to lack of education facilities in such higher reaches of the state, laments Dr Javed Rahi, a Gujjar scholar associated with the Jammu and Kashmir Academy of Art, Culture and Languages. Though desirous of having formal education, these nomads are not in a position to relinquish their lifestyle, he adds.

During the past 50 years Choudhary Mohammad Din Mandhar, the chief of more than 15,000 people of his community, has been spending the summer months in the upper reaches of Pahalgam, the venue of the annual Amarnath yatra, which provides a regular source of income. He and his people supply ponies for ferrying pilgrims and supplies to the holy cave on the 32-km-long trek from Chandanwari. At least, 2,500 horses belonging to his tribe are supplied annually. The meadows of Astan Marg, Heer Baghan, Chhayan, Baltal and Matayeen, near Drass, across Zoji la that separate Kashmir from Ladakh division, provide fodder for these horses and cattle.

More and more children are attending these seasonal schools. The number of children outside schools has fallen from 3.76 lakh in 2002-03 to 68,051 in 2007-08

Thus, basic necessities are taken care of. However, the education of the children of his community, and of others like them, has remained a major concern for Chaudhary all these years.

Not only the Gujjar and Bakarwal tribes, but nearly 23 lakh Paharis living in the border areas, comprising 23 per cent of the population of Jammu and Kashmir, also face this problem of lack of education facilities. There are nearly six lakh Gujjar and Bakarwal children, who have a low literacy rate. Imparting education to them is of utmost importance as it would keep them away from getting involved in any kind of turmoil or militancy and help in social reforms.

A novel concept in the form of mobile schools has provided a ray of hope to Chaudhary and thousands of others who have been facing a similar predicament. At least six mobile schools, including one seasonal centre, were functional in the Pahalgam-Chandanwari meadows this summer providing education to nomadic children.

The Jammu and Kashmir Government had envisaged the scheme of mobile schools in the 1970s to provide basic education to children, mainly belonging to the Gujjar and Bakarwal tribes. This concept was based on a similar system in Sudan, where it has been an age-old practice.

From 1970s onwards, the scheme functioned smoothly till 1989, when militancy took hold of the Valley, and the movement of shepherds into the high mountain meadows of Kashmir declined, said Mohammad Rafi, a former Director of School Education, Kashmir. But recent times have seen some signs of improvement though some areas like the Machil sector, near the LoC in Kupwara district, are still out of bounds.

Of the 400 mobile schools set up in the 1970s, 75 per cent have become stationary, thereby defeating the very purpose for which these had been set up. The idea behind opening mobile schools was quite noble but due to the lax approach of the authorities the purpose of imparting education to nomadic children has lost its sheen.

The Central Government’s scheme Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) has provided impetus to this novel concept as over the past five years "we tried to supplement this alternative innovative education" through the scheme, says Rafi. This has served the dual purpose of providing basic education and checking child labour.

Under this scheme, hundreds of such schools are functional in the Valley. These are seasonal schools that are held in temporary camps between May and October. Hundreds of nomadic children are taught by volunteers, who are engaged for a period of four months on a monthly payment of Rs 4,000. "When these children return from the meadows, they re-join the parent school," says Rafi. So despite leading a nomadic life continuity is maintained in their schooling.

"The aim behind setting up such schools was to provide elementary education up to class VIII, with the help of teachers from their own community," says G.A Peer, Secretary, Education, Jammu and Kashmir Government. As of now, there are 187 such mobile schools, which function from meadows in the Kashmir valley during summers and move to Jammu during the winter months. As many as 221 more schools are permanently based in the Jammu region.

Apart from these mobile schools, there are 700 other seasonal schools under the SSA in both Kashmir and Jammu divisions. The teachers at these seasonal schools do not accompany the nomadic children but continue to remain at the camps and provide education to those who stay back and many others in the neighbourhood. "We have tried to ensure that there is a school within a distance of one km of the nomadic camps," add officials.

Such a large number of these schools have been made possible by merging the SSA and Employment Guarantee Schemes (EGS) — providing education to children, along with employment to adults. As many as 5,698 schools have been set up across the state under the EGS scheme. This has ensured education facilities to at least 93 per cent of the population in the state. "This wide network has helped in increasing the literacy rate and reducing the dropout rate," Peer comments. This literacy mission has also given a boost to the adult education programmes, thereby improving the overall literacy rate of the state in the past seven years. According to the fourth All-India Survey Report, literacy rate in Jammu and Kashmir has increased from 52 per cent in 2001 census to 68 per cent in 2006-07, showing an increase of 16 per cent. It shows the highest percentage in Anantnag and Budgam districts of Kashmir valley with the help of non-formal education and voluntary organisations.

The mobile schools are quite different from other schools in the rural and urban areas. A group of 49 Bakarwal children in the age group of four to 11 sit over the earthen slope of a kotha. This is the Government Mobile Primary School of Sadhwari Keran and Rakh Chandanwari in the upper reaches of Chandanwari. After winter months, the school moves from Sadhwari Keran in Jammu to Rakh (meadow) Chandanwari in summer.

There are hardly any facilities in these schools. No matting to sit on, no tents for protection from rain and sunshine, no blackboards and no uniforms. A couple of texts books per student and an attendance register with the teacher, Nazakat Ahmad Bocken, a matriculate from the Bakarwal tribe, remain the essence of this school like in many other such schools.

The seasonal centre at Khod Pathri, Sheshnag, Watalpach, Dudhal Behak, Chandanwari, all these and many more mobile schools in the Chandanwari area function in the absence of shelter, mid-day meals and other facilities like manpower and trained staff. But with nothing else to fall back upon, these mobile centres of learning have held out new hope for nomadic children, who have been victims of their circumstances until now.

After the introduction of the SSA at the national level, a survey conducted in Jammu and Kashmir in 2002-03 showed that 3.76 lakh children remained out of schools. Most of these were children of Gujjars, Bakarwals, SCs and STs and slum dwellers. "The survey revealed that learning levels of these children were also weak mainly because they wasted many months in the process of migration," said S K Kakroo, State Coordinator, Distance Education, Jammu and Kashmir Government.`A0

But now the mobile schools that had been rendered defunct due to militancy have been revived under the SSA. These schools are providing an innovative facility of "on-site teaching" in the form of summer camps where teachers from the community or outside or Rehbar-e-Taleem (ReT or education guides) are engaged and provided with teaching material, Kakroo points out. This has improved the learning level and attracted many others outside these communties, he adds.

Under the SSA programme, 542 new primary schools have been opened in Jammu and Kashmir during 2006-07, while 3,471 primary schools have been upgraded. As many as 20,262 additional teachers have been appointed under the ReT scheme and over 6,000 education volunteers (EGS) are being converted to ReTs, the officials reveal.

Over the years, more and more children are attending these seasonal schools. The number of children outside schools has fallen from 3.76 lakh in 2002-03 to 68,051 in 2007-08.